Please tell me what a funeral viewing entails and how to do it.
January 13, 2017 6:21 PM   Subscribe

My half sister has just died at the age of 22 and leaves behind a two month old son. Her funeral is on Wednesday and will be a viewing (per her mother's wishes) followed by private memorial service at someone's house. Please tell me what people do at a viewing so that I can plan it.

Due to cost constraints the viewing time will be "self-directed", about 1-2 hours as far as I understand. None of us have done this before and I've been tasked with figuring out what one does during a viewing. Please help with activities, preferably non-denominational/atheist, though I think some people may be Roman Catholic and some may be Muslim, but I can't be certain. Are there supposed to be decorations, pictures, etc? Are there readings, music? There will be approximately 20 people of very different backgrounds and it will be held at a formal funeral home, though she will later be cremated. I think we can sort out the memorial part, it's the viewing that none of us have experience with arranging or attending.

This is happening in Seattle if it matters, and the death was by heroin tainted with fentanyl to a young woman with a very tough life and we're all at a loss. Please help tell me how these things are structured and how to make it meaningful and please forgive the scattered nature of the question.
posted by mireille to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Replace "viewing" with "visitation." You can choose to view the deceased or not. It's a time to offer or receive condolences, share memories, support those in grief, and in general a subdued social time. My condolences offered here.
posted by Lornalulu at 6:34 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss. We had a viewing when my grandfather died, so I can tell you about how that went if it helps. He was Catholic, so that was a part of the viewing, but honestly not a large part. It was an open-casket viewing, and basically we all showed up within a certain timeframe, formed a line and walked over to the casket. Each person did their own thing - stopped for a prayer, laid a flower, etc. once they reached my grandfather's casket, and then went back to a seat nearby. After the procession ended, there were prayers said, and some people shared stories. The viewing only lasted an hour or two if I remember correctly. After the viewing, we all went back to someone's house and ate a lot of food and talked with each other. I'm sure others do this differently too. Remember - there's really no wrong way to do this, so if people come from different backgrounds, you can make space for them in any way you guys see fit. The sharing stories part was interesting to me, as I never really knew what my grandfather meant to the others who came to the viewing.
posted by FireFountain at 6:37 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my family, they are entirely unstructured. You and the rest of your family (and possibly particularly close friends) sit or stand around in a room with the coffin and a lot of places to sit, and with flowers that you and other people have sent and maybe with pictures that you have brought and arranged. For my father, the funeral home provided some display boards we could put pictures on but they will probably have talked to the person who arranged the funeral about what you want set up.

People she knew or that you and the family members know will come in and come speak to you a little and pay their respects. Usually they'll sign a guest book on the way in. If you run into any confusion during the viewing/visitation, you should be able to go ask the funeral director for advice. They know people are kind of at sea in these situations.

And I am so sorry. Hang in there.
posted by dilettante at 6:42 PM on January 13, 2017 [21 favorites]

The viewings I've been to have all been at funeral homes, and family members of the deceased usually kind of station themselves in different rooms and make themselves available to greet and talk with mourners. There aren't usually activities, per se, but most have a collage or photo table with pictures of the person, a table with a guest book, and music in the background. It doesn't need to be structured, self-directed is a nice way to let people get what they need out of the experience. The idea is to have physical and metaphorical spaces for people to privately mourn and say their goodbyes (whether at the casket or not), spaces for people to connect with each other in reminiscence, and spaces for people to show their love and support of the family.

In my experience at my own family viewings people are extremely gracious and will not expect anything from the relatives; they mostly want to pay their resects to the family. People may want to send flowers so you might want to think about including some guidance on any invitation if that's something you don't want. You don't need to prepare anything but often people will make laminated Mass or memorial cards if that's something you want to do.

