Dead Thoughts, Part 1

Bunhill Fields

Will you have a funeral for your loved one?

With the body present?

Those are questions I’ve pondered since attending a grief workshop led by Dr. Alan Wolfelt a few years ago. Wolfelt is national expert on bereavement, a prodigious writer, and an enthusiastic speaker. He wrote a piece entitled, “Ten Freedoms for Creating a Meaningful Funeral.”

His #4 was:

While viewing the body is not appropriate for all cultures and faiths, many people find it helps them acknowledge the reality of the death. It also provides a way to say goodbye to the person who died. There are many benefits to viewings and open casket ceremonies; don’t let others tell you this practice is morbid or wrong.

Thomas Lynch agrees with Wolfelt. Lynch is a poet, best-selling author, and—likely the profession he places on his IRS forms—an undertaker. In a 2013 edition of the digital magazine Aeon, Lynch wrote:

Thus, on my short list of the essential elements of the good funeral, the presence of the dead is the first and definitive element. Memorial services, celebrations of life, or variations on these commemorative events – whether held sooner or later or at intervals or anniversaries, in a variety of locales – while useful socially for commemorating the dead and paying tribute to their memories, lack an essential manifest and function: the disposition of the dead. The option to dispose of the dead privately, through the agency of hirelings, however professional they might be, and however moving the memorial that follows, is an abdication of an essential undertaking and fundamental humanity.

I admire Wolfelt and Lynch. I also disagree with them.

But should I?

Is the body’s presence at the funeral—with the casket open and the body in plain view of the living—a “morbid or wrong” decision? Do we abdicate our “essential and fundamental humanity” when keeping the casket and its contents out of sight?

Since my 1977 ordination as a United Methodist pastor, I’ve never advocated for the body at the funeral. My early reluctance to include the casket, open or closed, primarily involved the costs for the grieving family and (to be blunt) a slight but real questioning of an undertaker’s motives. Even if the living made most of the decisions before the death, new guilt or old pride can prompt spouses or children to spend additional money on a better coffin or an elaborate service. And wouldn’t the undertaker make more money if “more” were done? A simple pine coffin is adequate, but a mahogany model makes a powerful statement about how much the deceased was truly loved.

Doesn’t it?

Now working in a hospice, I sometimes wonder: What are the most hopeful and helpful decisions for families to make as they walk along grief’s path? In the following two postings, I’ll advocate for and then against the presence of the body. I’ll also touch on the differences between funerals, celebrations of life, graveside services and other ceremonies. In the various ways we plan for (or ignore planning for) death, there are real costs.

Partly, there are the literal costs. The kind of casket you want is often about how much you can afford. Are you choosing cremation over burial because of the difference in prices?

But there are also emotional and spirituals “costs.”

When a family debates about the “best ways” to honor a loved one, the conflict won’t end when the body is in the ground. What if the deceased didn’t leave any instructions for their preferences? What if a daughter recalled the parent didn’t want “anything done” after the death? And what if her brother demanded there should be a coffin and a funeral and a graveside service? How will they decide? Who will “win?” Their differing views have the potential to create anger and estrangement that could last until the siblings die.

Or if a person doesn’t follow the long-standing guidelines of their faith, what will happen? Will they have guilt? Will fellow believers criticize and/or avoid them? For example, what if a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church wants a cremation (rather than the Orthodox tradition of a burial)? What will happen if a Muslim chooses to bury their loved one a week later (instead of the traditionally required twenty-four hours)?

Every person will make different choices for honoring the dead.

Whatever the choice, those decisions will influence our grief, and will have an impact on the rest of our days.

Caitlin Doughty, like Thomas Lynch, is a best-selling author and an undertaker. In her book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, she encouraged:

Insist on going to the cremation, insist on going to the burial. Insist on being involved, even if it is just brushing your mother’s hair as she lies in her casket. Insist on applying her favorite shade of lipstick, the one she wouldn’t dream of going to the grave without. Insist on cutting a small lock of her hair to place in a locket or a ring. Do not be afraid. These are human acts, acts of bravery and love in the face of death and loss.

Do not be afraid, Doughty says. What is involved with our decisions about funerals and the body? Fear? Love? The price tag? Family or religious expectations?

Next week: why viewing the body may be the best choice.

(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.)

Photo of Bunhill Fields in London, by David Jennings


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