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The Body Present

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The funeral with the body present is not an American phenomenon. This practice has existed since time immemorial. And there are many reasons for it.

Why the Body Present?
When someone dies, a life on earth ends. What remains is the body of a man, woman or child who once was loved and who loved in return. And when we remember that person we often think of them in terms of their physical being — their body. That is why it is difficult, if not impossible, for most survivors to disassociate themselves immediately from the lifeless body. Our mind requires evidence that life has ended. The presence of the body gives this evidence, It also provides opportunity for recall and reminiscence. It offers testimony and tribute to the life that has been lived. In most events and ceremonies there is a meaningful symbol or person upon which to focus our attention; At a wedding it’s the bride and groom. For the pledge of allegiance it’s the flag. At a birthday party it is the person whose birthday is being celebrated. And at the funeral it’s the body of the person who died.

Just as there are important reasons for the body of the deceased to be present at the funeral, there are important reasons for viewing of your loved one. The first step in starting the process of healthful mourning is to acknowledge that the death has occurred. Nothing confirms this reality like viewing the deceased. Seeing is believing. It is the first essential step toward managing one’s grief. Viewing has taken on greater importance today than ever before. More people die away from home.  There are more deaths following long and devastating illness. There are more people whose lives end under tragic circumstances, Several helpful purposes are served by viewing:

  • Realization
    The moment of truth comes when living persons confront the fact of death by looking at the deceased.  This is particularly true after a sudden or accidental death or one which most, if not all, of the family did not witness. This confirmation is vital. Often much effort is expended to recover a missing body, basically to confirm the fact that death has occurred. 
  • Recall
    Proper preparation and sometimes restoration provide to the bereaved an acceptable recall image of the deceased while confirming the reality of death.  The effects of a devastating illness may change a person’s appearance considerably. An accident may disfigure the entire body. Removal or modification of the marks of violence or the ravages of disease help provide an acceptable recall image.Viewing is considered therapeutic for people of all ages. It is especially helpful for a child who has lost someone loved. Instead of fantasizing, there is the opportunity to realize what has happened — that the life on earth has ended for the deceased person.
  • Expression
    In many instances of loss, an immediate response to comfort those involved is not essential, Death is different. Time is both an urgent and steadying factor. Many find it difficult to express themselves if they don’t do it right away. Thus the deceased present and viewed during the visitation provides an immediate and proper climate for expression. 

Organ and Body Donations
When an organ or body part will be donated to medical science, there is no problem concerning the availability of the deceased for the funeral. The uniform donor card or driver’s license points out that anatomical gifts must be medically acceptable and needed to take effect upon death. Anatomical gift laws say that when the gift is of a part of the body that after removal of the donated part, custody of the remainder of the deceased vests in the surviving spouse, next of kin or other persons under obligation for the final disposition of the deceased.  Thus the deceased can be present for the funeral.  When an entire body is given for anatomical study, most medical institutions will permit the use of the deceased for funeralization after which it is delivered to the medical institution. There need not be a choice between an anatomical gift or a funeral with the deceased present. With few exceptions both are possible.

The Value of Viewing 
Most psychiatrists agree that viewing the deceased has therapeutic value for survivors. The late Dr. Erich Lindemann, who pioneered wise ways of coping with grief, declared that viewing was the most important part of the whole funeral process. He emphasized:  “People tend to deny painful reality . . . but when they experience that moment of truth that comes when they stand before the dead body, their denials collapse . . . Grief is a feeling. If you deny it, you have difficulty coping with it, but if you face it you start the process of healthful mourning.”  

One inescapable conclusion can be drawn from this information — for most people the funeral with the deceased present becomes an experience of value as they work through the sociological, psychological and many times religious needs that are a part of the grief experience.

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