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.

Why we have viewings
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 another.

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 disposition.

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 ceremony.

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 community affair.

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 through grief.

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 family.

Viewing is the funeral element that sets everything in motion. It opens the door to support and healing.

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About the Author

  • Dr. Alan Wolfelt

    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 experiences.


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