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Funeral procedures: dispelling the mystery

In our society, death is still surrounded in mystery, and people commonly avoid talking about death until they must. As a result, many people don't know what to expect the first time someone close to them dies. The unknown in such a case can add fear and anxiety to the burden of grief carried by the survivors of the deceased. The best remedy for that fear is to learn something about what happens from the time of death to the time of cremation or burial.

When death occurs

The events that take place immediately following a death will be determined by the circumstances surrounding the death. If your loved one should die in a hospital, for example, a doctor will be called to confirm the death, and hospital staff will ask for the name of your funeral director before calling the funeral home to arrange for transport of the body. Should the funeral home staff be delayed in responding to the hospital's call, the body may be moved to the hospital morgue, where it will remain until it is claimed.

When death occurs suddenly or unexpectedly outside of a medical setting, you should call 911. Emergency medical personnel will come to determine whether there is any hope of resuscitation, while a police officer will make sure there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death and approve the release of the body to the funeral home.

Following the death of a terminally ill or hospice patient, call the police and tell the dispatcher that this is not an emergency. That way, officers will arrive quietly, without sirens, to release the body. When you call the funeral director, funeral home staff will come to claim the body and carry it in a hearse to the funeral home.

Caring for the body

The funeral director's primary duty is to care for the body of the deceased, and that service may or may not include embalming, depending on the family's wishes. The purpose of embalming is to preserve the body and restore it to a more natural appearance for viewing, whether the body is to be buried or cremated. If refrigeration is available, the family may choose to forego embalming of the body.

Sometimes the family will opt for a closed casket rather than a viewing of the body, either because of personal preference or because the deceased suffered a traumatic death, or the family may request a direct burial or direct cremation. Embalming is unnecessary in such cases. Embalming is required, however, if the body will be shipped on an airline.

Grooming, hair styling, and dressing of the body follow embalming. The body will be fully dressed, typically with clothing from the deceased's own wardrobe, although clothing for burial may be purchased from the funeral home. Jewelry may also be placed on the body, as well as eyeglasses; the body may then be buried with these items, or the family may request that the funeral director remove them before the casket is closed for burial.

The funeral wake

When the body is ready for viewing, visitation can take place. The visitation, or wake, is a time when friends and family can pay their respects to the deceased, offer condolences to those closest to the deceased, and support each other in their grief. The wake typically takes place over a day or two between the death and the funeral and may or may not include a religious service.

For more information on what to expect at a wake, see After a death: what happens at a wake.

The funeral and burial

The funeral service may be conducted at the funeral home or a place of worship, or a simple graveside service may be held. These choices are entirely up to the family, and are usually dictated by cultural or religious customs. To learn more about funeral customs in different religious traditions, see Funeral etiquette: customs across cultures.

The family will choose six pallbearers to carry the casket from the funeral home or church to the hearse and from the hearse to the gravesite. The family may also choose any number of honorary pallbearers, who will also take part in the funeral procession.

At the cemetery, the casket will be placed on a lowering device that has been erected over the grave. A graveside service may be conducted whether or not a funeral service has been held elsewhere.

The lowering of the casket into the grave can be a time of heartbreaking emotion. For this reason, the family may choose to ask the funeral staff to lower the body after the guests have left. In other cases, the family may prefer to witness the lowering of the casket as a means of facing the reality of the death and obtaining closure.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.

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