Last year the NFDA reported the cremation rate was at 50.2% and will likely reach 80% in the next 15 years or so. It seems cremation is our new funeral tradition. But what’s interesting is that, according to the same NFDA report, more than half of Americans are not aware that they can have a final viewing prior to cremation.
With cremation continuing its rapid growth, it begs the question, are we missing out on something important when we don’t have that final chance to say goodbye?
The reason we have a viewing or visitation is that it’s a part of the larger funeral tradition. The traditional funeral is there because it’s made up of important rituals that help guide us through grief. It’s these rituals — from public funeral ceremonies to our own personal mourning methods — that help us express grief in natural and healthy ways.
Let’s talk about the different ways having the body present can be an important ritual for the bereaved.
It Helps Us Face Reality and Our New Relationship With the Deceased
Having a traditional viewing or visitation is the first step in acknowledging the reality of the loss of a loved one.
In his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, J. William Worden, Ph.D., wrote that “the funeral service, if done well, can be an important adjunct in aiding and abetting the healthy resolution of grief … Seeing the body of the deceased person helps bring home the reality and finality of death. [Even in cremation] the body can still be present at the funeral service in either an open or closed casket and then the cremation done after the service. In this way, the funeral service can be a strong asset in helping the survivors work through the first task of grief.”
Having the body present helps us better understand our new relationship with the deceased. We begin to accept our loved one as someone who is no longer with us in body but will live on in our memories. Embracing this reality is crucial to the healing process.
It’s a Chance to Say Goodbye
Life follows a pattern. There are beginnings and endings. Hellos and goodbyes. We all experience it. And every culture throughout the world has a way to express greetings and farewells.
In Tibet, sticking out your tongue is a friendly way to say hello. In India, it’s common to fold your hands, bow and wish one farewell by saying Namaste.
Life is filled with hellos and goodbyes. Think of the rush and excitement of meeting a new niece or nephew for the first time. Or, although we don’t remember it now, the joy we experienced in infancy when introduced to grandparents, siblings, and other loved ones. Just as life is filled with these warm moments, there also are goodbyes to be said in life. There’s that sad twinge in the heart after saying goodbye to our family after a holiday gathering. Or the ache parents feel when saying goodbye to their child who is off to college.
So when someone we love leaves this earth, it’s only proper that we take the time to say goodbye to them. Having the body present at a funeral is our last chance ever to say goodbye to someone we love. The funeral gives us a time and place to say goodbye for the last time in our own special way.
Healthy Way to Express Grief
Just as it helps face the reality of death, having the body present helps us begin to heal.
In the book How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, author Therese Rando states that “Funerals are not to benefit the dead, but the living. They have a number of unparalleled therapeutic benefits. As a rite of passage, the funeral assists you in recognizing the passing of your loved one, supporting you as you start your life without the deceased, and reintegrating you back into the social group as a person whose loved one is no longer alive.”
A funeral with the body present creates an atmosphere of support. Friends and family gather during a viewing to share stories and recall memories. They console and comfort each other while saying goodbye to their loved one. At funerals, we mourn, we cry, and we celebrate the life of a loved one. This active participation in the funeral ritual helps us express our grief instead of trying to deny it.
What are your thoughts on having the body present during a funeral ceremony? Share with us in the comments below!