Over My Dead Body, Part 2

Unless you follow a faith tradition that doesn’t permit the body to be present, should you include the remains of the deceased at the funeral?

I won’t mince words with my answer:  No.

Frankly I didn’t even consider this question until recently. However, I attended a grief workshop led by the knowledgeable and energetic Alan Wolfelt. He strongly advocated for the presence of the body at a funeral. Wolfelt’s viewpoint challenged my long-held beliefs.

Why have the body?

In today’s American culture, we are youth oriented, even youth obsessed. Hollywood actors aren’t alone as they nip and tuck their ways to a youthful appearance. In order to be the “stars” of their own life, many engage in crash diets, odd exercise regimes and a dose of botox to battle age. But resistance is futile . . . flesh inevitably reveals human limits and mortality.

Grief matters. When a loved one dies, ceremonies encourage emotional reactions to death. While everyone differs in how they handle death and bereavement, physically witnessing the body guarantees a response. It can be too easy to postpone mourning—or more broadly, to avoid all sad feelings—because most prefer non-stop happiness. Death is a miserable time for the living. Viewing a body bluntly invites the grief we mustn’t ignore.

A body is final. The presence of a loved one in a coffin will eliminate all doubts about what happened. While normal grief in the months (and years) after death may still include irrational thoughts (such as . . . don’t give Dad’s shoes away, he might come back and need them), the memory of seeing the body at the funeral will help anchor you in reality.

There are concerns about kids. Won’t a funeral traumatize them? Indeed, throughout my ministry, I’ve heard childhood horror stories. When young, some were forced to kiss a dead grandparent or place a favorite object in the casket. Whether touching the body or leaving a precious item, the experience can create unsettled memories. I suspect when certain parents don’t want a funeral to upset his or her child, they’re also expressing their fears. I further suspect many with bad funeral memories never had a chance to reflect about what it meant before the service, nor did they have any opportunities to share feelings afterwards. And so a funeral with that “unsettling” body didn’t include open-minded, life-affirming conversations with other grieving family members.

The good news:  let the body encourage honesty about illness and age, prompt healthy expressions of grief, serve as a reminder of life’s end and—perhaps most important—let it become a catalyst for compassionate discussions before, during and after a funeral.

But still, I’d never encourage anyone to have the body present. What do you think?

Next week . . . Part 3.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. The body is VERY important in a funeral service. Seeing the dead body is the ultimate way of beginning to realize that the one we love so dearly has died. When it comes to children, you have to ask them if they are comfortable. Explain to them what is going on.
    As for bad memories, funerals are supposed to be sad. Someone has died, and we as their loved ones miss them. A funeral is a safe place for people to share these sad thoughts together. Grief held back will only come out at some other time.

    • Kevin…

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you emphasizing the importance of checking in with children about their comfort level.

      As I noted in my reflections, I’ve recently struggled with my long-held belief that there’s no need for a body. The struggle continues, but I still think cremation is the best choice for me. In my experience, the body’s presence or absence won’t impact grief as much as the ways families/friends share with each other and how they support each other in the days and years after the death.

      I understand why people want the body present, and I’d support that request . . . especially if it was part of a family conversation and decision. I also recognize that some faith traditions demand the body’s presence, but even then I’d hope folks are “on the same page” about their deepest feelings.

      Though I’ve decided what I want, I hope no pastor or funeral director (or other “authority”) would tell a family what they must do. Ask them. Help them decide what’s best for them. I’m sure I often failed, but I try not to bring my agenda into a family’s needs and choices at this most precious time.

      Again, thanks for reading and responding Kevin!

      • Thank you for your response. If I may give you some advice to help you. I am currently studying to be a funeral director. I decided to enter this field after I was helped during my grandmother’s death. Seeing my grandmother in the casket made her death real for me, and I realized what I had truly lost.

        If I may give you some advice. If you choose cremation, allow for your family to come in and view your body before it goes to the crematory. This way, if they wish, they may have the option of seeing you one more time. I know from talking to my entire family that they were greatly helped by seeing my grandmother.

        • Thanks again, Kevin.

          I wish you well in your studies and career. I appreciate you sharing about how your experience helped you deal with your grandmother’s death and the grief which followed. It sounds like you have a loving, supportive family.

          Take care . . .

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