A man kissing a woman on the forehead


Written by Claire White-Kravette, Oxford University Press


Modern western mortuary practices are characterized by the professionalization of the management and presentation of the corpse. These practices serve as a stark contrast to those in traditional societies across the world and those throughout history. Changes to how we treat and dispose of the dead are such that industrialized societies have become outliers on the spectrum of the world’s cultures. Modernity has afforded us with a more efficient system for handling the dead, yet research suggests that these alterations may be negatively impacting long-term grief outcomes.


One way that modern practices influence grief is that they remove cues of death. Today, bereaved individuals in developed nations rarely participate in the ritualized preparation of the corpse, and, indeed, have minimal exposure to cues of death of any sort. Death specialists, such as mortuary cosmetologists and morticians, now wash, dress, and embalm the dead, amongst other invasive procedures. They have replaced many traditional rituals of handling of the dead person by family and other community members. As a result, most people do not have the opportunity to see or interact with their loved one in a natural state of death.


Human relationships require huge investments and generate massive benefits, and we are not willing to let go of them unless we have unequivocal evidence that the person is dead. This is one reason why it is common for bereaved individuals who have not seen their loved ones’ corpses, such as death through tragedy, to demand to see the body or evidence that the person died and why the World Health Organization recommend it. Conversely, any suggestions that the person may still be alive weighs heavy on our minds. We typically use cues of agency and appearances to determine if a person is alive, or dead. If the person moves, or if they look like a living person, then we assume that he or she is alive. Oftentimes people comment that the dead person looks as though he or she were simply sleeping.


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