When it comes to funeral care, I know more than the average person. Yet, when my aunt passed away recently and the responsibility for coordinating her funeral fell to me, I was reminded there are some things you have to experience to appreciate. Each new experience, desirable or not, has something to teach us. In this blog I share how viewing your deceased loved one’s body can be meaningful.
I was fortunate that my aunt pre-planned and pre-paid her funeral, so most of the decisions about her service and burial had been determined. Since she asked me to officiate her funeral, she and I had the opportunity to talk about her philosophy of death and what afterlife care she wanted and expected. Still, carrying out a funeral, like any life celebration such as a baby-welcoming ceremony, wedding, or significant anniversary, involves countless details. In the case of a funeral many of these tasks are time-sensitive and done under the stress of deep emotional sadness. With funerals there are lots of errands, a great deal of paperwork, and copious communication tasks. Moreover, many people report the grief fog that overtakes their brain and the overpowering sadness of active mourning, can make the simplest task challenging.
One decision families face is, “Should I view my loved one’s body?” Serious consideration should be given to this question when there is immediate cremation with no public viewing planned. While I was aware my aunt had chosen direct cremation, she and I never gave thought to whether she opposed a private viewing by family members. Amid making final arrangements, signing the papers for the crematory and the death certificate, and planning for the service, the funeral director asked if I would be viewing her body.
I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to or even if I should, so I sought advice from a funeral director friend. He reported that he always encourages families to view the body, especially in a case like my aunt’s. She died at home unwitnessed, was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead, and then transported to the funeral home. No one who provided any of these services knew her personally. One basic reason to view her was to simply make sure the funeral home had the right person before releasing her for cremation. But my friend cited other reasons as well. The opportunity to say a private good-bye is a reason many families choose to view the deceased, especially when the death is unexpected. Often death doesn’t seem real and viewing the body can help us acknowledge the reality and begin the grieving process. Funeral directors I queried, overwhelmingly concurred that it is a more positive experience for families than they anticipated, and that most are glad they chose to view their deceased loved one.
Sometimes doing things we would rather not, opens us in ways we never could never have imagined. I certainly didn’t anticipate what a sacred moment viewing my aunt’s body would be. I was pleasantly surprised that:
….In the midst of the many practical tasks stressing me out, time with her body offered me deep peace. There was meaning in this task, it propelled me straight to the heart of my love for her. Other tasks were about just getting things done, this one involved loving her.
….Humans are both body and being. Though we love people in the body, viewing a body my aunt no longer needed, gave me an appreciation for her being.
….Rather than bringing closure to her life or our relationship, it opened me up. When I saw her, my heart moved to the place I would now know her, a new path opened for us.
….In these few minutes of being with her, I named and embraced my loss, finding calm in the chaos.
I am certainly not suggesting that in every situation, families should view the body of their deceased loved one. There are situations in which it may be impossible or a funeral director will advise against a private or public viewing. In these cases I would always leave it to the director’s discretion. I am recommending that when it involves cremation, there are many good reasons for viewing the body. At the very least this decision needs serious consideration.
In my case, viewing my aunt’s body was a good experience that gave meaning to the mundane duties of funeral preparation. It fortified me for other responsibilities such as creating the memorial video and writing her eulogy. As I viewed my aunt’s body, all the love I ever felt for this woman burst in my heart and I wasn’t sad, I was grateful. I prayed aloud, “Thank you God for all the ways this beautiful woman showed me your goodness.” With profound gratitude in my heart I was ready to face the million more things I needed to get done to make the celebration of her life as beautiful as she was.