Open casket funerals are a tradition that has been around for centuries. However, unless you are a quintessentially American and a catholic by faith or somehow very closely associated with both, an open casket funeral can be confusing to attend.
Do you have plans to attend an open casket funeral? Or do you plan to oversee one such funeral as a last wish for a loved one? What is etiquette? Is prayer necessary?
This post answers the most common questions about open casket funerals, what to expect during such memorial events and the considerations that go with it.
What is an open casket funeral?
As the name implies, an open casket funeral is one where the casket is left open so that mourners attending can see the body after it has died. Typically, the upper part of the deceased body is the focal point and is visible, and the lower part is covered with a blanket.
However, an open casket where the entire body of the deceased is visible is also not uncommon.
The dead body is dressed up in regular clothing to make it look normal. In addition, the deceased's hair and makeup are also done to give them a life-like appearance. Most funeral homes are experts in embalming the deceased's body, so the person looked similar to when they were alive.
After the memorial service, the casket is closed, and a hearse takes it to the burial grounds or the cemetery where the deceased is buried.
What is the history behind open casket funerals?
Traditionally, a memorial service where the body of the deceased was kept open for viewing by the family and friends has been around for ages. In fact, this type of funeral predated human history and was a very common practice across cultures.
In the US, one of the most famous figures who was embalmed and had an open casket funeral was President Abraham Lincoln in the 1800s. This process of embalming the deceased's body before an open casket funeral is still practiced in funeral homes.
Why do people hold funerals with the open casket?
Open casket funerals are not for everyone. However, an open casket service has several purposes and significance, including:
According to religious traditions, viewing a person's body inside the casket marks the end of physical life and into a spiritual one.
The opportunity to be at a loved one's funeral and see the body with a life-like appearance brings closure to loved ones and family members. Open casket viewing provides an opportunity to pay the last respects to a loved one and say goodbye. Apart from the closure, family and friends get to say a prayer for their loved ones as they see the person's body as though they were alive.
Some school of thought says that an open casket funeral is a necessary step for grief therapy for the mourners as well as the funeral attendees.
In cases where the dead body needs to be transported to another location, embalming the body and putting it in an open casket is a legal requirement. An open casket helps the police to view the body. In addition, an open casket can also make it easy for the coroner to see the body later for forensic purposes.
Why should I choose an open casket funeral?
Deciding whether to choose an open or closed casket funeral is a personal choice, especially if you are talking about your own funeral. In this case, you can speak with a loved one or a funeral director about your wishes.
However, there are several reasons why choosing an open casket funeral might be necessary.
Fulfilling the desires of the deceased
While planning a funeral, one of the most important factors to consider is to honor the deceased's wishes. You can arrange the funeral with or without a funeral director, but if the person who died had a pre-planned funeral wish for an open or closed casket, it is only right to respect it.
Some religious traditions might require a funeral with an open or closed casket. For instance, most denominations in Christianity allow a funeral where the casket is open; however, this is prohibited in the Jewish community.
In some cultures, funeral attendees are expected to see the body of the deceased during a funeral, a wake, vigil, or a viewing ceremony.
Regardless of the societal norms, the deceased's wishes are paramount while consulting and planning for funeral services.
Are open caskets services more common than a closed-casket funeral?
Funerals with open caskets are pretty standard in the United States and other places like Canada. However, this type of funeral service is not very common in other parts of the world.
In the US, the rate of burials is also witnessing a decline due to the increase of people preferring cremations. According to the latest data by the National Funeral Directors Association, the percentage of burials versus cremation in the event of death in 2021 was 36.6% and 57.5%.
Compared to funeral services with closed caskets, saying goodbye in open caskets is still common. However, funeral trends have been changing in the last few years.
Do Americans prefer an open casket to a closed-casket funeral?
Choosing a funeral service with an open or closed casket is not an American obsession per se. Whether a person or family member decides to have a funeral service with an open or closed casket is a personal decision.
How much do open-casket funerals cost?
The NFDA or National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the median cost of funeral service with viewing or visitation in 2021 was $7,848. Compared to the rapid increase of inflation in the country, the cost of funerals is not as high. Nevertheless, funerals in the United States are by no means a cheap affair, and a funeral casket usually is the most expensive item at the funeral, the casket prices can go as high as tens of thousand dollars. You can easily check how much do caskets cost from your home or mobile device at any time.
