Funeral Etiquette: Best Practices for Wakes, Viewings and Visitations

Knowing what to expect ahead of time and showing up prepared to practice proper funeral etiquette will guarantee that you come across as respectful and sincere.

While attending a wake or viewing for someone you know who has died is a wonderful way to offer support for their grieving family, it can be an emotional and sometimes awkward endeavor. Keep these etiquette tips in mind before attending a wake, viewing or visitation.

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Are wakes, viewings, and visitations the same thing?

Wakes, viewings, and visitations are all opportunities for family and friends to spend time with the deceased person’s body and offer support for the grieving family before the funeral. They can be quite similar, but do have a few distinct differences. 

  • Wakes & Viewings: Events held with the deceased person’s body present, with either an open or closed casket. They’re usually held the day before the funeral at the same location. The primary difference between the two is that wakes are usually religious in nature and include some sort of prayer or spiritual reading while viewings do not. The names are often used interchangeably, but wakes can occur before or shortly after a funeral.
  • Visitations: Set periods of time before the funeral where the deceased member’s family will receive guests in their home or at the funeral home. Visitations may or may not have the body present and can take place over several hours or days.

Should you attend if you weren’t directly invited?

In some circumstances, wakes, viewings, and visitations are reserved for family only. If this is the case, it’s best to respect the family’s wishes and not attend.

If you weren’t directly invited and the family doesn’t specify that the event is family only or put out public information on social media, it’s usually acceptable to attend if you knew the deceased.

If you’re uncertain, consider only attending the funeral or sending the family a sympathy card or flowers to express your support.

Is it acceptable to attend a viewing and not the funeral?

There are circumstances where it is acceptable to only attend the viewing and not the funeral or vice versa.

For instance, if you didn’t know the deceased person, but would like to show their family your support, stopping by at the viewing would be a kind gesture.

On the other hand, if you don’t know the family at all, but were close to the deceased, attending the funeral rather than the viewing may make you feel more comfortable. Likewise, if work or travel keeps you from attending both, it’s fine to choose one event over the other.

If you’re related to the deceased person or knew them very well, you should make every effort to attend both the viewing and the funeral as you will not get another chance to do so and may come to regret not having been able to share your grief with others.

What is the appropriate attire?

While wearing black to a wake, viewing, or visitation is your safest option for attire, any conservative, relatively formal outfit would be appropriate. Be sure to avoid anything that would draw unnecessary attention to yourself, as well as overly casual clothing, such as sneakers or shorts.

Should you bring anything to the viewing?

If you feel inclined to give the family flowers or a gift, be sure to do so in advance or after, rather than during the viewing or funeral. They shouldn’t have to worry about anything other than mourning their loved one at these events. 

When should you arrive?

Be sure to confirm the time of the viewing before you arrive, so that you don’t show up too early or late. Many viewings take place over many hours, so it isn’t necessary to arrive immediately when it begins, but at some point within an extended period.

You may be torn about whether or not to attend someone’s wake, viewing, or visitation, but doing so could mean the world to the deceased person’s grieving family, especially if you knew them well. Even though it can be an uncomfortable experience, you’ll be thankful you made the effort.

How do you offer condolences?

Viewings can be stressful, emotional, and uncomfortable for many people. Even if you feel awkward, you should approach the deceased person’s family at the viewing to offer your condolences.

If they don’t know who you are, introduce yourself, then say something along the lines of “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Keep in mind that they are grieving and have to speak to most, if not all of the people in attendance, some of whom they’ve never met before, so be sure to keep the interaction brief and respectful.

How long should you stay at a funeral wake or viewing?

There is no rule to how long you should stay at a wake or viewing. It will likely depend on when you’re able to reach the family to offer your condolences and view the body if you wish to do so.

After you’ve shown your support to the grieving family, it is best to leave rather than linger for an extended period of time.