Open casket funerals in the UK - everything you need to know
The phrase ‘open casket funeral’ might elicit a shudder from many people in the UK these days, however, this tradition was once common here and still is in North America.
In this article, we will take a look at the origins of open casket funerals in the UK, the etiquette of attending one, their religious significance and the cultures in which they are still popular.
And remember, if you are looking for guidance in any aspect of arranging a funeral in the UK, you can contact us anytime for impartial advice and non-binding quotes - with no hidden costs, ever.
What exactly is an open casket funeral?
The concept is simple - the coffin is left open and on display during the funeral, so that mourners can pay their respects directly to the deceased.
For some people, coming face-to-face with death is an uncomfortable experience, some even find it ghoulish. For others, however, the opportunity of a final farewell with their loved one can bring immense comfort.
Many crematoriums in the UK no longer permit open casket/coffin services. Churches may allow them at the sole discretion of the highest ranking Priest or Minister of the church, or the minister who is conducting the service.
The origins of open casket funerals in the UK
The popularity of open casket funerals in the UK arguably peaked in Victorian times, before declining in the 20th century. Their origins, however, lie further back in history.They are perhaps most closely connected to the vigil or wake (not to be confused with the modern funeral wake, which we now take to mean the social gathering that comes after the formal funeral service).
In this tradition dating back to Anglo-Saxon Britain, the bodies of the deceased would be displayed in the homes of their family before burial. During this often days-long period, family members would stand watch over the body in constant vigil.
A practical interpretation of this is that it allowed mourners from further afield to make the journey in time for the burial, but superstition was also at the root of the custom. In these bygone times, people feared evil spirits and bodysnatchers - and so guarded the body against these threats.
Nonetheless, something that was carried on from this early tradition, was the concept that the death of one person was a loss to the whole community. With the body resting on view before burial, members of the wider community were able to come and pay their respects, mourning ‘one of their own’ who had enriched their lives and that of their town or village.
Today, although many crematoria no longer allow open casket services, we see the tradition live on through open casket viewings in private. For public health reasons, however, they are usually held in the chapel of rest at the funeral director’s offices, rather than in the homes of the bereaved.
What happens at an open casket funeral?
During an open casket funeral, a series of solemn rituals take place to honour the departed.
Usually, the coffin will be at the front of the room that the service is taking place in. The lid will be propped open. Mourners are free to approach the deceased to say a final goodbye and pay their respects. Sometimes the opening of the coffin lid by the funeral director symbolises the beginning of the ceremony, marking a moment of transition and remembrance.
The service will proceed as normal, but the coffin will be closed at the end of it, before burial, or before the processional if it is a Catholic funeral. Again, the act of closing the coffin lid is highly symbolic, marking the passage from this world to the next.
What is a viewing and how is this different to an open casket funeral?
Although open casket funerals are less popular than they once were, it is still common for the funeral director to arrange a viewing of your loved one before the funeral. This is usually in the chapel of rest, a private room at the funeral director’s premises where close family can gather to see their loved one for a final goodbye.
This is different to an open casket funeral, in that you can have a viewing and see the body in private but then have a closed casket funeral service. Many people can find seeing the deceased in the chapel of rest helpful to the grieving process in the long term, despite it being potentially upsetting in the moment.
How is the body prepared for an open casket funeral?
There are some notable differences in the treatment of the body when it is prepared for an open casket funeral. The body must be prepared so that mourners are not shocked by the appearance of their loved one. Funeral home staff will employ the following procedures to ensure the deceased is presented in a dignified, respectful manner.
Embalming - The body must be embalmed for an open casket funeral. Natural decomposition begins soon after death, this must be allayed for obvious reasons.
Dressing - The body must be dressed to present a dignified appearance for an open casket funeral. For example, a smart suit or dress, perhaps even a favourite outfit of the deceased. This may even have been specified by them before they died. Sometimes clothes need to be altered due to changes in the deceased’s appearance and weight due to illness or cause of death. Clothing must be loose-fitting to allow for swelling after death and the body being made fragile by embalming. Sometimes a funeral gown is chosen for this reason.