Also, funeral homes are usually on top of this, but make sure there will be lots of tissue boxes. I'm really sorry for your loss.
posted by stellaluna at 6:45 PM on January 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Photos give everyone something to talk about. You could make boards with them arranged chronologically, for example, and then multiple people can mill through the collection at a time. If she made any art, that can be nice to display as well. Light food is also good. Basically, the goal is to create things for people who potentially don't know one another to congregate around while they make quiet small talk, rather than letting them all potentially mob the family and/or feel awkward. For their part, the family will appreciate having something specific to talk about ("yes, that was her favorite robot, she programmed him when she was five...") as they're able, rather than being stuck trying to express their overwhelming emotions in a socially-acceptable manner, but they should still have a designated area to retreat to. If the baby is present, whoever has him should be prepared to hold firm boundaries about whether/how much he can be handed around. People will be very, very interested in him, and it can be overwhelming. If her next of kin just wants to cling to him, that's 100% fine and should be supported.
posted by teremala at 6:59 PM on January 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm so sorry. The funeral director should be guiding you about this. I suggest calling them up and asking. They should also be helping with the logistics.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:08 PM on January 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

Oh, and if anyone wants to give a speech or reading, the viewing would be an entirely appropriate venue. If not though, nobody's going to feel like such a thing is missing. It's also typical to at some point mid-way through the time to make a general offer to the people present that they could say something to the group.
posted by teremala at 7:09 PM on January 13, 2017

I'm so sorry for the terrible death of your sister, and the loss of your nephew's mother. The family, including you, will probably be exhausted and numb from grief, and won't be expected to entertain anyone at the viewing. I've gone to maybe a dozen, and can tell you a little about commonalities, and the aspects that were sweet or touching I recall from a few.

The funeral home will fill you and your family in on the basics, which might include a table with a basket to receive sympathy cards and will probably provide a guest book for people to sign. Some families have a receiving line for visitors and some don't. That's totally up to you. The cards and book can help you send very brief thank you cards to people who came, which is customary. These are often extremely brief and can even be pre-printed, though signed by hand, often from "the Smith Family" (for example). When my mother died I also sent personal notes to a few of her closest friends, but these were separate from the "family" thank yous.

I recently went to the funeral and viewing of the husband of a childhood friend. They had set up foam core boards on easels in the back of the room with tons of happy photos of him with and without his wife and kids, him swimming as a kid, skiing as a teenager, going down a water slide on a water park trip with his son, etc., so if you have childhood photos, photos of her at summer camp, with Santa as a toddler, making a snowman, soccer cards, and so on, they can offer a welcome refuge of sweet happiness that visitors will crowd around and remember your sister in happier times. Making the boards was also a way for sometimes confrontational family members to focus on a task and remember their loved one before the stressful viewing and funeral.
posted by citygirl at 7:16 PM on January 13, 2017

I am so sorry for your loss. The funeral director can also help but I have been to several and planned one and it went like this:

- the casket or urn is in the room
- there were photos around in several places
- there was a guest book and a basket for cards
- some people sent flowers
- we made a playlist (this is completely optional)
- our job as the family was to stand and say "thank you for coming" and nod and greet people, but with breaks to sit down. I recommend having a friend at your side to intervene, to bring you water or tea, and to be sure you take some breaks to breathe.
- at the latest, about 20-30 minutes before the end, a microphone was set up by the funeral home staff and the staff by request read a poem the family found meaningful, and then anyone who wished got up and said whatever they had to say. The family did not wish to say anything but they could have.
- the funeral staff then directed people to the internment (urn/ashes) if they wished
- everyone met up at a house later for food

As a friend, I personally am always available to help my friends with food, logistics, driving the flower arrangements back, making sure bereaved people get their coats and purses (those things get so hard at those times)...if you have friends you can mobilize please do, or family friends who are older and have been through the drill before.

