Funerals can be an important part of the mourning process for surviving family and friends. They are a time to celebrate the person's life, share memories and provide and receive support. Each culture, religion and spiritual group have their own specific funeral rites and practices that prescribe how to remember or honor the deceased, as well as to help those left behind to cope with the grieving process. These rituals can be vastly different across groups.
Individual preferences also influence funerals. Even though many organized religions follow a formal funeral and burial, some people prefer to be cremated. Others find it helpful to create their own personal traditions and rituals. Some mourners find comfort in traditional rituals, while others may find them hollow. If you find yourself thinking that a formal ceremony is cliched and different than the personality or preferences of the deceased, remember that such rituals are intended more for the benefit of the group of grieving mourners as a whole, than for the deceased, or for any individual mourner. It is important to think of the entire mourning family's needs while planning a funeral.
There are three general rites or rituals that are often scheduled following a death: a visitation, a funeral, and a burial/internment.
A visitation, also known as a "viewing" or "wake," involves placing the body of the deceased in a casket, and allowing family and friends to say a final goodbye to the physical body. Ceremonies can include closed or open caskets depending on the wishes of the deceased and the family, as well as the manner in which the death occurred.
The visitation often occurs at a funeral home or a church, but in some locations, visitations may occur at the home of the deceased or their relative. The visitation often occurs the night before or for a brief period before a funeral service begins. Regardless of the location, common rituals include signing a guest book; walking through a receiving line where family members greet guests and receive condolences; leaving sympathy cards; viewing a photo display board, video, history, or favorite items of the deceased; and sending/displaying flower arrangements from family and friends around the casket.
Not all religions and cultures hold a wake. For example, Jewish tradition includes an extended visiting period (traditionally one week) where family members "sit Shiva" (gather in a home) and invite family and friends to celebrate and mourn the deceased. Unlike a wake, however, the deceased person's body is not displayed during the Shiva period.
The funeral/memorial service typically includes prayers, readings from important faith texts (such as the Bible), songs, and a message from a spiritual leader about the meaning of death or its place in religious and/or spiritual beliefs of the deceased and the family. Sometimes a eulogy is given by close family members, friends, or spiritual leaders, which involves sharing memories, funny or inspiring stories, as well as reviewing the life, accomplishments, and relationships of the deceased. Typically a funeral will occur anywhere from three to five days after the death, but length of time varies due to medical circumstances and religious/cultural beliefs.
The burial service may occur directly after the funeral, or following a luncheon for family and friends, depending on circumstances and religious/cultural beliefs.
During this step, the body is transported to the cemetery or mausoleum where the priest, minister or other religious leader will say final words. Often, pallbearers (usually close family or friends) carry the casket from the house of worship to the hearse and then from the hearse to the grave site. Families may say some final words, and place flowers or sentimental items on the casket with a final touch and goodbye, or shovel/toss dirt on top of the casket. After family and friends depart the cemetery or mausoleum, staff members will inter (bury) or place the body in a vault.
Again, the above steps will vary depending on the religious and cultural beliefs of the deceased and the family. They also vary depending on whether the person has chosen a burial or a cremation. For those choosing a burial, decisions during the pre-funeral process include the type and style of casket, the location of the burial plot, the style of type and wording on a headstone, and maintenance contracts or agreements for the burial plot. For those choosing cremation, decisions include the type and style of the urn and the location of the urn, such as a mausoleum or with a family member.
Funerals can be very difficult and expensive events for the family to coordinate, particularly in cases where the deceased has not made his or her own funeral arrangements or set aside money to purchase necessary funeral items. The family must make many "on the spot" decisions about funeral items, some of which (such as the casket) can be very expensive. Even though families may not be thinking clearly at this point, they do have the right to "shop around" and purchase funeral items from different suppliers than the funeral home that is facilitating the services.