Hair and makeup - The funeral home staff will usually request photographs of your loved one so that they can recreate their hairstyle and complexion in the best way they can. Skilled makeup and reconstruction artists will attempt to disguise any injuries so that their appearance is less upsetting to mourners.
Etiquette at an open casket funeral:
If you are attending an open casket funeral in the UK, you will no doubt understand the solemnity of the occasion, but here are some important things to know and remember.
What should I do at an open casket funeral viewing?
- Ready yourself for the viewing and wait until the person in front of you has paid their respects before approaching the coffin.
- Pay your respects to the deceased in the way you want to, making sure to be calm and respectful. A few quiet words to yourself or out loud, for example, or a prayer if you are religious.
- If people are waiting behind you, don’t linger longer than is reasonable - a few minutes - as others will want to pay their respects too.
What not to do at an open casket funeral
It goes without saying that any funeral is a sombre occasion where respectful behaviour is a must. However, many people are unfamiliar with open casket funerals and may be nervous about things to avoid doing.
- Don’t make upsetting and negative remarks about the appearance of the deceased.
- Do not do anything to disturb the body in the coffin or place any items into the coffin unless you have the permission of the family to do so.
- Don’t chat or jostle in the line to see the body.
- Keep food and drink well away from the coffin.
- Don’t take selfies with the deceased. If you really want a photograph, ask the family.
Paying respects - do I have to look at the body?.
Mourners are invited to approach the open casket and pay their respects. It is entirely optional to stop and take a moment to look at the deceased. If you feel uncomfortable or prefer not to view the person, it is completely acceptable to walk by without doing so. Everyone copes with grief in their own way, and personal boundaries should be respected.
Which religions have open casket funerals?
Open casket funerals in Catholic Christianity
Although open casket funerals are not as common as they used to be in the UK, they do still take place. An open casket funeral in the UK is, however, most likely to be part of a Catholic funeral. This could be seen, in part, as a continuation of the Irish tradition of the vigil.
It should be noted, however, that an open casket funeral is not a requirement in the Catholic faith and depends purely on the preference of the deceased and their family. It is common these days for the coffin to be closed throughout the funeral, with a white shroud placed on top of it.
Even when there is to be a closed casket funeral service, it is not uncommon for family members to be able to view the body of their loved one at the funeral director’s premises before the funeral service and burial or cremation.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity - a tradition of open caskets
In Southeastern and Eastern European countries, where Orthodox Christianity is most common, it is traditional that funerals are conducted with open coffins. This is partly due to the belief that the bodies of the deceased are not mere objects to be ashamed of and hidden, but still holy. The body is viewed as a sacrifice to God, awaiting judgement or reward.
There are also certain funeral rites specific to the Orthodox Christian tradition that require the coffin to be open. One such rite is a prayer of absolution which is given for the deceased. A paper copy of this is then placed in the hands of the deceased by the priest.
Hindu funerals usually have open caskets
Hindu holy teaching calls for a swift burial without embalming, yet open casket funerals are central to the funeral rites of the faith.
Traditionally, the body of the deceased will be placed in a simple, open coffin with a garland of flowers or a necklace of wooden beads draped around their neck. Mourners are expected to view the body and pay their respects before quietly taking their seats for the rest of the ceremony.
Which religions forbid open caskets?
Some religions hold beliefs that are incompatible with open casket funerals.
Are open casket funerals allowed in Islam?
Sharia law teaches that embalming of the dead is not permitted (unless required by state law) and that Muslims should be buried as soon as possible, wrapped in a plain white shroud.
Therefore, an Islamic open casket funeral is very unlikely and those who follow the faith would find it unacceptable in most cases.
Does Judaism permit open casket funerals?