Whatever happens, it is is not your job to be perfect at this time.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:16 PM on January 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I am a professional funeral director and all these answers are correct. Visitations are usually unstructured. Bring some photos, maybe a sandwich tray. It's a very casual time, geared towards talking and visiting.
posted by ColdChef at 7:19 PM on January 13, 2017 [22 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your loss. I am Roman Catholic and in my community growing up we always called these wakes, and they were very normal and expected and non-stuffy or scripted. They were as follows:

-There was a guestbook outside the room of the viewing for mourners to sign. At RC wakes, there were often prayer cards with a photo of the deceased for mourners to take, but that is not remotely required or expected.
-Mourners would enter as they arrived and pay their respects at the casket, by standing or kneeling quietly for a few moments. At RC wakes there was a kneeler. I would say most people stop by the casket for about as long as a "moment of silence" at an event. If someone is uncomfortable approaching the casket, it is fine to pay their respects standing or from a few feet away OR to skip the casket entirely and proceed to the next step which is:
-Generally the family or members of the family will stand or sit on the far side of the casket from the entrance so that mourners can enter, pay their respects at the casket, and then offer their condolences to the family. Again, it is 100% completely fine to skip the casket. It's also fine if you and your family want the receiving line to be in some other part of the room.

After that, people generally sit or stand in other chairs in the room and visit for a little while. Some families will put up photo collages or posters or just bring some favorite framed photos, but it is in no way required or expected.

No one will expect the family to conduct any activities or even fill their own water glasses. At some wakes, about 15-20 minutes before the end of calling hours, a funeral home staffer or clergy member will lead an EXTREMELY brief prayer for everyone in the room which serves as a kind of ritual closing of calling hours. There's no proscribed form for this. It can also be done by a family member or friend. I have been to wakes where this is also the time any family members or friends who wish to read a poem or sing a song. Again, this is not mandatory or expected and you don't have to do it if you don't want to. You do not have to say a particular prayer, or anything religious if that is not your tradition. Someone could share the lyrics to her favorite song, something she posted to her Facebook that she found meaningful, etc. Only if you wish to.

Part of the reason RC families have wakes is because RC funerals are very formal and rote and there is very little room for individualizing the service. A wake serves as a more casual time for social condolences, non-religious readings or music, and as a way for non-RC friends to pay their respects without attending Mass. If you are having your own memorial that is specific to your sister, you might not feel the need to have a reading or prayer, and that is fine. You could just have someone say at the opening, "Calling hours will last until 9, and we will meet for the memorial service at 10," and then at 8:15 someone says, "Calling hours will end at 9, thank you for joining us."

Also, this is something you can and should ask the staff of the funeral home. That is what they are for. Obviously you are privy to more info, but I wonder if "self-directed" doesn't mean simply that they won't conduct the prayer service for you. In my experience there will be a funeral home staffer to direct traffic, and a staffer to gently close calling hours and give close family members a few private moments with the deceased if they wish that.

Again, I'm so sorry for your loss. You are a good sister to do this for your sister and your family.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:20 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thank you so, so much to everyone so far, I'm reading everything and it's incredibly helpful and comforting, and I've shared with one of my siblings. Walking away from the computer tonight but will of course check back first thing in the morning and again until Wednesday, and will report back for anyone reading this in the future whom it might help.
posted by mireille at 7:23 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

The ones I've attended or organized were unstructured; the closest thing I can compare them to is an open house.

They're usually at the funeral home, and normally last about two hours --- the funeral home will schedule them 'from 6-8pm' or whatever. Close family, like parents and siblings, should plan to be there the whole time, as they are the 'hosts'; friends and more-distant family can, as at an open house, arrive and depart anywhere in that time frame. There's normally a guest book, which the close family will keep afterwards. Most people will order flower arrangements sent to the funeral home ahead of time, at least in my experience it's rare to have someone arrive carrying an arrangement.

Usually the casket or urn is set at the far end of the room from the entrance, and the funeral home will arrange the flowers there, with input from the family; sometimes there will be a 'blanket' of flowers on the casket itself. Close family enters first, and usually have a few private minutes of prayer or meditation before other guests are allowed in the room. After that, the family moves to the side; guests usually go first to the casket then over to the family, reception-line style. Then folks just sort of mill around, talking and sharing memories of the deceased --- this is where having a photo and/or video display featuring the deceased is helpful, it gives a focus for conversation. At the end, the guests leave first, again giving the family a short private time.

