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After a death: what will it be like to view the body?

The death of a loved one is always difficult. Sometimes it can seem surreal, as if it hasn't actually happened and at any moment you will wake from this dream to find your loved one alive once again. It may feel a bit scary to see the body of your loved one, but it may also help you to find some amount of closure.

When a death occurs, the body is released by the coroner to the funeral home of the family's choice. There, the funeral director will talk with the family about the options available for the wake, memorial service, or funeral. At this point, the funeral director will ask whether the family desires an open or closed casket. An open casket will allow those who wish to do so to view the body of the deceased.

This is a very personal choice and is often dictated by the circumstances surrounding the death. If the body is disfigured, this should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to have an open or closed casket. The funeral director can answer very direct questions about the physical appearance of the body. Mortuary science does have limits. Some ethnic groups and religious faiths feel strongly about viewing the body as a form of respect; there is often an open casket during the wake or visitation.

What happens during the embalming process?

You may be concerned with how your loved one will look in death and how you will react to seeing him or her now that all spark or essence of life has long since departed. Each funeral home employs an embalmer. The embalmer is the person who will prepare your loved one for the funeral and burial. The job of the embalmer is to remove the blood from the body and replace it with formaldehyde, a chemical that retards decomposition. This will help to preserve the body.

Once death has occurred, the body pales due to lack of blood flow and the body temperature drops. Formaldehyde causes human flesh to harden; decomposition is greatly retarded. An embalmed body will be preserved so that it may be viewed during an open casket service. Bodies that are not embalmed will begin to deteriorate and decompose rapidly; this is nature's way. Since unburied and unembalmed bodies are a public health risk, many states have laws about how quickly unembalmed bodies must be buried.

The funeral director will explain all of this so you can make an informed choice. Mortuaries employ specialists in hair styling, make-up, dress and clothing, and in general making the body appear as much as possible as the deceased appeared in life.

What about the funeral and wake arrangements?

Once the decisions have been made, the funeral director will work with the family to set up times for the wake and funeral. The funeral home will be open to close friends and family prior to these times so that you can be with your deceased loved one privately. This is the time when family can come together to express their grief without the concerns of all the other people who will be attending the funeral. The funeral home will set up the casket in a private viewing room.

There will be many chairs available for mourners to sit and talk. Many of these chairs will be within view of the body. There will also be a sitting area out of view of the body for those who are uncomfortable viewing the body. The funeral home will be very accommodating to your wishes.

What is it like to view the body of a deceased loved one?

It will never be an easy task. It can be disconcerting since you may find yourself expecting to see him or her wake up. You must keep in mind that, through the skill of the mortician, your loved one will look peaceful and attractive – just as you knew him or her in life. Yet, your loved one is dead. Only you can decide if you wish to view the body. Will it increase your distress or will it bring closure and allow you to say farewell?

Many people find comfort in seeing their loved one during the wake and funeral. It makes the situation "real." It can bring closure to stand at the open casket and say a proper good-bye. Some people find true closure by stroking the hand or hair of the deceased and even by kissing their forehead. Others will find the notion of touching the deceased body to be scary.

The body won't feel like a living body. Since the body temperature has dropped, the body may feel lukewarm or cold. The skin will feel rather waxy. There is nothing wrong with touching or kissing the body of a deceased loved one. It can provide a true sense of closure. Touching the body may help you understand that your loved one has gone on to whatever awaits us all after death and that only the body remains.

Ultimately, it is a personal choice whether or not to view the body after the death of a loved one. It can be cathartic but it can also be overwhelming. Consider carefully because this is the time to say goodbye in your own way; you will not get a second chance.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Practical matters following a death section helpful too.

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