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The Etiquette of Visitations

The General Etiquette of Visitations

Is it OK to attend viewings, visitations, or funerals of those whom you didn’t know well? Yes. Unless the viewing or funeral is private, the family is open to receiving anyone who would like to pay their respects. If attending the visitation, briefly explain to the family member(s) you speak to how you knew the person. They’ll be honored you visited.

Do you have to send flowers? They’re expensive, and if you can’t afford them, it’s fine to attend without sending flowers. However, you should send a card within four weeks of the funeral.

If you do send flowers, where do you send them, and what name do you have the florist write on the outside of the envelope and as the greeting on the card? The outside of the little envelope that comes in the flowers is addressed to the name of the deceased as follows: “To the Funeral of Mrs. Jane Smith.”

For the card inside, it depends. Usually, it’s written as, “Dear Kevin and Family.” The name of the person listed (“Kevin”) would be the next of kin, which is usually the spouse.

If it’s for a child’s funeral, write, “Dear Sue, Kevin, and Kevin Jr.” (the parent(s) and surviving sibling(s), with the siblings listed by age, oldest to youngest). If you don’t know the siblings’ names or ages, don’t worry, since it’s a formality, not a necessity; your beautiful flowers will be welcomed; just list “and family.” However, often a quick look on social media, a phone call to the funeral home, or a search for the obituary on-line or in the newspaper will provide you with the information.

The family is asking for donations to be made to a charity instead of flowers, but I’d rather give flowers. Is that OK? It is good to honor the person in the way the family has chosen. So it’s best to give to the charity. There will be flowers at the funeral provided by family members. A nice gesture would be to send flowers several weeks after the funeral to the home of the person(s) you’re closest to along with a condolence card and/or letter. It will cheer them up and let them know you haven’t forgotten that they’re still grieving.

Do you send the flowers to the place of the visitation, to the funeral home, or to the location of the funeral? It depends on when the flowers are delivered. If they’re delivered in time for the visitation, then have them sent there. If not, have them sent to the funeral home, where staff will make sure they end up at the location of the funeral. If sent directly to the church where the funeral is taking place, there might be no one there to receive the flowers. Many smaller churches don’t have a regular schedule of staff on site.

The casket is open, and I don’t want to see the deceased. Do I have to approach the coffin? Not at all. At some point, family members will move away from the casket. You can chat with them at that time.

A family member has asked me to go with him to the front of the room to see the deceased. Should I try? If you can muster up the courage, you should try. However, share with the family member your concern graciously: “I apologize, but I don’t want to break down and draw attention to us, and I’m afraid I will. I’d prefer to stand here.” That should end his request. If he persists, give it a try. Walk away at any moment, saying, “It’s too much. I’m so sorry.”

May I take photos of the coffin regardless of whether it’s open or closed, and of the flowers and things? No. Nope. No way. In some cultures and some areas of the country, especially in the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, it was common for photos to be taken of the deceased in the coffin. That’s no longer the case. Don’t burden the family by asking them. Don’t sneak a photo(s).

If the next of kin of the deceased does ask for a photo to be taken, it should only be taken before or after the visitation when no guests are present. The photos must NEVER be shared on social media even privately because they’re too easy for someone else to share publicly.

Are conversations about the deceased OK? And are conversations about other things OK, too?  What if we share stories that bring back fond memories, and we laugh? That’s fine! You’ll want to speak quietly and not make a scene out of the laughter, but a visitation is a time when people who often haven’t seen each other in a long time are together again. There will be lots of hugs and laughter sprinkled among the tears. Just make sure you don’t argue politics, bring up old disappointments, or share negative stories of the deceased. And yes, you can talk about things other than the deceased. It’s a very good time for visitors to get caught up on the latest news about each other’s families.

I know I have to speak to the family, but I don’t know what to say. I’m nervous for fear of saying the wrong thing. Your fear is universal! Please don’t feel like you’re the only one who is trying hard to come up with the “right” words. There is no one-size-fits-all, but here are some guidelines:

~ The longer the waiting line is, the shorter the time you speak to them should be.

~ If they’re crying, a hug and “I’m so, so sorry for your loss. I miss him already, and I’ll always remember him.” are perfect.

~ Don’t inquire about the last moments of life, details/cause of the death, or mention suicide. Those are all personal details, none of which should concern anyone outside the immediate family.

~ These are commonly heard phrases that people who are grieving aren’t helped by hearing: “They’re in a better place.” “At least they’re not suffering.” “I can’t believe she would be so selfish to kill herself and leave you.” “Was he saved?” “You took care of him for so long, and now you can finally rest.” “I know how you feel.”

~ Any of us who have ever lost someone know that the place we want our loved one to be is with us. Heaven is beautiful, but for us at this time, Heaven could have waited to call our loved one home. The fact that the deceased now does not suffer doesn’t help, because we know they’d suffer if it meant they could stay with us. We might be tired, but right now we’d give up ever sleeping again to have the person back.

~ Asking about salvation is useless now, so don’t mention it.

~ Anyone who committed suicide died a tragic death, just as all deaths are tragic except when people die peacefully in their sleep at 90-plus years old. Don’t mention the suicide or anything about it.

~ Everyone grieves differently. We’ve all felt grief, but no one can know how someone else feels even if they’ve both lost a young child, a spouse, or a sibling. Now is their time, so don’t mention today that you’ve experienced a similar loss; you can do so in future conversations when it probably will be very helpful.

~ In general, if time allows, you want to say: how sorry you are for their loss; how much you’ll miss the deceased, mentioning a particular thing that you’ll miss; how you’re praying for the person/family (but only if you are); and a good memory you have of the person. If you didn’t know the person that well or there is a line waiting to speak to the family, pick just one or two of these things to mention. You can write the rest in a letter that you send to the relative you’re closest with as part of your condolence card. The words you write will mean so much more to that relative than those written by the professional greeting-card writer, even if yours are not as poetic.

May I bring my children, or should I get a sitter? Nursing infants can be brought. Leave the room at the first hint of the baby getting fussy, and sit in or near the back on an aisle so you can go with as little disturbance as possible. Toddlers and children should be left with a sitter because seeing an open casket can be upsetting. This etiquette applies for when a friend passes away, not a relative of the child. Special consideration is given to what’s best for the child. Usually, but not always, the child attends the funeral of a parent or sibling. It’s best to contact a child psychologist for a recommendation.

Leave your cell phone in your car. Truly, that’s the best place for it during both the visitation and the funeral. You won’t want to be seen even glancing at it during the visitation or funeral. Someone has just died. What’s more important than that?

If you have any questions please give us a call. (301) 349-2135. We are here 24/7 and more than happy to talk with you.

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