Depending on the time of day, say for an afternoon viewing but not for one at night, you might also invite guests back to the house afterwards, but that's not required. No refreshments beyond perhaps water and maybe coffee will be at the funeral home itself.
posted by easily confused at 7:59 PM on January 13, 2017

These good people have already told you pretty much all you need to know. I just want to add one tip.

I wish I had made a note when that lady asked me for my Mom's yarn. I didn't write her name down and she never called. Unless you have a really good memory, take a notepad.

No phone. You should be present in the room. This part of mourning is supposed to be a group activity.

Don't be afraid to ask the funeral director to exclude people if you wish.
posted by irisclara at 8:37 PM on January 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

In addition to the other answers, plan ahead on what you want to do with any flower arrangements afterward, whether it's distribute among family members, take back to the house for the memorial service, donate some of the generic ones to a nursing home, or save some for drying and making keepsakes (some people put the pressed flowers into frames or shadowboxes with photos of the loved one, or otherwise preserve them in acrylic, etc., seeing as how she had a baby, this might be welcome later on).

There should also be one person in charge of collecting any cards left in a basket, as they might have money in them, and someone also in charge of retrieving the guestbook and cards from floral arrangements, for thank you cards later. Decide on this ahead of time, so there is no confusion at the time of the viewing.

I've also seen people set up a computer on a table, with a slideshow of photos, if that might be easier than printing photos and make a collage. But usually I've seen one photo on an easel.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:18 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The only thing I haven't seen mentioned, which was common to the viewings of both my grandparents, was that there was another room that was a little bit "behind the scenes" that was for family only and had a little kitchenette, and some refreshments (pizza, cookies, sodas).

Maybe it's just because we're really a bunch of introverts at heart, and because we had more extended viewing hours (my grandfather was our small town's chief of police for a time before I was born, so lots of visitors in that case especially), but it was nice to have somewhere that wasn't public-facing, so to speak, to retreat and regroup as needed.
posted by miratime at 4:50 AM on January 14, 2017

A friend of mine asked his friends to order a keg of beer. It was stashed tastefully in another room, but all knew it was there.
posted by megatherium at 6:02 AM on January 14, 2017

From past experience and not mentioned by the great answers previously. There may be a little memorial pamphlet made available, have a proof printed and check it before final printing. Have some Benadryl handy in case somebody doesn't know that they're allergic to rooms full of flowers.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:17 AM on January 14, 2017

At my father's viewing, us kids (and spouses) did shots of Jack Daniels (my dad's favorite) in the car just prior to the few hours sitting around, talking to people we haven't seen in ages about life, my dad, etc. I have fond memories of this one part, despite how upset we all were.

If it's in a funeral home, they will literally handle everything, including presenting all the options you need to decide on.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:46 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm so terribly sorry for your loss.

I have been to a few funerals with a "viewing". As others have said, you shouldn't need to do anything, other than receive people's condolences. You don't even have to take part in the "viewing" if you don't want to. Of those few that I've been to, the only time I took part in the "viewing" was to support and hold the hand of my close friend who did want to see her grandmother one last time.
posted by Diag at 6:40 AM on January 15, 2017

I am so very sorry for your loss.

Just to add (in case you weren't expecting it): Catholics may bring Mass cards/prayer cards/rosaries/other small devotional items expressly for the purpose of placing inside the casket with the deceased; if so, they will put them in there themselves whilst they are praying/viewing.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 8:25 AM on January 15, 2017

At my bachelor uncle's wake/viewing, we had a nice photograph of him next to the guest book. We got prayer cards, and had copies of his obituary. My mom (his sister), my uncle and his wife, myself and my siblings, and my cousins all formed a receiving line on the right side of the casket to thank people for coming and to listen to stories. I was honestly shocked at how many people turned out, and how many amazing stories people had. I was not prepared for the people who were very, very upset- it might be good to choose a family member who can handle these folks best, and who can get them moving if need be. We all bowed out as needed for breaks- as I remember there was a room family could go to.
posted by momochan at 9:11 PM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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