The Value of Viewing the Body
Meeting the challenges that arise from social and technological change is important for furthering our abilities to cope in a modern society, and the last century has been a time when change has affected every aspect of living. Major changes have been especially pronounced in the relations of most people with the events of death, dying and grieving.
In previous times, death was both more frequent and more visible in its occurrence. Individuals died at younger ages, and infant mortality was higher. Consequently, the number of times a person encountered death in a lifetime was higher. Moreover, when death occurred, it took place in the home, where families and friends observed and became aware of the actual dying process. In America today, people die in hospitals and nursing homes, where family and friends have minimal contact and thus, minimal awareness of the feelings and events that accompany such an important part of living. Finally, in the past, when a person died, the family administered to the dead or at least spent time with the body, which was kept at home until the funeral. In contrast, today, the professional funeral director takes charge of the deceased's body and helps the family plan the funeral.
Attitudes towards death and rituals by which we mark death have changed because of changed relations to death. Many sectors of the public have rejected ceremonies because they no longer understand their importance. Others raise serious questions about their usefulness. The public must make decisions about death, grief and funerals, and since many do not have experience or good information, they can easily dismiss useful custom or rituals when such a decision is not in their best interest. One custom that generates controversy and is especially vulnerable if not explained to the public is the custom of viewing the body.
Responsible consideration of this problem must center on whether viewing the body is a custom with benefits to the family and friends of the deceased. Examination of the problem through study and observation shows that viewing the body is helpful to the family and friends because it helps the bereaved test the reality that this death has indeed occurred and provides the comfort and means of support as well.
Dr. Colin Murray Parkes defines grief as "a process of making psychologically real an event which is not desired and for which coping plans do not exist." In short, Parkes is saying that when a loved one dies, we find it most difficult to believe that death has happened. The process of grieving helps us accept and learn this reality. Early on, the bereaved are often shocked and numbed, refusing to believe. Even if they are able to say and realize intellectually that the death has occurred, it is difficult to fully accept the event emotionally. By seeing and even touching the deceased, we have a visual and tactile image of what the fact of death means. We know that being dead is different from being alive, and we know that the person we loved is truly dead, not simply "gone away".
A good example of this is provided by Mrs. A., who left her husband at home when she went to work one Tuesday morning. In the early afternoon, Mr. A. suffered a heart attack and died immediately. Mrs. A. made all of the necessary preparations at the funeral home for a complete funeral and visitation. During the evening of the first day and throughout the next day, Mrs. A. said she could not believe he was dead and concerned that even in the casket her husband might still be alive. She also concerned herself that Mr. A. would be alive while in the grave, allowing her conflicts to center on the fear of leaving him alive at the cemetery. At the visitation, Mrs. A. saw that her husband was indeed dead, going so far as to touch his lifeless body. Afterward at home again, she said she was relieved to see and touch him. She continued, "I now will not worry about him being alive in the grave because I know that the body I saw and touched is very different from the live and warm person I knew."
It is difficult to place a value on comfort. Mrs. D lost her son, who had been on life support equipment for three weeks. Throughout the period of suffering, she had remained at his bedside and watched as the machines kept him alive. She was pained as much by the loss as she was by watching the seeming agony her son was experiencing. At the viewing, she exclaimed many times that she did not want to lose him but was relieved that he was now at peace because he looked so peaceful.
In a small church in central Wisconsin, the question of the usefulness of viewing the body was raised by a woman participating in a course on death. After explaining some of the reasons that viewing is helpful, I looked up to see an elderly woman with her hand raised. Upon acknowledgment, Mrs. E. said that, many years before, she had cared for her eight year old son through a six month fight with cancer. The boy died after wasting away from the disease. Some 30 years later, the woman was still able to say, "I will always be grateful to the funeral director for making my son look human again. This type of comfort cannot be minimized.
People come together immediately after death to view the body of a loved family member or friend. In the process, they console one another and recall pleasant memories. Critics of viewing sometimes state that this is inappropriate and that the time of viewing becomes too much of a social occasion. Still, the bereaved need support from family and friends at the time of viewing to help soothe the pain and alleviate loneliness. Even recalling pleasant memories helps communicate the affection and caring that cannot always be stated. Besides this value, recalling pleasant memories offers a break from the intense anguish of the bereaved. The toll of grief is great; sustained intense grief is difficult on the survivor. Light moments offer some respite.
The bereaved need the help of others. Viewing the body in the presence of friends is a formalized way to ensure that such support will be given.
For many people, expressing feelings about death and grief informally is different. By its nature, a formal setting defines the reason for coming together and gives needed permission to discuss the event that gives rise to the gathering. Certain topics that would otherwise be difficult to discuss are more easily talked about in such a setting. Friends and relatives who do not get the chance to express their feelings at a visitation often report that it is awkward to bring up the situation later without feeling as though they were making the bereaved or themselves uncomfortable. Social support, which results from the coming together of like-minded persons at a time that is acceptable to discuss the death and express mutually held feelings, is a major reason for the custom of viewing at a visitation or funeral.
The value of viewing the body of the deceased is not commonly thought about topic, and when it is considered by the public, it is often dismissed as not worthwhile. Nevertheless, there is a value that can be explained. The funeral professional that has taken over the task of caring for the dead can offer himself or herself and the public a great service by making such information available.
Donald W. Steele, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist practicing in Middleboro, Massachusetts. In addition to individual counseling for grief and bereavement issues, Dr. Steele also works with individuals suffering from post traumatic stress and with the elderly and their families in nursing centers. Dr. Steele has been instrumental in founding hospice programs and is past director of the Center for Grief Counseling and Education. He has written about grief and bereavement for Dodge Magazine and has written pamphlets on overcoming grief, helping the bereaved and stress management. He speaks publicly for nurses, physicians and funeral homes.
This article was reprinted with permission of the Dodge Magazine