My earliest recollection of attending a “wake” was going next door to console the family of my elderly neighbor who was “laid out” in the living room. Since I visited this woman daily to bring in her mail, run errands to the library, or listen to her stories, I found it comforting and natural that her wake was held at her house. As it was my first funeral experience, and a bit unusual, I am glad my parents took the time to explain the purpose of visiting a grieving family, how to speak to the bereaved and even grateful that they made me dress in my best clothing (Sunday best!). It would be another sixty years before I was to attend a wake in a private home. However unique it was, my first experience laid a good foundation for funeral etiquette.
Some people call it a “wake”, others a “viewing”, “calling hours” and still others use “visitation”. When the body is present and a mourner is attending to say one last good-bye to the deceased it is “a viewing”, when the body isn’t present, or someone didn’t know the deceased but wants to personally offer condolences to survivors, “calling hours” or “visitation” is used. The Irish brought the term “wake” to prominence. The Irish wake is a “last party” to celebrate the deceased; there is as much gaiety as sadness. As with any tradition assimilated in a new culture, elements of the Irish wake have found their way into the more the formal settings of visitation hours at a funeral home.
The physical setting of an event determines the rules, policies and procedures. Whether a gathering takes place in the church, a funeral home or a restaurant, the environment sets the guidelines. Visitation typically is held in a funeral home, although more recently there has been an opportunity for some families to use their church. Wherever funeral ceremonies are held, a participant’s behavior should reflect the tone of what is taking place and the decorum required at the venue.
Visitation periods in a funeral home have taken on a less melancholy tone. The days of wearing black clothing and piped-in dirge music have been replaced with favorite musical selections of the deceased and attire of many colors. Some norms remain unchanged, and some new ones need to be employed. The etiquette while waiting in line to console a bereaved family is more somber than waiting in line at McDonald’s for a hamburger. When attending any ceremony at a funeral home, one should follow the direction of the staff. It is never appropriate to be talking on your cell phone or drinking your favorite Dunkin brew as you wait in line or attend a ceremony. Lively or loud children should be lovingly guided to an appropriate area where their unbounded energy is not disruptive, and don’t forget to turn electronics to silent mode whenever someone is speaking publicly.
Honoring the decedent and comforting the survivors are considered sacred acts that require a dignity that signifies our full presence and attention.