Why the body should be present

IN this article series, we've been discussing the idea that the meaningful funeral ceremony is a tapestry. Made up of a number of various elements, it creates a transformative experience that is much greater than the sum of its individual parts. While each family's ceremony will and should be a unique tapestry, it can only be a tapestry if it draws on a full repertoire of possible elements.

Why -the -body -should -be -present

In the last article, I reviewed why we have viewings and emphasised their crucial importance even when the family chooses to not have the body present. But of course, historically, the viewing was in large part about the body. The family and primary mourners kept an around the clock vigil over the dead body of the person they loved. The body was kept in their home, often on display in an open casket in the parlour. Mourners took turns sitting at their loved one's side, 24 hours a day, to safeguard the body, offer prayers, pay their respects, receive friends and comfort one another.

But in those days, the body wasn't just present at the viewing. It was the focal part of the entire funeral process, from the procession into the church to the procession out of the church to the procession to the cemetery through to the committal. The body never left the family's sight or heart.

Yet in recent decades, the trend has been toward body-absent ceremonies, which can seem more like parties than authentic funeral experiences. While historically we understood the essential, universal need to honour and affirm the life of the person who died with the body present throughout the entire funeral process, now the guest of honour is often missing in action.

How many of you frequently hear families say, "Oh, we'll just remember her the way she was when she was alive…" or "Seeing the body is just barbaric and unnecessary"? Yet I submit that there is nothing barbaric about facing the death of someone loved openly and honestly.

We seem to be forgetting what many have known since the beginning of time. Throughout human history, clans and tribes revered and stayed present to the body until it was laid to final rest. Cultures, the world over have always demonstrated a passion to recover the "fallen warrior" and dignify the death by bringing home the body. While not all faith communities find it appropriate to spend time with the body, and we must always remain respectful of religious beliefs precluding this practice, for most people, the body has forever been the most sacred and central element of the funeral process.

The term "wake" originated from the custom of watching or guarding a dead body the full distance to the grave. Unfortunately, many cemeteries today prefer that the ceremony end not at the gravesite but in a chapel, where, as Thomas Lynch astutely observed, participants are "dispatched without delay, freeing up the burial crew to get on with their business unimpeded." Sadly, we have forgotten that staying with the body to the place of final farewell helps us acknowledge the reality that this person is leaving us now.

Specific to the dead body, I often hear people say, "Well, it's just a shell." Of course, this is an attempt to render the body irrelevant and make it disposable. I couldn't disagree more. Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof) in the soul and the afterlife, the body of the person who died is still precious. This body still very much represents the person you love. This is the body that animated life! Doesn't this person deserve to be accompanied or seen through to the end of his or her days on earth, which includes the disposition of her body?

Of course, I don't need to tell you that a dead body is not the same as the person we loved. No matter your spiritual beliefs, it is clear to anyone who spends any time at all with the dead body of someone they cared about that the soul no longer resides there. But when we are grieving, even those of us whose callings surround us with death and grief day in and day out, the mind seeks proof. So, if we are fortunate, we see the body, we touch the body, we spend time with the body… and our minds, which so very much want to deny the truth, cannot help but begin the process of acknowledging the reality of the death.

"For the first time in history, the actual presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional, even undesirable, lest the body break the illusion of a cloudless celebration, spoil the meditative mood and reveal the truths about grief, life and death that our thinned-out ceremonies cannot bear." - Thomas G. Long

Bereavement originates from the word "reave," meaning "to be deprived of" or "to be forcibly robbed of something." When we experience the death of someone loved, we are indeed forcibly robbed of something very precious to us. But for a short time, a few hours or days after the death we have the precious opportunity to still be with the person who died, in the form of the dead body, even as we have no choice but to begin to take leave of him or her. So, not only is the dead body "proof" for our logical mind, it is a means of transition for our searching heart, which so much yearns to still be with the person. It can feel uncomfortable and painful in the moment but is ultimately helpful and healing.

And what of the common objection, "I don't want to remember her that way"? My experience suggests that the image of the person in death does not become the lasting image in the mind of the survivor. While the sight and presence of the dead body meets the cognitive need to verify the death, that very image usually fades, and it is the living memories that are everlasting.

As Thomas Long has observed in his book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral:

"In short, we are carrying a loved one to the edge of the mystery, and people should be encouraged to stick around to the end, to book passage all the way. If the body is to be buried, go to the grave and stay there until the body is in the ground. If the body is to be burned, go to the crematorium and witness the burning."

Let's take a look at our Hierarchy of the Purposes of the Funeral again to see how spending time with the body and having it present throughout the funeral process helps us meet our needs of mourning. The body definitely invites us to accept the reality of the death, first with our heads and over time with our hearts. The body also prompts us to recall how this unique person embodied his life in the world, how those hands did so many things, how that face brought us joy. When we spend time with the body in the company of other family members and friends, the body activates support. It also facilitates expression of our inner thoughts and feelings. Yes, it's sometimes hard for us to view the dead body of someone we love, but it's a "good hard" that helps us cry and express what's inside us. Spending time with the body also helps us consider the meaning of our loved one's life and death and, in giving us these final memories of seeing the person we loved through to the grave, sets us on a course for transcendence through grief.


My hope is that the next time someone says, "I'll just remember him the way he was" or "It's just a shell," you will reflect on this article and help them better understand the value of having the body present, open-casketed, closed-casketed or in the form of cremated remains - throughout the funeral process.

Remember, a meaningful funeral is not about denying death but befriending it. Let's not dispatch with bodies. Let's treat them with the reverence and respect they deserve. Perhaps most of all, let's remember the value of the need to say hello on the pathway to goodbye.


About the author

Alan Wolfelt

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author, educator, and consultant to hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, funeral homes and other community agencies. His life's work of companioning those who grieve has lead him to advocate for the value of meaningful funeral experiences.

For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com.

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