How many funerals, visitations and wakes have you been to where the casket has been open and the deceased on display for all to see? I know that within my own family on my mother's side, open caskets were practically mandatory at every funeral and/or visitation. But every family's preference is different and sometimes circumstances are such that an open casket is not possible. And sometimes it is the family's traditions and faith that dictate whether or not a casket should be open.
There are a variety of reasons people prefer to have an open casket. If you discount those who do it for religious reasons, when the determination of whether or not to do it becomes personal preference, many times the reason boils down to the grief of the family. For some, viewing their loved one in the casket helps them to accept the death and helps them to move on. For others, this ritual is seen as a sign of respect for the one who has passed. And in many cases, it is a chance for those left behind to say goodbye. This especially holds true if the person had not seen the decedent recently or if the decedent died very unexpectedly.
Four years ago, my daughter was awakened on her birthday with text messages. The messages were not birthday wishes but news that a friend had been killed in a car accident. Understandably, my daughter was upset, perhaps more so because such a tragedy occurred on her birthday. She had not seen her friend recently, but she still felt the need to say goodbye. She went to the visitation, but there was no open casket because of the nature of the accident. My daughter wished she could have seen her friend, but understood why it was not to be. Even after all the time that has passed, she still wishes she could have seen her friend one last time.
The affects of not being able to see a loved one that final time can sometimes be felt for years afterward. Michael Alarcon, manager of Fairhaven Memorial Services, told me a story he does not often share with others.
"I was 18 when my grandfather passed away. As a Catholic, we scheduled a Visitation and Rosary Recital to be held the evening before the Mass. I was young, immature and unaware fully of the Catholic traditions; I chose to spend the evening of the Visitation and Rosary hanging out with my friends because I was certain that I would have an opportunity to view him in the morning at the Mass.
"I found out the next day at the Mass that the casket would be closed as the focus was on the Liturgy. Twenty three years have passed since my grandfather died. I still have an ache in my heart and wished I had been more aware of the Catholic tradition. I wished I taken the opportunity to view him when I had the chance."
For Michael, the dust of guilt now mars his memories of his grandfather's funeral. The last view, the last chance to say goodbye, had been lost.
When deciding whether or not to have a visitation or whether or not to attend one, you must think about what is important to you and how you will feel. It would not be beneficial to family members if you went to the viewing of a friend and were emotionally unable to deal with an open casket. And viewing is truly a personal preference as some people are afraid to view the dead.
For myself, it was never important to see the person in their casket. I viewed neither of my parents even though my siblings and friends of my parents did attend the viewing. I preferred that my last memories of them not be that of their body in the casket. My choice upset my sister, but I had to do what was right for me.
Growing up in a family that usually had open casket funerals, I had no problems with visitations as a child. However, caution should be exercised with regard to taking children to visitations as they may become frightened. I remember when I was seven, my aunt Laura died. Her children arranged for a visitation, then a funeral and burial. Since Laura lived in Washington State and we lived in California, my mother had to race to get to the funeral. It was very important to my mother to see her sister one last time. She needed the closure. She needed to say goodbye and she had no qualms taking her seven year old along since I had been to other funerals.
Since we were driving, my mother was very afraid we would not make it to the funeral on time. The service was held in a small church in a very tiny town near where my mother was born. When my mother realized we would miss the funeral by an hour or so, she called her sisters and she asked that they hold the service for her. It was a story they all laughed about later that day at my Aunt Laura's wake, how the funeral service had been held so Mabel could make there from California.
To this day I remember my mother marching me and my two grown brothers up the aisle of the church to the front pew. We sat down and she told the preacher he could begin. After the service, she asked for the casket to be opened just for her so she could say goodbye. Everyone but my mother and her sisters left the church so the Mullins sisters could say goodbye to Laura.
That last chance to see Laura meant the world to my mother. She never forgot how her sisters made the preacher wait for her to arrive before starting the service and how the funeral director accommodated their wish to see Laura afterward. And as you can see, it is a story that remains bright in my memories of my mother and my aunt more than forty years after Laura's death.
The need to see your loved one a final time, to say goodbye, to find closure, to pay your respects or to see the proof that they are gone is something that in all ways affects the processing of your grief. Whether you choose to view someone or not is all part of dealing with grief and everyone must make the choice that is right for them.