In funeral services, a viewing (sometimes referred to as calling hours, reviewal, funeral visitation in the United States and Canada) is the time that the family and friends come to see the deceased after they have been prepared by a funeral home. It is generally recommended (however not necessary) that any body to be viewed be embalmed in order to create the best possible presentation of the deceased. A viewing may take place at the funeral parlor, in a family home or at a church or chapel prior to the actual funeral service. Some cultures, such as the Māori of New Zealand, often take the body to the marae or tribal community hall.
Viewing is sometimes combined with a service called a wake although in some places the term wake is interchangeable with viewing. Many authorities consider the viewing important to the grieving process as it gives a chance to say goodbye on a personal level. It can also make it easier to accept the reality of the death, which can often seem unreal especially in the industrial world where death is handled by professionals and the family may only know of a death through phone calls rather than experiencing it as it occurs.
Viewings are carried out in differing degrees by different cultures and religions. Approaches to viewings also depend on religious traditions and personal preference.
Ritualised behaviour in history, has been seen as seen as promoting and maintaining the emotional wellbeing of the individual as well as the social cohesion of the wider group. (Wass & Niemeyer, 2012). The process of viewing the body of the deceased is a ritual that is presumed to predate human history. Viewing the body is believed to be a fundamental part of coming to terms with the death of another human, across cultures throughout time. The primitive nature of viewing the body serves the most basic need to understand and adapt to the reality of death.
Although, in many parts of the world, viewings are seen to be declining in popularity, as death and dying become increasingly institutionalised. However, closed caskets, or no casket, is becoming a more standard practice today.
Early in the 20th century it was common to view the body after death, but today in the United Kingdom it is usual to have a closed casket for the funeral, and people may not see the body beforehand.
It has become a common practice among all religious faiths in America to display the body of the deceased as part of the funeral ritual or service. It is argued by authors, Maurice Lamm and Naftali Eskreis that ‘viewings’ are a custom of recent American origin and have no roots in ancient culture or contemporary European culture except for the "lying in state" of kings and emperors.
Reasons for viewings
In the book ‘Grave Matters’ by Mark Harris, it describes some people as finding viewings comforting, especially if the death was sudden, as it brings them to terms with their loss. Whilst, others find it uncomfortable, and choose not to have a viewing. An article published in 1966; ‘Viewing the remains: A new American custom’ by Maurice Lamm and Naftali Eskreis, viewing the corpse can be seen as paying one’s last respects to the deceased and a necessary aspect of “grief therapy”, which allows mourners to see the deceased as they would like to remember them.
According to Dr Therese A. Rando, in the book, ‘Complicated Grieving and Bereavement’, complications arise when a person chooses not to or is unable to view the body. Seeing the body assimilates the reality and allows the shock and denial to ease and allow for grieving to begin. However, this view has been challenged by authors such as Maurice Lamm and Naftali Eskreisdelay who point out that it may prolong the natural grieving process rather than provide comfort.
A 2012 study; ‘Family Members' Experiences with Viewing in the Wake of Sudden Death’, conducted by Christina Harrington and Bethany Sprowl, looked at the consequences that viewing the body after a traumatic death, has on bereaved relatives, and whether it should be encouraged. The study revealed that viewing the body ultimately cemented the reality of death, and although it was found to be shocking or distressing to family members, only few in the study said they regretted it. However, a 2010 study conducted by BMJ, revealed that following a traumatic death, causing disfigurement, professionals may be reluctant to allow viewing because as they fear that relatives will leave with unpleasant, uninvited memories.
In the text, ‘Complicated Grieving and Bereavement: Understanding and Treating People Experiencing Loss’, viewings can be seen as allowing for those mourning to move from a physically present relationship to a spiritual relationship based on memory. Furthermore, physically seeing the body marks the end of the physical in order to begin a new spiritual relationship.
However, in the 1966 article; ‘Viewing the remains: A new American custom’ from the Journal of Religion and Health, reveals that in some religions see the process of viewing the body of the deceased as disregarding the rights of the deceased and detracting from the religious significance placed on life and death.
In the article; ‘Viewing the body after bereavement due to a traumatic death: qualitative study in the UK’, the process of embalming is generally a legal requirement when transporting human remains long distances, which is common if the funeral and or viewing is to take place in another location. In some cases, the police officer or the coroner’s officer will observe a viewing again for forensic reasons.
A viewing usually takes place at the funeral parlour, however, can occur in a place of worship such as a church or at home. The location of the viewing is often determined by one’s culture and/or religion.
Types of Viewings
A viewing is when the body is on display and viewed by family and friends or in some cases the public, in order to commemorate the deceased.
A visitation, also known as visiting hours, is when friends and family congregate to remember and celebrate the person, and the body may or may not be present.
There is a lot of preparation that goes into a viewing, such as removing the body from the place of death such as the hospital or home and transporting it to a funeral establishment.
The body is embalmed through chemicals, which prevents the body from decaying and to allow the body to be transported to another location and or to allow for family and friends who live afar to say goodbye.
The body is dressed neatly and often covered with cosmetics to ensure the body is presented in the best possible way. The body is then placed in a casket which is either left open if it’s a viewing or closed if it is a visitation.
Most dominations in Christianity allow the body to be embalmed and viewed by loved ones. It is generally up to the family to decide whether they prefer to have a viewing or not, rather than that of the church.
Traditional Judaism law rejects viewings in the funeral process as one cannot and should not comfort the mourners while the dead lie before them, instead comfort and relief come after the funeral and burial.
According to Islamic law, the body should be buried as soon after death as possible, therefore, due to the urgency in which the body must be buried, there is no viewing.
In Hinduism, viewings are allowed, and usually take place before the cremation. The body is to be displayed in a simple casket.
Viewings are acceptable in Buddhism, and involve the deceased being washed, dressed in “everyday clothes” and placed in a simple casket. The viewing can last as long as the family desires. Since the 1940s, it has become more common for the coffin to be covered by a wooden lid.
Cultural views towards viewings
In traditional Maori culture, most bodies are embalmed before being taken to the local marae where family and friends gather to pay their respects. A visitation takes place at the marae where family and friends sing songs, share food and speeches and given to remember the deceased.
Christianity is the dominant religion in many Aboriginal communities; however, aspects of traditional Aboriginal beliefs are often maintained as well. Traditional medicines such as sage and sweet grass are burned to purify the dead and all those present. Visitations help family, friends and clan members let go of the spirit of the deceased and help the grieving family move from feelings of anger and disbelief to acceptance and peace. If the grieving cycle is not complete, a person may be emotionally and mentally wounded through life.
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