Death often involves at least one ceremony and sometimes more. To sort out the details for yourself and your survivors, you might find it helpful to consider the types of services that can occur at the following times:

  • before burial or cremation
  • at the time of burial or when ashes are scattered or interred, or
  • after burial or cremation.

You may want a ceremony at each of these times—or at none of them. When you make your final arrangements document, you can leave instructions for each type of ceremony. If you don't want any services, the program allows you to say so. Or, if you have no preferences, you can indicate that and leave these decisions to your loved ones.

Ceremonies Before Burial or Cremation

Most people want at least one ceremony or gathering to be held before their remains are buried or cremated, even if it is a simple one. A wake or funeral is a way for your friends and family members to say goodbye to you, to comfort one another, and to grieve.

That said, there may be good reasons why this type of ceremony is not right for you. You may live far from most of your friends and family members, meaning they would have to drop everything and attend the ceremony at great personal cost. In these circumstances, many people opt not to have a large funeral but instead prefer a memorial ceremony— usually held days or weeks after the burial—that more people can attend. (You may of course request a small gathering before your burial or cremation, followed later by a larger memorial ceremony.)

If you do want one or more ceremonies to be held before your body is buried or cremated, it's a good idea to write down your wishes. The more details you arrange while you are alive, the fewer decisions will be left for your survivors at a time when decisions are likely to be hard for them to make.

Here is basic information about common types of services before burial or cremation, to help you make your plans.

Viewing, Visitation or Wake

A viewing, visitation, or wake is an opportunity for family and friends to view your body or to sit with you after you've died. For many, it is a quiet, meditative time. For others, it will be a time to gather with family and friends for remembering and honoring your life.

A viewing or visitation is commonly held in the viewing room of a funeral home or mortuary. However, you may wish to have it in another place, such as your home, a community hall, or a church. It all depends on your wishes and the options available to you.

Traditionally, a wake is a gathering characterized by both sadness and gaiety—a celebration of the life that has passed and a send-off to whatever comes next. A wake is often held in the home of the deceased person, but many mortuaries now offer their facilities and services for one- or two-day wakes. A wake can be an important part of the grieving process, giving family and friends an opportunity to come together and comfort each other.

If you want a viewing, visitation, or wake, you may wish to consider:

  • where and when the gathering should be held
  • who should be invited
  • whether you will have a casket and, if so, whether it should be open or closed, and
  • whether you want music, readings, certain types of food or drink, or other details for the gathering. (For wakes, there is of course no limit to the number of details you could specify. Some people have directed their loved ones to wear bright-colored clothing, bring their favorite pets, or read a favorite poem.)


A traditional funeral is a brief ceremony, most often held in a funeral home chapel or a church. The body is usually present, either in an open or a closed casket. Beyond that, there are no absolutes or requirements about what constitutes a funeral. If the deceased person adhered to a particular religion, funerals often include a brief mass, blessing or prayer service.

In some traditions, only family members attend the funeral, while friends and the general public are invited to attend other scheduled ceremonies. In other locales and traditions, this is reversed, and the funeral is the less private event.

Some concerns you may wish to address when planning a funeral are:

  • where the ceremony should be held
  • who should be invited
  • whether clergy should be invited to lead the ceremony or participate in it and specific names of clergy you would like
  • any music you would like played, along with the names of the musicians or singers you would like to perform it
  • preferences for a eulogy or other readings, and the name of the person or people you would like to speak
  • whether you want your body present at the ceremony or a picture displayed instead, and
  • whether you want to suggest that friends donate to a certain organization instead of sending flowers.

If you'd like family and friends to gather at a reception after your funeral, you may specify that as well. Aside from where the reception should be held, you may want to consider the following details:

  • who should be invited
  • what kind of food and beverages should be served, and
  • whether you want to request specific music, activities or entertainment for the gathering.

Burial, Interment, or Scattering Ceremonies

In addition to or instead of holding a ceremony before burial, it is common to hold a brief ceremony at the burial site at which a religious leader, relative or close friend says a few prayers or words of farewell.

This type of ceremony may also be appropriate after cremation, at the time your ashes are scattered or interred.

If this is something you want, and you have an idea of who should be there, who should speak and what they should say, describe those details.

Ceremonies After Burial or Cremation

Ceremonies after burial or cremation may range from a reception immediately following a burial or the scattering of ashes to a memorial ceremony held days, weeks, or even months after death. Memorial ceremonies may be held anywhere—a mortuary, a religious building, a home, outside, or even a restaurant.

Memorial ceremonies are more often the choice of those who wish to have an economic, simple commemoration. While funeral directors, grief counselors, or clergy members may be involved in memorial ceremonies, they are not the people to consult for objective advice.

Many will advocate that traditional funerals—often more costly and less personalized—are most effective in helping survivors through the mourning process. The truth is that most survivors are likely to take the greatest comfort in attending a ceremony that reflects the wishes and personality of the deceased person.

The details you may want to consider for a reception or memorial ceremony after burial or cremation are largely the same as those for wakes or funerals. For lists to jog your thinking, see "Ceremonies Before Burial or Cremation," above.