10 U.S. Funeral Traditions Explained
by Taylor Evans February 11, 2022 4 min read
In early America, families typically held funerals at their homes. Communities had groups of women who came to help grieving families lay out the bodies of the deceased. The process began with a visitation at home before a procession to the church and the final resting place.
It was common practice for American families to care for their own dead until the 1800s. This tradition changed with the Civil War. While some traditions carry on, modern funeral traditions in the U.S. are different from the early days of America.
Here are 10 funeral traditions in the U.S. explained.
1. The Visitation or “Viewing” at a Funeral Home
At one time, Americans displayed the deceased’s body in their homes for friends and family to visit with before the burial.
Today, visitations or viewings are typically held at funeral homes. During the viewing, the decedent’s body is put on display in a casket. The casket may be opened or closed, depending on the family’s wishes. Those who attend the viewing are often asked to sign a book, which is kept by the survivors.
The mourning family may display photos of the decedent, their prized possessions or other items that represent the person’s accomplishments or hobbies.
Not every funeral will include a viewing service. Some families may prefer not to have a viewing. A Jewish funeral service will not include a viewing, nor will the body be displayed or embalmed.
2. The Funeral Service
A funeral or memorial service is typically held after the viewing. The service may include:
- Readings from sacred texts
- Sharing stories of the deceased
The clergy may provide words of comfort. While many American funeral services are religious in nature, they don’t have to be. Families can host celebrations of life or memorial services that do not include religious customs.
Generally, the funeral service provides loved ones with one last chance to stay good-bye to the decedent. The service may be held at the funeral home, a church or other place of worship. Families may wish to have a viewing at a funeral home and the service at the church.
3. The Burial Service
If the decedent wishes to be buried, a burial service may be held. This service may be held directly after the funeral service. In this case, the casket is carried by pallbearers from the church or funeral home to a hearse and the final resting place. This process is known as a funeral procession. Pallbearers are usually male and close relatives of the decedent.
Generally, the casket remains closed during the burial service. However, in some religious traditions, the coffin may be reopened one last time to give the family a final chance to see the body and say their good-byes.
Burial services are held at the gravesite, tomb or mausoleum, where the body will be laid to rest. If the decedent served in the military, military rites will be accorded.
4. Cremation is Becoming a New Tradition
While burials are still very common in the United States, cremation is quickly becoming the preferred option.
Final services can also be held for cremations. The traditional burial service may instead be held at the crematorium or the final resting place of the decedent’s urn. Urns may also be buried, or they may be placed in a mausoleum.
5. Gatherings Following the Funeral Service
Following funeral and/or burial services in the U.S., close relatives and friends often gather at the surviving family’s home or a separate location.
Food and drink are typically served at these gatherings. They give loved ones a chance to share memories and pay their respects to the survivors.
6. Eulogies, Hymns and Readings
Funeral and/or burial services often include readings from:
- Sacred texts
Family and friends may say a few words about the decedent. They may share memories or talk about the individual’s personality or accomplishments.
In certain religious denominations, such as Anglican or Roman Catholic, eulogies are discouraged or inappropriate.
7. Flowers and Personalized End-of-Life Items
Family and friends often send flowers for the viewing as well as the funeral service, although this custom may not be appropriate for funerals in certain religious traditions.
Additionally, survivors and close relatives may purchase personalized end-of-life items to remember the decedent. These may include personalized brass urns to display in the home or cremation jewelry that allows them to carry their loved one with them everywhere they go. Other family members may receive keepsake urns with just a small amount of ashes in them to remember their lost loved one.
8. Mourners Wear Black or Dark Colors
In the U.S. (and many other parts of the world), it is custom to wear black or dark colors to a funeral. Mourners typically dress formally, especially if services are held at a church.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, some families ask attendees to wear casual clothing, specific colors or bright colors. The style of clothing will be largely dependent on the family’s and decedent’s wishes.
9. Some Families Choose Private Funerals
A family may choose to have a private funeral for a number of reasons. It may be due to the circumstances of the individual’s death, personal preferences or for economic reasons. Some decedents do not wish to have a funeral service.
10. Family and Friends Bring Meals to the Grieving Family
In the days leading up to and after the funeral service, it’s common for close friends and family to bring meals to the survivors.
Every loss is devastating, regardless of the circumstances. Following the death of a loved, survivors must go through the difficult process of making funeral arrangements and grieving their loss. It can be a challenge to manage everyday tasks, like cooking. Meals are brought to survivors to ease this burden and allow them time to grieve.
Funereal traditions in the U.S. have evolved over time, moving from the home parlor to the funeral parlor. These traditions continue to change as more Americans choose cremation over burials.
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