Nobody I can think of would dispute the assertion that it’s good for the bereaved to spend time with their dead, contemplating their absence – what I like to call their very present absence.
There is a debate about how dead a person should look. Some people want to spend time with an embalmed, cosmetised body; others reject this with some force, the more so when they find out what embalming entails. In the funeral industry itself there are two camps, the routine embalmers and the default refrigerators. When routine embalmers seek to make embalming a condition of viewing, they often do so from the best possible motives. Many of them rank among the industry’s best and most dedicated funeral directors. But that doesn’t necessarily make them right. At the same time, any holier-than-thou blanket rejection of embalming is going to fail those who would benefit from it. As Maggie Brinklow says, you can only make good decisions on a case-by-case basis. It may be mutilation to those who reject it, but it is not to those who do not. It is certainly not mutilation in the eyes of the best embalmers, whose gentleness confounds any such condemnation.
In an interesting article on AlterNet, Frankie Colman quotes Gary Laderman on the very high value of embalming skills as a professional attribute: “Without this procedure, funeral directors would have had a difficult time claiming that they were part of a professional guild, and therefore justified as the primary mediators between the living and the dead from the moment of death to the final disposition.” It is observable that in the UK, where the whole embalming-casketing-visitation caboodle never took off, the status and prosperity of funeral directors does not ride half as high as it does in the States.
When the funeral reform movement in the States took off in the 60s, with Jesscia Mitford as its most vocal spokesperson, Laderman observes: “Funeral directors were arguing forcefully against charges that their mediation between the living and the dead translated into social obstruction that barred the stricken from facing death with maturity, realism and honesty.” But, Coleman asks funeral director Shaun Newburn, in what condition does the body need to be? “Newbern believes his clients don’t want any odor or leakage of body fluids during the wake and is concerned that it could happen if the deceased is kept at home.”
It is when funeral directors say things like that that you want to strangle them. It’s the sort of fright-thing some of them say in this country to clients interested in a cardboard coffin: “Oh, no, we can’t have one of those. Your Dad died of cancer, you see, there is likely to be considerable leakage…” leaving a picture in the mind’s eye of Dad falling through the sodden bottom.
Jerrigrace Lyons, the eminent US home funeralist, tackles this business of leakage and odours, and here I learned something I didn’t know about the properties of dry ice – and which you may well not know either: “For three-day wakes we generally use dry ice. It is extremely cold (minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit). We place it under the torso of the body and a small piece on top so it freezes the fluids in the lungs and stomach. We have rarely seen any fluids coming from the mouth or nose because of this. Even when the deceased has purged a little brownish fluid from the mouth (again rare) it has not upset anyone. Families often deal with far more fluids and other matter released from the body when their loved one is in the dying process.”
For Jerrigrace and her kind it’s the subtle changes that take place in a dead body over days that impart psychological and emotional value and underline the irrevocability of death. Others, though, are grateful for the unchangingness of the stabilised, embalmed body. It’s an effigy, if you like, a devotional object, and this is what they need.
Funeral directors are taught that they are the custodians of the bodies they look after. Actually, they are not: they are agents for the custodians, for the dead belong, by law, to their people. They can become very proprietorial about their role, act as gatekeepers to the body and forbiddingly dissuade people from spending time with their dead if they think they will be upset by what they see. These undertakers need to read the study Viewing the body after bereavement due to a traumatic death: qualitative study in the UK by A Chapple and S Ziegland, published on the BMJ website. Its conclusion is as follows:
Even after a traumatic death, relatives should have the opportunity to view the body, and time to decide which family member, if any, should identify remains. Officials should prepare relatives for what they might see, and explain any legal reasons why the body cannot be touched. Guidelines for professional practice must be sensitive to the needs and preferences of people bereaved by traumatic death. The way that relatives refer to the body can be a strong indication for professionals about whether the person who died retains a social identity for the bereaved.