I have attended two funerals in the last few months. There were similarities, but both were remarkably different. They each reflected the person whose life we were commemorating.
Funerals are an important part of most cultures around the world. When someone close to us passes away, we often rearrange our whole schedule so we can attend their funeral. People travel across state boundaries, sometimes even internationally.
But someone — usually the next of kin — has to plan that funeral. This can be a difficult task that requires you to make a lot of decisions about everything from the speakers to the food, but one of the early questions that comes is usually, when?
How long after someone dies should you have the funeral?
Most funerals in the United States happen within a week of death, but this can stretch up to two weeks if embalming is involved.
This isn't a hard rule, but the timeline of funerals is generally compressed due to the decomposition of the body. For example, if you are planning on cremating and don't care to have an open-casket funeral, then there isn't really a timeline. But if you do want people to be able to see the person, then you will need to put things together within a few days. You can ask the funeral director you're working with for specific recommendations as well.
As far as a specific day to pick, that depends on individual factors including who can be there and when.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Question 1: Does the deceased have any requests?
Over the past few years, more people are starting to plan their funerals before they pass away. Some funeral homes even offer “funeral insurance,” which allows a person to plan and pay for their whole funeral before they die. On a smaller scale, people sometimes discuss their wishes regarding their funeral before passing away or leave instructions in their will.
If you are aware of any such requests, honor them to the extent possible. The schedules of attendees or the funeral home might make this difficult. But if the deceased requested that their funeral be held on a certain day, do what you can to make that work.
Question 2: Who can be there?
The funeral is as much for the people that attend as it is for the person who passed away, if not more. Attending a funeral can sometimes bring catharsis and peace to the deceased’s loved ones. Even though funerals aren’t usually fun occasions, people generally wish to attend the funerals of people they care about.
As you plan the funeral service, there will be certain family members, friends, or ecclesiastical leaders who will need to or want to be there. Unless the deceased specifically recommended a small funeral, you’ll want to plan the funeral for the date and time that the greatest number of people that want to attend can. For this reason, many funeral services are held on weekends.
Question 3: Will the deceased be embalmed? And will it be an open-casket funeral?
Okay, this is actually two questions. But they’re very closely connected, so it made sense to lump them together. What I say here about open-casket funerals is also true of viewings of any sort.
Embalming is the process of getting a body ready for burial. It goes without saying that when we die, our bodies start to decay. Embalming doesn’t stop decomposition, but it can slow that process. If the deceased will be embalmed, their body can be kept at the funeral home for up to a few weeks before burial. But even if the deceased is embalmed, if there will be an open-casket funeral, it should occur within seven days of the person’s death.
But embalming a body adds to the cost of their burial. Some people opt out of embalming because they simply can’t afford it. Others opt out of embalming for personal or religious reasons. Regardless of the reason, if you (or the deceased) want to hold an open-casket funeral and don’t plan on embalming the body, the funeral should be held within three days of a person’s passing.
Question 4: Will the body be cremated?
Whether the deceased is cremated only affects when the funeral will be held if there will be an open-casket funeral. Typically, when a body is cremated, it is not embalmed. If the deceased will be cremated and you would like an open-casket funeral, you should schedule it within three days of their passing.
If you’re not planning an open-casket funeral, the timing is much less important. The body can be cremated on the normal schedule, and then you can hold the funeral for whenever is convenient for the family or according to the wishes of the deceased.
Question 5: Is there a reason to delay the funeral?
Every funeral is unique and the circumstances are different. The circumstances of a particular funeral might necessitate that the service be held later than is typical. Here’s a list of common reasons you may have to delay the funeral:
- People who want to attend, can’t. As mentioned earlier, people often rearrange their schedules so they can make it to a funeral. If there are certain people who want to be there, it may be worth delaying the funeral by a few days. That being said, COVID-19 opened our eyes to virtual events. If the person who can’t attend isn’t speaking or otherwise taking part in the service, you can always invite them to join virtually.
- It conflicts with other events. Sometimes, the logical time to hold the funeral is the same day as a family member’s graduation, anniversary, or other planned event. To avoid associating sad memories with what are usually happy occasions, you may want to push the funeral back a day or two.
- The body is needed for an investigation. This is rare, but sometimes, the deceased’s body is needed for an ongoing investigation. If this is the case, the funeral can’t be held until the body is returned to the next of kin’s custody.
- Availability and cost of the venue. Sometimes, the availability of the venue (often a chapel) where the funeral will take place can affect when a funeral can be held. Another factor to consider is that if you’re planning the funeral on a tight budget, weekday services are often less expensive than weekend services.
Keep in mind that even if you choose to hold an open-casket funeral, it will still be beneficial to hold it within a week of a person’s passing.
Common Questions about Planning a Funeral
How long after death is cremation?
Cremation usually happens within a few days of death, but it can be delayed if there are plans for an open-casket funeral. Certain states have laws detailing a cremation is allowed, but it generally happens quickly.
Is cremation before or after a funeral?
Both happen. If cremation happens before, then the funeral won't include the body. If it happens afterward, then the funeral will include the body. There is no wrong choice here — it is up to the families.
What day are funerals held on?
Any day of the week is fine, but just like weddings and other large family gatherings, Saturdays are the most popular days since fewer people have to take off of work.
How long after death is a wake?
A wake, also known as a viewing or a visitation, usually happens the day or evening before the funeral. Wakes are typically less formal, less structured, and are a sort of open period where anyone who knew the deceased can drop by and offer condolences to the family. Funerals follow a stricter timeline and also tend to be more intimate experiences between close families and friends.
First, think about the deceased’s thoughts and wishes about their own funeral. Then consider the people who can and want to attend. Plan according to whether there will be an open-casket funeral or viewing and whether the deceased’s body will be cremated. Then factor in any reasons why you might need to delay.
As you make your many decisions about the funeral and start down the long road of probate, remember that the funeral is about people. It’s about celebrating someone’s life, and ultimately, about grieving and remembering together.