excerpted from FatherLoss, by Neil Chethik, available here.
Should you view the body after a loved one’s death?
Immediately after the father’s death, one important question for sons was whether or not to view the body. In my FatherLoss Survey, among sons eighteen to fifty-five at the time of the death, 85 percent said they viewed their father’s body before it was buried or cremated. And more than 75 percent of those men reported that seeing the body was helpful later in coping with the death.
A disc jockey who was thirty-seven when his dad died told me the viewing brought a sense of closure. He recalled his experience in the hospital room after the death:
“I put my hand on my father’s shoulder. There was a realization that this was the last time I’d ever have any type of intimate contact with him…. It was sort of like a threshold, a crossing over. It was a very black-and-white, concrete, tactile moment. Looking down into his eyes — his eyelids were partially closed — it was confirmation for me that this was actually happening. Something went from Dad to me. It felt like a passing of something. Inside, I was like: â€˜Oh, shit, this is real. There is no possibility that this could not have happened.”
Tears May Come
Several sons told me that seeing the body brought them to tears for the first time. And some used their visits with the deceased father to say good-bye, offer gifts, or fix the image of his face in their minds.
A man whose father died suddenly when the son was twenty-seven said he spent a few minutes with his dad just before visitation opened to the public. The son recalled:
“I had provided the undertaker with a string tie engraved with a bear’s head that I had given my dad…. They had put the tie on him. I slipped a twenty-dollar bill, his pocket knife, my picture, and my business card into his sports coat jacket. It was important to me to do these things just because I felt these were things that represented his life and should go with his body in death.”
When I met this man, it had been four years since the death. He told me: “Strangely, as time has passed, it gets harder and harder to remember what he looks like, and my memory focuses around the string tie. I visualize it on him in the casket, and then I am able to see his face and body.”
Some Say No
Some of the sons who chose not to see their father’s body said they preferred to recall their dads in life rather than death. Others just didn’t feel very connected to the older man; seeing his body wasn’t important.
Those who reported in the survey that they’d had a negative relationship with the father in childhood were, not surprisingly, less likely to see the body than those who reported a positive relationship.
Sons who had watched the father deteriorate up close in the final weeks or months of a long illness said they needed no further evidence that the older man was really dead. This seemed especially common among sons who were over fifty-five at the father’s death; these men, the survey showed, were less likely than other adults to view a father’s body.
Regretting the Decision
Occasionally, a son who chose not to see the body came to regret his decision. A journalist I spoke with, who was a young adult at the time of the death, said he was told by an uncle that his father’s body was not in good enough shape to view.
When I spoke with this son twelve years later, he said he wished he had ignored his uncle’s words.
“I remember walking behind the casket being pushed out the door (of the chapel). I remember thinking, well, I’ll get a chance to see him later. Of course, as soon as we were out the door of the chapel, the mortuary guys whipped him into an elevator to send him down to the garage to load him into the hearse. Of course, he was in a box, in a hearse, and in the ground, six feet of dirt covering him, and there was no opportunity. It was the ultimate procrastination. ‘Oh, I’ll get to see the body later.’ Well, only if I have it exhumed.”
Another man I spoke with didn’t have a choice about seeing his father’s body. When the son was thirty-six, his dad died in a traffic accident in a foreign country. Five years later, the son told me: “All I got was a police report of the accident and his ashes in an urn. I need concreteness.” Occasionally, the son said, he wonders if his father’s really dead.
A few studies have measured the effect of viewing a loved one’s body, and generally found that it helps survivors in their grieving process. With children, however, the evidence is mixed.
Excerpted from FatherLoss. Visit www.fatherloss.com for more information about the book.