Friday, January 15, 2010


I just got back from a visitation. I've never been to a visitation before; I don't think they're part of my subculture of whiteness or something. Maybe they're regional?

The visitation was for the mother of one of our staff members; while our faculty tends to be drawn from afar, our staff folks (except for those who are partnered with faculty or administrators) tend to be local people who grew up in the area. Most are helpful and do their jobs well, and they can help folks from elsewhere figure things out around here. This staff member, though, is exceptional, and though I don't know her well, she's helped me find my way through some faculty duties with great generosity and kindness.

I didn't stay long, and I didn't go look in the casket. It seems like a weird idea to have the only time I see someone be in her casket, you know? And mostly, I wanted to let the staff person feel a bit supported in a difficult time.

I guess it's better to say awkwardly that you're sorry for someone's loss than not to say anything, right?


  1. What you did is exactly the best support a coworker-type friend can give. I'm sure she appreciates your show of concern.

    The only visitation I've ever been to was for my father. My mom made me go. It was awful. I would go to support someone but, like you, would not look in the casket.

  2. Is a visitation different from a wake? Wakes in a funeral home were very common where I grew up (New York state), but it sounds like a visitation is in someone's home? In either case, it sounds like you did exactly the right thing.

  3. Adding my voice to the above - you did exactly the right thing in the way you chose to support your colleague.

    Funerals/visitations/shivas are never an easy time for anyone - so don't think that you were alone in your discomfort, either.


  4. How kind of you to go to the visitation.

    I'd never heard of them until moving to the South. Where I'm from, you can go to the mortuary and "view" and sign the guestbook for a couple of days before the funeral, but it's not like a "5-7 on Thursday" event.

    Here, however, a visitation is quite common. I'm still not sure why the family would want TWO events. I've been to a couple of these. There was a casket at one, but the other visitation was at the church itself, and the (closed) casket was in the sanctuary for the service, while the visitation was in the parlor next door.

    I've also heard them called "viewings." Maybe these are regional terms?

  5. Huh, it never occurred to me that this might be a regional custom! Terminal, where I am from, they are usually exactly a "5-7 on x night" thing- sometimes called "calling hours."

    In my region (and among my extended family), funerals and graveside services were private and solemn; for instance, I would hesitate to go to the funeral of someone I didn't know personally or was not related to. Wakes and calling hours were always more SOCIAL and informal.

    I didn't realize this as a kid, but wakes were always in the late afternoon or early evening, and funerals were often in the morning, so wakes gave (most) casual acquaintances the chance to pay their respects without having to take time off from work (if they worked during the day).

  6. You did the right thing exactly. The visitation (or "calling hours" as Ana said) is all about showing your respect and care for the person who survives the dead person whom you know. I've gone to more of these than I can count - it may well be that this is a Catholic thing? Whatever the case, you have nothing to worry about in terms of how you participated.

  7. I don't know if they are an exclusively Catholic thing, but visitations/wakes are definitely part of Catholic custom (but not required, I don't think, even if you're buried by the church). And they call them visitations even if they're at the funeral home, though they probably traditionally were in homes -- I don't know. I've only been to one as an adult, but IIRC, in the Catholic tradition the visitation/wake is for the personal remembrances and is a social/lay/non-ceremonial event run by the family, while the funeral is generally a funeral mass, and therefore formal and ceremonial and, obviously, run by the priest. And so the visitation is especially good for the deceased's non-Catholic family, friends, and colleagues, and can often be much bigger than the funeral. The one I went to was for my former brother-in-law, who was only in his 50s when he died and died in the town he grew up in, and so it was *huge*, while the mass the next day was much less attended.

  8. You did exactly the right thing in going. I didn't realize until I was widowed this fall how much the presence of others would mean to me, (or how much cards and letters would mean).

    My hunch is that the visitation/calling hours is both cultural (Catholic, for instance) and regional. There may also be class issues - my sense in my old church (Episcopal, not Catholic) in the northeast was that working class black families had calling hours, while the middle class families tended to have refreshments after the service where people shmoozed. I've been to several visitations, mostly with closed caskets.

  9. Thanks for the kind comments, everyone. I am glad I went. I know, especially from my Mom's experiences, how important it is for people to recognize one's loss and care.

    I've been to memorial services mostly, with a reception after. I've only been to one wakish thing, and that was when a close friend was still alive but very, very ill, in preparation. (Weird, but also a wonderful time.)

  10. Anonymous9:56 PM

    ditto terminal degree, never heard of one before moving to the south.