Why we have viewings
Last edition, I illustrated how the meaningful funeral ceremony
is like a tapestry. Made up of a number of elements, it creates a
transformative experience that is much greater than the sum of its
individual parts. While each family's ceremony will and should be a
unique tapestry, it can only be a tapestry if it draws on a full
repertoire of possible elements.
The rest of this series will explore, in turn, common funeral
elements - taking you from the viewing/vigil through to the
gathering for refreshments afterwards.
The first funeral element is that of the viewing. In some
countries, this is historically called a "wake." The term "wake"
comes from the Middle English "waken," meaning "to be awake, to
keep watch." In days gone by, it was customary for the family and
primary mourners to keep around-the-clock vigil over the dead body
of their loved one. The body was kept in the home, often on display
in an open coffin in the parlour. Twenty-four hours a day, mourners
took turns sitting at the loved one's side to safeguard the body,
offer prayers, pay their respects, receive friends and comfort one
Today, of course, the body is almost always safeguarded in the
locked funeral home from the time of the transfer of the body from
its place of death until the time of the funeral. No longer does
the family stay present with the body during this time prior to the
funeral. Yet the viewing remains a common element, one I believe
continues to be essential regardless of the plans for ceremony and
In my next article, I will talk more about the role of the dead
body itself in the creation of the tapestry that is the meaningful
funeral ceremony. While I do believe that bodiless funerals are not
as transformative as those that incorporate and honour the body
throughout the process, I also want to emphasise that the
viewing is an essential funeral element even when the family
chooses to immediately cremate, or not have the body present during
The viewing can be a time of greeting and reception that takes
place prior to the service. And even though many bereaved families
choose this to be a private time, it is helpful for the families to
consider the best ways to activate their support networks, and that
is what making the viewing time less private can accomplish.
When families open the viewing to others, they are essentially
inviting their friends and family members to come support them. The
family is opening the door, quite literally, to a time of informal
social greeting and empathy. They are creating an entryway for
support. When they opt not to give opportunities for friends to
gather with them, it's very common for those same friends to end up
not supporting them.
In fact, after the death of a loved one, people often come up to
me and say, "I was taken aback that quite a few of my friends never
acknowledged the death. They have not called, they didn't even send
a sympathy card. And when I saw my friend in the grocery store the
other day, she didn't even say anything about the death. Why could
this be?" The first thing I ask them is, "Did you invite friends to
gather with you?" Almost always in these cases, the answer is no.
The viewing and ceremony were private. Perhaps there was no
ceremony at all. What these families didn't realise is that by
choosing privacy, they were choosing not to open the door to
support. Consciously or unconsciously, their friends took this to
mean that they want their grief to be private rather than a
We continue to see a trend toward more efficiency, more privacy,
less ceremony, and in its extreme immediate unattended cremation.
Yet the full benefit of the viewing and ceremony can be made
possible by allowing more people to attend. Sometimes holding the
viewing a day or two before the ceremony, in the evening allows
more friends to attend. This sets the community support in motion
right away and gives people a chance to share news of the death
with other friends and neighbours. But viewing opportunities right
before the formal ceremony are also helpful and much preferred to
no viewing at all.
In addition to inviting and accepting support from others, the
viewing also helps the mourners acknowledge the reality of the
death, encourages the sharing of memories (recall), gives them an
opportunity for the expression of their inner thoughts and
feelings, helps them begin to consider the meaning of their loved
one's life and death and sets them on a course for integration
We know from experience that one of the first things many
families do after the funeral is review the remembrance/memorial
book to see who attended. This simple, common behaviour speaks
volumes about the importance of gathering.
I encourage families to use this time to display memorabilia,
solicit stories and memories from guests (you may like to place
notepads, pens, instructions and a basket to collect the stories on
a table) and play music in the background that is meaningful to the
Viewing is the funeral element that sets everything in motion.
It opens the door to support and healing.
About the author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author, educator, and consultant
to hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, funeral homes and
other community agencies. His life's work of companioning those who
grieve has lead him to advocate for the value of meaningful funeral
For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com.