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What is the Difference Between “Viewing” and “Visitation”?

PDFIn the case of an unexpected death when a family is grappling with the reality of what has happened, there is a strong need to see the body of the person who died and to hold or touch the person. In most of these situations, the body will have been taken to a hospital for rescue efforts or to determine the cause of death.

Some hospitals will be very cooperative in letting the family spend time with the body over many hours, especially with an infant or child death. Others may have limited space and will expect the body to be moved quickly. When you have out-of-town family that will not arrive for 24 hours or more, another opportunity for “good-bye time” will need to be arranged. If you are not taking the body home and will be using a mortuary, you may want to ask for “private family viewing.” Only occasionally is this listed on a General Price List, so there may not be a charge. (FCA will be asking the FTC to require that this option be offered on each GPL in the future. It is legitimate for the funeral home to make a charge for this service.) Sometimes the GPL will limit this to “no more than one hour”—a despicable practice. How dare a funeral director tell you how long or short your grieving time should be! You may certainly demand the time you need but be willing to pay any additional fees for extended use of the facilities.

 There is less formality with a private family viewing, and the body is often laid out on a covered table. A casket is distancing, making it more difficult to get close—to cradle one’s arms around the dead person.
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Whether you choose to have the body embalmed for this private time will be a personal decision. There is no legal reason that would require embalming for such a viewing, and the funeral home may not impose embalming if it is not required by state law for the time period elapsed since death. The FTC does permit the funeral home to set a policy of requiring embalming for public viewing, however.

In the case of an expected death, people have started to say their “good-byes,” and there is less need to see the body to accept the reality of death. When the end comes, it may even be seen as a blessing. Many undertakers insist, however, that a viewing is necessary for “closure.” That you will probably pick a more expensive casket is surely part of the motivation in promoting a viewing, not just a visitation. In the past, it was usual to have three days of viewing or visitation. With busy working families, industry reports indicate that only one day of viewing or visitation is now being planned for most funerals. For those who wish to cut expenses even more, a viewing immediately prior to the funeral service can be scheduled—at the church or at the funeral home.

When a public viewing is held, few people go to actually peek at the dead body. They are there to support the family and to show they care. Some are uncomfortable with a dead person in the room and will stay as far away from the casket as possible. Whether in quiet banter, surprised laughter, or tender tears, spontaneous sharing is comforting. There certainly is value for the family to hear friends and colleagues freely talk about the significance of their relationship with the deceased.

On the other hand, a visitation also offers informal time for gathering and remembrances, but the casket is either closed or not there at all. A visitation without the casket present can be scheduled anywhere, anytime—without the cost or formality of funeral home involvement. Those of us who have opted for visitation—not viewing—have found this to be intimate and personal, and some would say more comfortable.

Suggestions for Personalizing a Visitation

  • An Open House at your own home or that of a close friend
  • In the social hall of your church, temple, or synagogue
  • At a fraternal organization’s location such as the VFW
  • At the family’s summer place
  • At a local restaurant or hotel that has facilities for private functions
  • At the local library or art gallery (be sure to offer a donation for use of meeting space if a fee is not already set)
  • At a botanical garden or park, if the weather is nice
  • Display photos, awards, honors
  • Pass out flowers, photos, poetry, special prayers or writings
  • Ask others to bring stories or photos for a family scrapbook
  • Solicit donations “in memory of” for selected causes that were important to the deceased
  • Or ask others to bring books for library donation and share why a particular book seemed the appropriate gift
  • When planning music, choose that which was significant to the individual. (It need not be funereal).

Many of these suggestions would also be appropriate for a memorial gathering, in lieu of a formal funeral service.
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