Does a Funeral Have to Include a Viewing of the Body?
Body viewings are a common practice in the United States – a tradition that dates back centuries and continues to flourish even today. Originally a religious custom, body viewings have now become a way for family members and friends to pay their respects and say their final goodbyes before the more formal funeral ceremony begins.
During the funeral planning process, the funeral home director will most likely ask what you and your family would like to do regarding the open casket options. Although you might feel pressured to have a body viewing because it is so common, you are fully within your rights to prefer a closed casket. In fact, many modern green funeral proponents say that the added chemicals involved in the embalming are an unnecessary waste and strain on the eco-system.
Before you make a decision, be sure and check with any funeral pre-plan wishes set out by the deceased as well as the wishes of family members. For some, the ability to view a body and say goodbye is an important step in the grieving process.
The History of Body Viewings
The most commonly known example of body viewings in history is the wake. A wake, which traditionally occurred in the home of the deceased, was held during the time between death and burial. During this time, family and friends gathered to “watch over” the body and strike a balance between the sadness of death and the joy of life. (Contrary to popular belief, a wake was never intended as a way to make sure the body doesn’t “wake” from death before it is buried.)
The Irish are perhaps the most famous for their practice of holding wakes, up to and including dressing in full mourning, stopping the clocks, covering the mirrors with black cloth, and opening a window to allow the spirit of the deceased to leave the room. Because these wakes were held in the home, the time between death and burial was short (maybe a day in all) to avoid unpleasant smells or bodily decomposition. Other cultures with similar historical practices include Iceland, Eastern Orthodox religions, and those from the Caribbean Islands.
Body Viewings in the Modern Age
Today, the wake is usually held in a funeral home, especially since laws regulate where and how a body may be stored in the days leading up to burial. Also known as Visiting Hours, this practice provides much of the same benefits as a traditional wake: a chance for family and friends to come together as well as a chance to make a final farewell. It’s not uncommon for there to be music, food, and other entertainments – not to make light of the death of a loved one, but to celebrate life and the chance to gather and share memories.
However, it’s important to note that the body of the deceased doesn’t have to be present and visible in order for these celebrations to take place. As more and more people turn to alternate burial arrangements (including cremation and green funerals), the old traditions don’t always have a place. As long as you stay true to the funeral plans laid out in advance and the customs that will put your own heart at ease, you are free to make the funeral as celebratory or traditional as you choose.