As in Islam, open casket funerals are forbidden by Judaism. The Talmud (the book of Jewish religious law) teaches that Jews should not look at the face of a dead person, to preserve their dignity.
Traditionally, Judaism calls for burial as quickly as possible after death and prohibits embalming. Judaism also states that a deceased body should not be seen again after being placed in its coffin. Any type of reconstructive work or invasive procedure post-death is again strongly forbidden (unless required by law) in Judaism.
Advantages of having an open casket funeral
Although an open casket funeral is not the most popular choice in the UK anymore, there are still many people who request one and find solace in the experience.
Some positives of open casket funerals.
- Gives grieving friends and family a chance to say a final goodbye. This is especially important in situations where the death is unexpected and mourners may not have had the chance to visit the deceased before their sad passing.
- A visual way to celebrate the life of your loved one. The deceased may be dressed in their favourite clothes, perhaps with poignant objects from their life placed in the coffin with them. This is a way to remember the person as they were in life - almost like a full colour, HD memory of them.
- Cultural or religious traditions may call for an open casket. As we have already learnt, Hindus almost always have open casket funerals, and it is also common for Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
A study into the psychology of viewing the bodies of our loved ones
In 2010, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted an extensive qualitative study into the effects of viewing the body of a relative after a traumatic death.
As harrowing as some of the findings of this report were, it gave a fascinating insight into the importance we as humans place on the bodies of our loved ones after their death.
- Some people did not want to see/identify the body because they were afraid of how it would look and wanted to remember the person as they were in life.
- Some people felt obliged or compelled to see the body, to make sure it really was their loved one.
- Others wanted to see the body to make sure it was being cared for.
The study concluded that:
- Many people did not feel that the body had lost its ‘social identity’ as a person dear to them. For this reason, they wanted to see it and to say goodbye.
- Those who opted to view the bodies of their loved ones often found it brought home the reality of death and was distressing at the time. However, when asked if they regretted having seen the body, very few respondents said they did.
- The study found that even after a traumatic death, the close relatives of the deceased should be given the chance to see the body and that those working with them in a professional context should be trained to be sensitive to their needs to retain a social connection with the body.
Why are open casket funerals no longer common in the UK?
Open casket funerals began to fall from popularity in the UK in the early 20th century. After the Victorian era, attitudes towards public health - and death - were starting to change. Increasing awareness of sanitation and disease control meant that wakes and viewings were less common in peoples’ homes.
The First World War, with its horrific number of casualties, was also perhaps a catalyst to the UK’s changing relationship with death and funerals. Millions of bodies of those killed in combat were never repatriated, which led to a growth in communal memorials as opposed to individual graves and funeral services.
Coupled with the UK’s transition into a largely secular society in the 20th century, many traditions around death and funerals borne from the Christian faith have become less popular each decade. Civil funerals, direct cremation and celebrations of life are all more popular choices for alternative funerals in the UK now.
Some other disadvantages to open casket funerals:
- Cost - Bodies must be embalmed and dressed for an open casket funeral, which costs more than a closed casket.
- Traumatic death - The bodies of those who have sadly died due to trauma in an accident, for example, will usually be unable to have an open casket funeral, at least without expensive reconstructive work.
- Upsetting for mourners - Many people will not want to see the dead body of someone they knew.
- Environmental impact - The chemicals used in the embalming process leach into the earth when the body is buried. More people are choosing eco burials these days.
So should I have an open casket funeral?
If you are in the sad position of having to arrange a funeral for a loved one, or are planning your own in advance, you may be considering whether to have an open or closed casket ceremony. In this case, it’s a good idea to talk frankly with your family and close friends to make an informed decision as to whether it is the right option or not.
As we have seen throughout this article, there are many positives and negatives to holding an open casket funeral. Many of these centre around the fact that human beings all have different opinions and emotions around death, and seeing the body of a loved one can be deeply upsetting for some, while comforting for others.
If you need any more assistance with any funeral needs, you can contact Fenix at any time to talk through the options available and find the perfect funeral plan.