What Is a Visitation? What to Know Before Attending

Published August 3, 2020
Visitation at a funeral home

A visitation for a funeral has certain etiquette expectations. It's easy to learn what you need to know before attending.

What Is a Visitation and Who Should Attend?

A visitation is a time when you pay your respects to the grieving family of the deceased. Depending on region and religion, this event may be held at the funeral home, a church, or the deceased's family home. The most common setting for a visitation is the funeral home. Anyone who knew the deceased or is a friend of the family will want to attend the visitation.

When Is a Visitation Held?

The visitation is typically held the day or night before the funeral. In some instances, the visitation may be scheduled just before the funeral takes place.

Funeral Visitation Etiquette and What Happens at a Visitation

During the visitation, the grieving family is seated in a receiving area or stands in a receiving line. Visitors line up and wait their turn to offer their condolences to the family.

Sign the Guestbook

There is a guestbook either on a podium with a floral arrangement beside it or on a table covered with a tablecloth, a lamp, and floral arrangement. There is often an attendant standing by the podium or table to ensure everyone present signs the guest book for the family. There is a pen for you to use.

Guestbook at funeral visitation

How Should You Sign the Guestbook?

If you are with a spouse, one of you can sign your names as Jon and Silvia Jones or you can sign your name separately. The guestbook is a keepsake for the family so they can look back to see who all was in attendance since they may not recall due to their emotional state. You should not write anything other than your name. If the deceased was a public figure and well known, the guestbook may provide an area for you to enter your city and state.

How Long Are You Supposed to Stay at a Visitation?

There is no set time limit for how long you should stay at a visitation. The average time is between 10 to 20 minutes. Most visitations are a drop-in structure between a set timeframe. Depending on your personal schedule, it is perfectly acceptable to speak to each family member and then leave.

Etiquette for Long Lines at a Visitation

When there is an usually large turnout of people wishing to pay their respects, you should limit your time with the family. In the case of a receiving line, you shouldn't take up too much of the family's time and be mindful of others waiting to offer their condolences.

  1. Identify yourself to the family if they don't know who you are.
  2. State your relationship to their loved one, such as a coworker.
  3. Offer brief condolences and add something personal about the deceased, such as, "She was an amazing person," or "I really admired him."
  4. Finish by offering them to call on you should they need anything.
  5. You should then move on so the family can receive other visitors.

What to Say at a Visitation

One of the topics you can safely discuss at a visitation are your memories of the deceased. You only want to share positive stories/memories that are appropriate for the setting. It's best to choose the story you wish to share before you arrive so there are no slipups that could stress the family. Keep it light and make sure the story puts the deceased in a good light.

Avoid Laughter and Being Boisterous

Maintain a serious decorum even when sharing stories about the deceased. Being boisterous or engaging in loud laughter is inappropriate behavior in the presence of a grieving family. They will view your behavior as being disrespectful to their loved one. The time for that type of behavior is at a celebration of life party or other type of sendoff.

Close Relationship to Grieving Family

If you are a close friend of the grieving family, your presence may be needed to support them emotionally. You'll quickly know if you should hang back and stay with the family instead of zipping through the receiving line. A family member may ask you to stay or may have prearranged for you to sit with the family. You should be accommodating to whatever the family requires of you, since the smallest gesture can have a significant impact on their emotional state of being.

Keeping Your Composure

If you choose to remain throughout the visitation to support the family, then you need to be the rock they can lean on. You will need to keep your emotions in check. Allow them to express their thoughts and emotions. It is all about them, and you are there to offer support.

Offer to Help Prior to Visitation

If you know the family well, you can offer to help them with the visitation, especially if they are holding it at home. You may offer to oversee the guestbook, stand in attendance at the casket or urn, or oversee refreshments, if offered.

What to Wear to a Visitation?

Depending on your region and traditions, the visitation is either formal or informal. This means the accepted attire is church attire or business attire for a formal visitation and casual attire is accepted for an informal visitation.

Appropriate Attire for Any Type of Visitation

If you're uncertain about what to wear, it's always a safe bet to wear business or church attire. While you aren't limited to gray, brown, navy blue, or black colors for your clothing, they are recognized as conservative traditional funeral related attire. You aren't restricted to these colors, but you should avoid wearing anything considered flamboyant. By dressing appropriately for the somberness of the occasion, you will show the proper respect to the grieving family.

Business attire for visitation

What to Bring to a Visitation

Depending on your region and religion, it may not be appropriate to take anything to the visitation. In some regions, you are expected to send flowers prior to the visitation so they can be put on display for family and friends to see and read the cards. Families find this gesture comforting, and the floral arrangement are moved from the visitation to the funeral service.

Gifting at a Visitation

In some cultures, regions, and religions it is acceptable to take a gift for the family during the visitation. If you're unsure, inquire at the funeral home or with whoever is hosting the visitation. Most traditions confine gifting to taking food to the family upon learning of the death. This is often done through church and other religious groups. Some families request donations to charities in lieu of sending flowers.

Viewing vs Visitation

A viewing can be held as a separate event or combined with a visitation. In many cases, when the viewing is combined with the visitation, the family sits in a separate room or area from the room or area where the casket or urn rests. If the room is large, the casket or urn is often set at the end of the room with a family friend standing beside it to greet visitors.

Viewing Visitation Combination

When the viewing and visitation are held together, the viewing area may have seating for you to spend a little time in prayer. It may be arranged so you walk from the family receiving area into the viewing room.

No Obligation to Participate in a Viewing

You do not have to view the casket. Many people are uncomfortable viewing the body of someone knew or loved. You can simply avoid going into the viewing room or area, and no one will find it insulting.

Casket for Viewing

A casket will either be open or closed, depending on the family's wishes. When it is a closed casket a portrait of the deceased is displayed either on a nearby table or easel. Floral arrangements are placed around the casket.

What Is a Memorial Visitation?

If the deceased is cremated, then the family may opt to have a memorial visitation. This gathering may or may not display the cremation urn the same way a casket is displayed with a viewing visitation. If the urn is displayed, then it will be surrounded by floral arrangements, and the family will be seated or standing in a receiving line nearby.

Should I Go to the Funeral or Visitation?

You can certainly go to the visitation and funeral or choose to go to just one. Some people who aren't able to take off from work to attend a weekday funeral find the visitation a good way to show their respect to the family. Some families have a closed visitation that exclude anyone not in the family. In such an instance, you'll want to make arrangements to attend the funeral or to stop by to visit with the family within a day or two of the funeral.

Understanding What a Visitation Is and What to Expect

Once you understand the mechanics of a visitation, you have an idea what to expect. More importantly, you realize your role and what the family of the deceased will expect of you.

What Is a Visitation? What to Know Before Attending