Headbloom Blog

Death and dying in America (Part 3)

Let me first note that the following observations are from my experience with funerals and funeral homes in mainstream Anglo-American culture in the Midwestern United States. There may well be differences in other U.S. regions or within other U.S. cultural groups. If you are unsure about events and behaviors around death and dying, it is best to ask an American friend or co-worker.

When Americans die, their families usually call a funeral home to take care of a number of arrangements.* While the arrangements can vary, the services usually include picking up the body from the house or hospital, preparing it for burial or cremation, and conducting a funeral service.

In the state of Michigan, if the body is not cremated or buried within 24 hours, it must be embalmed (where the blood is removed and preservative fluids are injected into the body). Because there are no national laws in this respect, mortuary laws will vary from state to state.

Usually the day after a death, the family of the deceased will publish an obituary (death notice) in the local newspaper. (In most newspapers, the family pays for this notice at a fee of so many dollars per line.) The obituary will typically have a photo of the deceased and information about his/her life statistics; this will usually include work, schooling, marriages, and names of survivors. Importantly, there will be information about funeral activities; this will include time(s) and location of visitation, the funeral or memorial services, and suggested beneficiaries of donations in memory of the deceased.

Visitation. Upon arriving at the funeral home for a visitation, the visitor will be directed to the room in which the family of the deceased will receive them. Usually, the deceased will be present in a casket, or if cremation has taken place, in an urn. Immediately upon entrance to the room, visitors will find a stand with a guest book, which should be signed with name and address of the visitor. (This will give the family a list from which to write thank-you notes.) The stand will also hold small cards with information about the deceased, which may be taken as a memento; the card will contain vital information about the deceased, dates of birth and death, and often an inspirational quotation from a religious text, a poet, or a philosopher.

Donations. The stand will also have small pre-addressed envelopes which are intended for voluntary donations from the visitors. The donations will be specified for a favorite charity of the deceased or his/her family (for example, a church or college, the American Cancer Society, or Habitat for Humanity). If the family has urgent financial needs, the donations may be specified for the support of the surviving family members or for college scholarships for the children of the deceased. Cash or checks may be sealed in the envelopes and left in a collection box, or donations may be mailed at a later time. (As with any charitable giving, these donations are tax deductible.)

Talking to the family. After taking care of the “paperwork” at the registration stand, visitors seek out the family members they wish to console. Family members may be emotionally strong and peaceful or may be in a deeply saddened state. No words are necessary other than, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Depending on how well you know the family members, you may shake their hand or offer a hug. Typically, family members will respond with, “Thanks for coming.” (Part 4 of this series will discuss other expressions of sympathy, including words of condolence, hand-written notes, flowers, and others.)

The viewing. If the deceased is present in a casket, the casket may be open or closed. If the casket is open, the visitors may wish to walk up to the casket to “pay one’s respects.” Standing at the side of the casket, visitors may look briefly or for an extended period at the deceased. Do not be alarmed if some family or friends touch, hold the hand of, or kiss the deceased; while this is not frequent, some visitors may do this as a fond, final act of farewell. If it is not a visitor’s custom to view the dead person, it is not necessary to “go up” to visit the casket. After viewing the deceased, visitors may remain a while longer in the visitation room and talk quietly with others, or they may leave.

Visitations are often held in the late afternoon or early evening to allow visitors the chance to come to the funeral home after work. Sometimes the funeral is held the following day. Attendance at both the visitation and the funeral is not required; much depends on the availability of the visitors. If the funeral is held the same day, it will be at the end of the visitation period. Visitors typically wear dress clothes to the funeral home; the usual color is black, but any dark or somber color is considered respectful.

Funerals are usually held at the funeral home or in a church. Funeral services at a funeral home may be religious in nature, or they may be secular. At a Christian service, a priest or minister will offer prayers and other religious words or readings about death and the deceased. When the funeral service is Protestant or secular, it is often accompanied by stories or comments about the deceased. Oftentimes, close friends or relatives are encouraged to stand up and speak about their fond memories of the deceased. These are times when the seated visitors likely laugh or cry along with the stories. (While tissues are always available at the funeral home, it is always a good idea to pack in few in a pocket or purse.) Because services are more ritualized and fixed in the Catholic tradition, there tends to be less individualization of the funeral mass.

If the body is to be cremated or buried after the service, the funeral concludes when agents of the funeral home and honored friends and relatives (called “pallbearers” ) carry the casket to the hearse waiting outside. Visitors are instructed whether there will be a procession of cars to follow the hearse to the cemetery if a burial is planned. Visitors may choose whether to join the funeral procession to the graveside. A meal is often hosted by the family after the funeral (or burial) at a nearby restaurant or in the church dining hall. Depending on time schedules and degree of closeness to the deceased, some people may attend only the funeral and not the burial or meal afterward. If you are unfamiliar with U.S. funeral customs, try to attend with an American friend or co-worker and follow his/her behavior.

*Note: There is a small but growing movement in the U.S. to have private consultants come to the home of the deceased to help the family prepare the body for burial (or cremation), handle legal paperwork, and conduct a private funeral outside of the funeral home industry, which they perceive as impersonal.

  • survivors/is survived by – Obituaries use this language to identify which family members are still alive.
  • visitation – a trip to the funeral home to “pay respect” to the deceased and his/her family
  • casket – sometimes called “coffin,” this is the wooden or metal box which holds the deceased person
  • funeral service – a Protestant Christian (or secular) ceremony where words of consolation are spoken prior to the cremation or burial
  • funeral mass – a Roman Catholic funeral service which follows a traditional order, including burning incense and sprinkling holy water
  • hearse – a long, black limousine which transports the body to the cemetery
  • funeral procession – the line of private vehicles which follows the hearse from the funeral to the cemetery
  • interment – burial at a cemetery
  • wake – the meal time following the funeral (and burial, if there is one)
  • urn – the container for the burnt remains from cremation (called “cremains” )

Alan Headbloom