​​What is a Visitation or a Viewing? What is the Etiquette Around These Funeral Events?

Daniela Fortino
Daniela Fortino
May 16th 2022 - 7 minute read
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Learn what a funeral viewing or visitation is. What happens at these funeral events and what is the etiquette you need to know.

Daniela Fortino

A visitation or a viewing is a common component of many funerals. While the two events are similar, there are also some key differences. Below is everything you need to know about funeral visitations and viewings.

Visitation vs viewing

Many people use the terms visitation and viewing interchangeably in the context of a funeral. In general, both funeral events are formal gatherings held as part of a funeral where family and friends view or visit the deceased person’s body. Although these events are similar, the key difference is how the body of the deceased person is presented.

At a viewing, the body is on display in a casket or coffin, and is viewed by family and friends. When attending a viewing, expect to visit with the deceased person laying open casket.  This event is held either before burial or before cremation.

Alternatively, a visitation is a funeral gathering with a closed casket present or sometimes the body is not present at all.

The exact origins of viewings and visitations are unknown, but viewings are believed to predate much of human history. Being able to view or visit the body can help solidify, understand, and adapt to a death of someone you know and love. Today, these services have become a common practice in many faiths, cultures, and communities worldwide.

Visitations and viewings are usually held at a funeral home, church, or chapel, but it is also possible for these events to be hosted in someone's home.

As an aside note, the body at these events is usually embalmed to help ensure a better presentation. However, this is not required by Canadian or U.S. law. In the case of a fairly quick cremation or burial thereafter, sometimes embalming is replaced by refrigeration.

(Note: Some U.S. states require embalming or refrigeration if the body is not buried or cremated within a certain time.)

A Viewing and visitation is similar to a wake, which involves a gathering before a funeral with the body present with a greater religious focus , although wakes are often less formal, especially when held at an individual's home.

What to expect at a viewing or visitation

Viewings and visitations can vary slightly, depending on where it is held. However, like other funeral services, the purpose is to gather in memory of the deceased person and there is often a focus on giving your condolences to the deceased's family.

For both services, the deceased person's family will often be in a designated area, such as a receiving area or standing in a receiving line. Visitors will line up and wait to give their condolences to the family.

Before joining the receiving line, it is common for there to be a guestbook for visitors to sign. This is meant to be a keepsake for the family to remember who attended the funeral. It is usually in a designated area, and sometimes there may be an attendant present to ensure guests sign their names. In most cases, you should not write anything other than your name or the name of your family members.

If there is a viewing or a viewing is combined with a visitation, it is common for there to be a designated viewing area that may or may not be separate from the receiving area or line. If they are in the same room, it is common for visitors to first go up to the casket to say their final goodbyes to the deceased before giving their condolences to the family. This may be the case for a closed casket service as well.

If the casket or urn is in a separate room, visitors will often go through the receiving line first, and then they will have the option to go into the viewing room. Guests are not required to go up to the body or visit the viewing room if they feel uncomfortable doing so. Additionally, having a casket or urn present is not required for a visitation. Therefore, it may simply consist of a receiving line or area.

After the receiving line, it is not uncommon for there to be a small seating area for visitors to speak with each other, reminisce about the deceased person, or say a prayer, etc.

How long you are expected to stay at a visitation or viewing

How long you are expected to stay at a visitation or viewing depends on the number of guests attending. Typically most visitors stay an average of 10 to 20 minutes. Most viewings or visitations use a drop-in style, so each guest has no set time limit. However, during the 2020-2022 pandemic, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, booking a time slot was sometimes required.

In terms of bringing a gift, guests are not expected or required to do so. However, common gifts include flowers or donations (to the family or charities or causes significant to the deceased person).

What to say at a viewing or visitation

Funerals are difficult for many people, so knowing what to say can sometimes be challenging. When choosing your words, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Saying anything is better than saying nothing.
  • Keep things general. (e.g., "I'm sorry for your loss" or "I am here for you").
  • Avoid cliches and explanations (e.g., "Everything happens for a reason").
  • Avoid religious-based comments or references, as this may offend or come across as ingenuine to people who are not religious or are part of a different religious affiliation.
  • Offer support or help.
  • Don't make it about you.
  • Don't tell someone how to feel or act (e.g., "stay strong" or "don't cry").
  • If you are unsure of what to say, just listen.

Viewing or visitation etiquette

An expectation of guests of a viewing or visitation is that they will not spend too much time giving their condolences to the family, as this will hold up the receiving line. There is no set time limit, but conversation with the people in the line should be minimal, especially when there is a larger line. This does not mean you cannot talk or reminisce for longer periods with the deceased person's family afterward. Still, receiving lines are reserved more for quick and brief condolences and sentiments.

It is also essential to be respectful to the family and other visitors. Therefore, it is best to avoid engaging in loud conversations, being overly rowdy, and laughing (unless appropriate).  

What to wear to a visitation or viewing

Viewings and visitations are usually formal events, so guests will usually be expected to wear formal and modest attire.

For women, this can include things such as dresses, dress pants, blouses, etc. For men, this can consist of suits, collared shirts, ties, etc. Children should follow a similar dress code, but younger children can be dressed in slightly more informal clothes.

In most cases, black-coloured clothing is viewed as the ideal choice. However, other darker colours such as browns, grays, and dark blues are acceptable. It is best to avoid bright colours such as greens, reds, pinks, yellows, etc.

Style expectations may vary depending on location or the type of family holding the services. However, it is safe to assume that wearing dark-coloured, formal attire is expected unless instructed otherwise for visitations and viewings. You can learn more about what to wear to a funeral in this article: What to wear to a funeral.

Learn about funeral events

Want to learn about funeral ceremonies, services and memorials: See our helpful guide.

Have a question?

Ask our experts at Eirene Cremations. Email us at support@eirene.ca or use our contact page. Need to make arrangements? Click here.