Going to a funeral viewing--what do I do?
June 26, 2009 8:33 AM   Subscribe

A friend's father just died, and I will be attending the viewing on Sunday. I don't know what to do about the body.

This will be only the second viewing I've ever attended, and I froze up at the other one. I'd never seen a dead body before and I didn't know the deceased, and I didn't know what to do--go up to the casket? Just talk quietly with the family and friends gathered? I ended up doing the latter, and I never went up to the casket. It felt macabre to go and stare at a dead man I didn't know.

Most people seemed to be going up to the casket and making the sign of the cross and praying or something. I'm not religious, much less Catholic. I don't know what's appropriate to do in that respect.

Obviously I will be dressed somberly, won't be turning this into a catching up-fest, etc. I know how to act and what to say to the grieving, but I don't know what to do about the actual deceased. I don't want to offend anyone, nor do I want to pretend to go through religious motions or something like that. I've wondered for years whether my behavior at the last viewing was somehow offensive because I didn't actually go up to the casket.

Advice, please.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think anyone will notice if you didn't go up to the casket. Most adults recognise that people grieve differently and some find viewing the deceased unsettling. Make sure you speak briefly with your friend and don't feel you have to stay too long or mingle, most people there will be family and have a closer connection to the deceased. Good for you for supporting your friend.
posted by saucysault at 8:38 AM on June 26, 2009

I suspect that people wouldn't notice if you didn't actually approach the casket.
posted by Pax at 8:39 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's no reason you have to go up to the casket. You're there for your friend, not to gawk at the earthly remains of her father. In fact, if you were not personally acquainted with the deceased it might even be unseemly for you to go up to the casket.

Talk to the family. Offer condolences and a shoulder to cry on. No casket visit required.
posted by philotes at 8:39 AM on June 26, 2009

It is completely appropriate to ignore the body and focus on being supportive to your friend and their family, if that's what makes you comfortable. The only people who could possibly have an excuse to be offended by you not visibly paying your respects to the deceased will most likely be too caught up in their own grieving to notice, and if they were the type to be offended, they probably wouldn't be your friends anyway.
posted by scarykarrey at 8:39 AM on June 26, 2009

If you don't want to look at the body, you don't have to. I don't think your friend's father will mind. The viewing is for the family's benefit, and they will appreciate you being there and offering them your support and condolences, whether or not you get anywhere near the casket.
posted by LolaGeek at 8:40 AM on June 26, 2009

Don't worry -- I suspect that no one will notice whether or not you go up to the casket, let alone be offended. Being there to offer support to your friend and his or her family is fine.

The only time when it might be odd not to go up to the casket is if you're talking to someone and they suggest you go up to the casket together, or say something like, "Have you had a chance to pay your respects?" In that case, if you feel like it would be awkward not to go up, I think it's fine to spend a moment looking at the body and thinking about his life. If you're with someone, you can say something quiet like, "I'll miss him." or whatever makes the most sense to you.

There are many people who haven't been to a lot of funerals. I think that as long as you're respectful, you won't do anything wrong.
posted by cider at 8:41 AM on June 26, 2009

Trust me. As long as you don't try to climb into the casket (which my mother-in-law tried to do at her son's funeral, but, that's another story!) the bereaved have better things to do than watch what you're doing, so I wouldn't worry that you offended anyone by not going up to the casket the last time that you had to attend a funeral.

If you don't want to kneel at the casket, just go and stand in front of it by the kneeler and bow your head in respect for a minute or two. Then go and offer your condolences.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 8:42 AM on June 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for easing my mind. Best answers all around.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:44 AM on June 26, 2009

I barely remember my father's viewing. No one will notice or remember if you go up or not. Some find an open casket viewing helpful, maybe even essential; some do not.
posted by teragram at 8:44 AM on June 26, 2009

You don't have to approach the body. Just be there for your friend.
posted by heather-b at 8:45 AM on June 26, 2009

Best answer: Sorry, I should have added: I barely remember my father's viewing, but I do remember that friends came.

And I really remember the ones who were there for me in the weeks and months that followed.
posted by teragram at 8:48 AM on June 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

If it is any consolation, I didn't approach the casket when my grandmother died a few years ago. She'd lost a lot of weight due to illness, and while I caught sight of her from a distance, I did not go near the casket as I wanted to remember her the way I'd always pictured her. No one in my family noticed, nor was I ever asked if I'd gone to the casket.

Funerals really are for the living, and your presence there will be of comfort to family and friends. Your interactions with them will be remembered far more than if you went up to view the body.
posted by kuppajava at 8:50 AM on June 26, 2009

When my grandmother died, some of my friends came to be with me at the funeral. They didn't go to the casket and I don't think anyone noticed. The only thing I remember is that they were there for me. Glad you'll be there for your friend.
posted by garnetgirl at 9:11 AM on June 26, 2009

I grew up Catholic, and my parents have taken me to every wake since I was a baby. Seeing dead bodies does not skeeve me out, and I have no problems looking at the body or anything like that, even if it doesn't look like them anymore. Oh and when I actually did that "kneel and pray" thing? I'd kneel, look at my hands, and count slowly to 15. (My mom laughed when I told her this at a wake a few months ago - she does it too. I'm guessing a lot of people do.)

