The Value of Viewing the Deceased
By Melissa Johnson Williams
Every family that experiences the death of a loved one will have a very important decision to make. That decision is whether or not to see their loved one prior to either burial or cremation. This decision should not be taken lightly as it cannot be done over if it is regretted later. Viewing the deceased can be done for just the family or for family and friends. The preparation of the deceased for viewing is a sacred trust that is taken on by the funeral home and their staff.
The desire for the family and friends to see the deceased one last time is not a new concept or idea. It began here in the United States during the Civil War when families would travel to battlefields to locate their loved ones and bring them home.
The Union Army had “Embalming Surgeons” in the battlefield that would prepare the remains, place them in a coffin and send back to the family by train or horse and buggy. With the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln which took his remains through this country from Washington D.C. to his home in Springfield, Illinois over 19 days with stops along the way for viewing by the public, the public was made aware of this new process.
Dr. Erich Lindemann was an early pioneer in grief therapy. His work with survivors of the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire in Boston; lead him to believe that avoidance of the body is done at the psychological peril of the bereaved. Avoiding the body image appears at first to be convenient in the immediate phase of acute grief but this convenience is really an “illusion.” (Symptom logy and Management of Acute Grief, Lindemann, E. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1944:101).
Rabbi Earl A. Grollman in his book Concerning Death: A Practical Guide for the Living (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1974) discusses viewing the body. “This is perhaps of greater importance today than ever before…seeing is believing…Proper preparation and, when necessary, restoration helps to modify and remove the marks of violence or the ravages of disease. Preparation, restoration, and the use of cosmetics are not meant to make the dead look alive. They provide an acceptable image for recall the deceased. Viewing is therapeutic for people, regardless of age.”
The website www.funeralswithlove.com also states, “Seeing the body at rest is enormously helpful to some.”
The Embalming Process
The preparation of the body is called embalming. Although the body can be viewed without embalming, the best results are when the body is embalmed. Embalming is a chemical process that temporarily preserves the body and is the most successful way of removing the signs of disease and trauma. Embalming is done for several reasons; to allow families enough time to arrange the type of funeral services they want, to transport the deceased to another location for services and to restore the deceased to an appearance that is peaceful and soothing to the family. Individual state laws regulate embalming and with rare exceptions embalming is not required to be performed. The Federal Trade Commission requires that you must give your permission for embalming to be performed by the funeral home. Embalming is only performed by those who have had the required education and passed licensing requirements (in most states) to practice. The remains are always treated with respect and dignity.
The embalming process requires that the practitioner understand many different disciplines of knowledge. These disciplines include anatomy, microbiology, pathology, chemistry, and specialized areas such as restorative art and cosmetology. The procedure requires time and skill. What is described here is a description in a laypersons terminology and should not be confused with the more complex process that is practiced
by the embalmer.
Embalming takes place in a room that resembles a surgical operating room. The procedure itself can vary according to the condition of the deceased but will follow a set of standard guidelines. It maybe more extensive if an autopsy has been performed or trauma is present. The procedure begins with the deceased being placed on a table, bathed and then cleaned with a disinfectant solution. The arterial system is used for the injection of preservative chemicals and the venous system is used for removal of some of the blood. The distribution of chemicals is done through a tube that is inserted into the artery and is connected to a machine that will send the fluid to the tube. Once sufficient fluid has been injected into the body, the vessels are tied off and the incision or incisions will be sutured closed. The internal body cavities are treated by inserting a long tube and removing any gas or liquids and adding a preservative chemical.
The body is thoroughly washed again, dressed and cosmetics are applied as needed. The use of cosmetics helps to even out the facial color changes that take place when the heart stops at death. It can also conceal bruises and trauma. Regardless of who will be viewing the deceased, the funeral home will ask the family to come to see them first. In many cases even if the family had thought they wanted the casket closed they will leave the casket open because of the work of the embalmer.
Handbook of Death and Dying, Clifton D. Bryant, Editor
A Social History of Embalming, By Melissa Johnson Williams- P.534