Why the body should be present

Down the centuries, viewings have been a crucial part of the funeral process, with the family and primary mourners keeping an around-the-clock vigil over the dead body of the person they loved. The body was the focal part of the entire funeral process, from the procession into the church to the procession out of the church to the procession to the cemetery through to the committal. The body never left the family’s sight. Clans and tribes revered and stayed near the body until it was laid to final rest. Cultures the world over have always demonstrated a passion to recover the “fallen warrior” and dignify the death by bringing home the body.

But in recent decades, the trend has been toward body-absent ceremonies, which can seem more like parties than authentic funeral experiences. It’s a bit like the guest of honour is missing in action.

The term “wake” originated from the custom of watching or guarding a dead body the full distance to the grave. Sadly, we have forgotten that staying with the body to the place of final farewell helps us acknowledge the reality that this person is leaving us now.

Specific to the dead body, people often also say, “well, it’s just a shell.” But regardless of your faith, the body of the person who died is still precious and still very much represents the person you love. Doesn’t this person deserve to be accompanied or seen through to the end of their days on Earth, which includes the disposition of their body?

Of course, a dead body is not the same as the person we loved. But when we are grieving, the mind seeks proof. So, if we are fortunate, we see the body, we touch the body, we spend time with the body… and our minds, which so very much want to deny the truth, cannot help but begin the process of acknowledging the reality of the death.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard for us to view the dead body of someone we love, but it’s a good-hard that helps us cry and express what’s inside us. Spending time with the body also helps us consider the meaning of our loved one’s life and death.

A meaningful funeral is not about denying death but befriending it.

(Adapted from ‘Educating the Families You Serve about the WHY of the Funeral’ by Alan Wolfelt, PhD)