But for the past 12ish years, with ONE exception, I haven't gone up to the casket. No one has ever said a word. I just don't do it because I don't feel the need to. And if I knew the person well, I'd like to not think about how they're not alive anymore in a room full of people, I'd rather do that on my own time in my own space. And if there is an afterlife, I doubt they care if I go up to their body or not.

For a friend's dad, all you really need to do is show up and be there for your friend.
posted by AlisonM at 9:22 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

We did things in a non-traditional sense when my mother died - very small, informal, immediate friends-and-family only. She was also cremated, so any body-viewing concerns don't apply here.

But really reinforcing what teragram said above. The day of (really, the week leading up to it), I really appreciated everyone calling to express concern, support, etc. The day of the service was really all about just seeing people I hadn't seen in ages, sharing stories, etc.. Learning things about my mom that I hadn't known before.

Looking back on it though, after all was said and done, and the service was over, what I really needed, and what I appreciated the most, was the support from friends & family as I went through the following month (year, really) of grieving. Every event was the "first" without her. First birthdays (hers and mine). First thanksgiving. First Christmas. And on, and on, and on. It was there that being able to lean on people for support was key.

Don't worry too much about the funeral - as others have said, do what works for you. If you really care about your friend, be there during the next few months once the shock has worn off and reality has really set it.
posted by swngnmonk at 9:42 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

When my cousin died, my grandmother took my six year old self up to the casket. I asked what I should do and she said "just say goodbye." She touched my cousin's hair and looked at him for a bit, then we sat down.

When that same grandmother died, we had a private viewing for the family. All of us stood in the room silently for a few minutes until my mother said "she didn't wear her hair like that."

"No, it was more down in front," agreed my aunt.

"Get the undertaker in here," my mother ordered my uncle. A few minutes later a young mortician entered the room, and my mother took him up to the casket. "Her hair wasn't blown up in front, it sat down... like this." Then my mother placed both hands on my grandmother's head, pushing her hair down in front, trying to smooth it out.

It wasn't grief or an emotional fugue state that had my mother manhandling her mother in the coffin. My mother's a nurse, and had spent the last three months caring for her bedridden mother until her death. It was purely practical, just a desire not to see her mother misrepresented at the viewing.

The mortician looked like he was going to be ill. He mumbled something about seeing what he could do and ran out.

A funeral serves the living, not the dead. It's an opportunity for you to say goodbye in whatever way is helpful to you. There's no etiquette or obligation that demands you act in any way beyond respectfully not interfering with other mourner's goodbyes. No one will mind (if they even notice) if you do nothing more than show up and console the family.
posted by fatbird at 9:52 AM on June 26, 2009

I think that the general etiquette at funerals is to be on the quiet side, be respectful, offer sincere condolences and be warm and helpful to those around you. There is no "rule" about visiting the casket.

I recently went to my grandpa's funeral and did not go up to the casket. For me, it was too overwhelming and I felt like I didn't need closure in that way. If anyone noticed and was offended, they can suck it. :) But I'm sure that wasn't the case.
posted by amanda at 9:56 AM on June 26, 2009

Yes, swngnmonk, yes. People are shocked that you are functional immediately after a parent's death, they think it's amazing that you can go to the bathroom by yourself and walk in a straight line. But then, two weeks later, they've sort of moved on, and you just don't know what to do.

But my friend Heather came over a month after, with three freezer containers of turkey chili, for nights I didn't feel like cooking. But my friend Sarah wrote me a really nice email this past December, saying that she knew that Christmas was still hard, and that she considers me family, and wants to do anything she can to help. But my friend Katherine called this past January 6, saying she knew it was the two year anniversary of dad's death, and wanted to know how I was.

Now, these are friends.
posted by teragram at 9:57 AM on June 26, 2009 [23 favorites]

One exception, if you're a pallbearer, I've been to funeral's where at the end, the pallbearers all went up in a row to pay their respects st the end of the viewing before the casket was closed.
posted by Jahaza at 10:08 AM on June 26, 2009

Even as a pallbearer I've never felt compelled to view the body. Which is good, because I won't. So, OP, don't feel obligated in the slightest.
posted by JeffK at 10:29 AM on June 26, 2009

If you were a Catholic, there would be an expectation of a specific prayer rite by the body. Since you're not, you should probably keep clear of the body because you're uncomfortable about it.

Just make sure that you see your friend, and express sincere condolences.
posted by Citrus at 11:02 AM on June 26, 2009

In all the funerals I've ever been to, I've never once noticed someone that didn't walk up to the casket. The bereaved are usually so "out of it" they wouldn't even notice if someone did or did not go up to the casket (at least this is how I remember).
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 12:51 PM on June 26, 2009

Slightly contrary advice: if the crowd is zigging toward the body and you zag away, it might be considered disrespectful. Maybe they won't notice, but maybe they will. I'd hate to make the effort of trying to comfort my friend and end up pissing him off. If you knew the decesaed, it might be good for you to have a moment to say goodbye. I find it somewhat comforting.
posted by gjc at 4:09 PM on June 26, 2009

posted by IndigoRain at 12:05 AM on June 27, 2009

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