How to Plan a Visitation, Viewing, or Wake

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Depending on the culture and beliefs of the decedent’s family, a funeral service may not be the only event to mark a person’s death. Many choose to hold additional gatherings before the funeral to honor the memory of their loved one and to share their grief with friends and family. Pre-funeral services can take various forms, ranging from informal to formal, religious to secular. The most common are visitations, viewings, and wakes.

What are the differences between a wake, a viewing and a visitation?

During a visitation with the family, the body may be present in a closed casket, or not there at all. A wake or a viewing, however, is considered more an opportunity for mourners to spend time in the presence of the body, which will be in an open casket. While the terms wakes and viewings are often used interchangeably, wakes often contain religious elements, such as prayers or hymns, and are closely associated with the Catholic faith. Wakes have a long history; the Celts and Anglo-Saxons held these vigils for the dead to prevent spirits from taking possession of the body. Both viewings and visitations, in contrast, tend to be less structured. All three events offer grieving friends and family a chance to gather and connect with others who knew the deceased.

Many visitations, viewings, and wakes are held at funeral homes or at houses of worship. But they may also be held at home, or at a fraternal organization, or other community gathering space. They’re often held the day before the funeral, or sometimes on the same day. If the family expects a large crowd, they may choose to have two or three days of visitation before the funeral. These events typically last a few hours, with visitors coming and going on their own schedule.

Visitors may stay for just 15 minutes, or they might stay longer to comfort the family and friends of the deceased. Guests will usually share memories of the departed with the family, and there may also be a scrapbook in which to leave a remembrance. While there aren’t usually formal services, some faiths include their own traditions. Catholics, for example, may read from Scripture and pray together. However, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says the primary focus of the gathering is to recall and reflect upon the life of the deceased. They’ll also often include a recitation of the Rosary.

How to plan a visitation

If you’re planning a wake, viewing, or visitation, you don’t have to go it alone. The funeral director or leader at your place of worship will be well-versed in making such arrangements. Some people choose to host the wake, viewing, or visitation at the funeral home or place of worship, while others choose to host the event at home.

A home viewing or wake allows friends and family to say their last respects in an intimate setting, before the body is transported to a funeral home or other location. The deceased can remain at home for 48 hours before refrigeration, burial, interment, or cremation takes place, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Once you have the time and place settled you’ll need to get the word out. Social media has become a common option for spreading news of the visitation, wake, or viewing, though it’s still a good idea to also place a death notice with event details—location, hours, whether the event is open to the public—in the local newspaper and religious bulletins. 

Setting up the space

Whether you have the event at a funeral home, place of worship, or family home, you don’t need to worry about securing or setting up a lot of seating for these services, as they’re more about standing with others and comforting those who are grieving.

But there are certain items to prepare in advance: You’ll want to have a register book that visitors can sign, along with ample pens. You may also want to display photos of the deceased, as well as mementos such as awards or even items that represent the deceased person’s hobbies, such as a fishing pole. Such items can help personalize the space and spark shared memories and remembrances. Some funeral homes suggest creating a video with photos of the deceased set to music, which will be played during the gathering.

When it comes to food and drink, the location of the event dictates the norm. No food or drinks are typically served at a funeral home. But if the gathering is at home, or at a place of worship with a social hall or community space, refreshments are common. Rather than a catered or elaborate meal, a potluck meal is commonly served, with each guest contributing a dish. Guests visiting the home may also bring additional meals at this time, to ease the burden of cooking for the decedent’s family. 

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