Why do open-casket funerals show only half of the body?
The reason why open caskets show the top half of the deceased is because of the way the casket is constructed. Most casket manufacturers design the coffin to be opened only halfway, which is also the most preferred and popular casket design.
If the casket has a half-open construction, there is no way for a funeral home or a funeral director to change it to reveal the full length of the deceased's body.
There are, of course, full-open casket designs where the lid can be opened to show the entire body. If you prefer a full-open casket design, a funeral home can arrange them for you.
A casket with this feature comes at an additional cost, so talk to the funeral director or your casket provider in advance.
Where does open casket viewing take place?
Most open or closed casket viewing takes place in a funeral home. However, funeral service or viewing may also take place in private homes. The funeral location is a personal choice and depends on the deceased's family members.
What is the proper open casket funeral etiquette?
Funerals are, by nature, a very sad occasion, and common sense dictates the people attending it to be proper and respectful. This is in addition to having the appropriate clothing appropriate for a funeral service.
However, if you are going to a funeral where the casket will remain open, here are the best etiquette tips to follow:
Compose yourself before you walk up to the casket. However, no one will judge you for being emotional at the death of a loved one or a family. If, however, you don't feel comfortable seeing a loved one after their death, remain in your seat. There is no pressure to view the body of a deceased person, and you can still honor the dead from your seat or get closure.
Before you walk up to the open casket, make sure you and everyone in your group are not carrying any food or drinks.
Wait for the group or the person in front of you to leave the casket before you take your turn. You can take your time by the coffin of your loved one and say your final goodbye. However, if there is a line or several people are attending the funeral, try to keep it to a few minutes.
You can say a prayer or recite a poem or anything you want to share in the memory of the deceased.
Disturbing the deceased in the casket is considered very improper so try not to worry about it in any manner. In some cases, you can squeeze the hand or kiss the deceased's head in the casket. Ask the family first and be polite and gentle if you plan to do so.
If you wish to place a gift or a sentimental item in the casket, it is nice to get permission from family members.
Refrain from making comments or remarks about the deceased appearance. Regardless of how good a person looked when alive, they will look different at death.
Taking photographs of the deceased in the casket is not just rude; it is downright disrespectful.
After the closure and sealing of the casket, please do not attempt to open it no matter how much the deceased meant to you.
Can my children view the body of a loved one in an open casket?
Whether or not children should participate in the viewing, a vigil, or awake is up to the parents. Regardless of how close they were to a loved one, children do not have a full grasp of death, saying goodbye and the service – whether it is with an open or closed casket. On the other hand, younger children may feel scared about attending the service entirely.
Talking with the children about the death, funeral, and visitation beforehand is always a good idea. If the children feel uncomfortable in any way, it is best to leave them at home. If you decide to bring the children to the service, leave them in the care of trusted and loved ones before the adults walk up to the open casket.
What are the things to expect at visitation with open caskets?
Funerals, where the casket is half-open, can have a lot of things going on. If this is our first time at such a visitation, it might help to know what things to expect in advance.
Please expect the deceased body's appearance to look different from when they were alive.
Visitation to view the body of loved ones can trigger different levels of emotions, so expect to see a lot of other distressed individuals.
Despite the best efforts, something will inadvertently get dropped into the casket.
Someone might end up touching the body of the deceased, thereby disturbing the hair, makeup, or clothing.
Before planning an open casket funeral, what essential things do I need to know?
When a loved one dies, planning the final service in their memory is one of the hardest things in life. If the family member or a loved one could decide what they wanted at their funerals, it is much easier than facing sudden death.
Either way, it is not easy, so here are some helpful things while planning a final goodbye service after a loved one has died.
Decide whether the deceased body is suitable for an open casket or visitation. Despite the body being embalmed, some dead bodies, such as after a long illness, are best for closed casket viewing.
Bring the favorite outfit the person loved to wear before they died. This should include underwear, so they are fully dressed as when they are alive.
Coordination for the service is paramount, so you get everything in order, including the date, time, appointment with the clergy, and so on. This is important to inform the friends and family who are attending.
Before deciding on a casket, make a budget and stick with it.
Remember that you don't have to plan the final services alone. Take the help of family and friends. Don't hesitate to talk to the head of a funeral home if you don't have one. They are trained to help those mourning, so they understand and do their best to help you.