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Open casket

Ever thought about opting for an open casket at your funeral or experienced viewing one yourself?  It’s a popular choice in the USA, where viewings or wakes that take place a few days before a service are a standard part of funeral rites, but it’s not a very common sight in the UK and the rest of Europe.  It is usual in the UK for only very close relatives to view the body prior to the funeral, usually in a funeral home.

Open caskets have also been a popular choice for celebrities and statesmen with Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr all opting for them.  In some of these cases, only a close group of family and friends viewed the body as part of the funeral service.  However, others were ‘laid in state’ for several days and any member of the public could queue to view them.  Abraham Lincoln’s open casket was even taken by train on a two week tour across the United States, ensuring that whoever wished to pay their last respects could do so.  It was reported, for example, that over 150,000 people queued to see him in Philadelphia alone.

There are however certain religions who discourage or prohibit open coffins such as such as Judaism and Islam, where embalming is not allowed and consequently it’s practically not an option.   There are also situations where the cause of death is going to make an open casket a less likely option, or where any delay in releasing the body for funeral rites means the body will not be presentable.

If this is an option you are considering as part of your funeral plans, you may also want to think about the following:

  • An open casket is usually a more costly option as the funeral directors will need to spend more time embalming and preparing a body to be viewed.
  • Bodies are usually dressed so you might like to specify what you’d prefer to wear.  You can also give some guidance on how you would like your hair to be arranged.
  • If you are considering a casket flower display, it will need to be a ‘half casket’ display to allow it to be opened for viewing.
  • You will need to consider where and when you’d like the casket to be open for viewing.  For example, just for close family and friends prior to a service, at a viewing or wake possibly days before the funeral service or at the funeral service itself.
  • It’s important to think about how your friends and family might feel about viewing your body and who they might want to see it.  You might also want to consider asking them to make the final decisions to ensure that no distress is caused if you have sadly suffered a debilitating illness or lost hair through chemotherapy, for example.
  • It’s important to check whether the place you wish to open your casket would require authorisation for this.  Some will require paperwork to be filled out to confirm whether the person has died from an infectious disease or not, for example.
  • The difference between a casket and a coffin is their shape, the former being rectangular and the latter being hexagonal, fitting more to the shape of the body.  It is therefore the casket that tends to offer the option to have a section or full lid that opens.  This difference in shape and construction also means that open caskets tend to be more expensive.  As with coffins, there are many casket options available at different price levels.  For example, The Coffin Company has a wide range of open caskets to buy in the UK which range in price from just over £1,000 to an eye watering £24,995 for a model using bronze and gold similar to the casket used by James Brown and Michael Jackson.

You might also be anticipating viewing an open casket for the first time and be concerned about what the experience might be like.  Like many things, some people find it a comforting and helpful experience whereas other might find it distressing.  Be prepared that the body will not look quite as you might expect and remember there is no obligation to view it if you don’t wish to.  You might also like to arrange for someone to accompany you to provide support if needed.  The usual etiquette is for each individual mourner to say goodbye, pay their final respects and possibly say a silent prayer whilst viewing the open casket.  This, for many, provides a sense of closure. You might also like to read our article on alterative hearses.