Dead Thoughts, Part 2

graveside service

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 a few years ago. However, after attending a grief workshop led by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, I knew it was important for me to be more open-minded. Wolfelt has a well-earned national reputation for grief support and he advocated for the presence of the body at a funeral. Wolfelt’s viewpoint continue to challenge my long-held beliefs.

Why have a more “traditional” service with the body?

Today’s American culture continues to be 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, demanding exercise regimes, and regular doses of Botox. We are a culture that battles the weakening and worsening of our bodies. And yet resistance is futile! Age inevitably, unavoidably reveals our mortality.

Death comes.

Grief follows.

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 resist or ignore all sad feelings—because most prefer the mirage of non-stop happiness. Or, if not “happiness,” then at least, please, right now, a return to normal. (Normal may also be more mirage than reality.) Simply, death is a miserable time for the living. Viewing a body bluntly invites the grief that is natural and necessary.

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 weeks-months-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 the living in reality.

But what about the kids? Won’t a funeral traumatize them? Indeed, throughout my ministry, I’ve heard childhood horror stories. While not that many, those youthful memories obviously lingered into adulthood. Some recalled being 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 parents don’t want a funeral to upset their children, they may be expressing their adult fears. I further suspect that those with “bad” funeral memories never had a chance to reflect about what it meant before the service, nor did they have opportunities to share feelings afterwards. A funeral with an “unsettling” body that doesn’t include any open-minded, life-affirming conversations with other grieving family members is a recipe for future concerns.

A six-year old child and a sixty-year old adult both need appropriate chances to:

  • Express emotions
  • Ask questions
  • Share stories
  • Be reassured

A funeral should not be like a microwave meal or yesterday’s fourth of ten appointments: over and done with no memory of what just happened.

From 1985’s Places in the Heart.

Finally—though not exhaustively—I don’t doubt the power of the body to help grievers honor the entire relationship with a loved one. In one of the scenes from the film Places in the Heart, Sally Fields’ character prepares a body for the funeral. [Spoiler alert!] Her husband, the town’s sheriff, was accidently shot and killed. With events taking place during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Fields’ widow does what was likely common in that era: she bathed and prepared the body in her home, on the same table where the family ate their meals. She loved him in life, she loved him in death. The scene reflects tragedy and normalcy. Her care for his body was one of the ways for her to begin healing.

Nowadays, we too often ignore any of the potential paths for our profound grief to heal.

The good news: let the body encourage honesty about illness and age, prompt healthy (and diverse) forms 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. Interesting! Perhaps closure is such a personal experience each person should have their own perspective with objective guidance id and when needed.

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