Bereaved relatives helped by chance to view body after sudden loss

Grieving family members have good reasons to see a dead loved one, even in cases of violent death

People who suddenly lose a spouse or a child to murder, suicide or an accident often benefit from being allowed to see the dead person’s body, even if it’s bruised or starting to decompose, a new investigation finds.

Viewing a loved one’s marred body in a morgue or funeral home triggers distress at first, say Alison Chapple and Sue Ziebland, both medical sociologists at the University of Oxford in England. But those people who choose to do so rarely regret their decision, especially as time passes, Chapple and Ziebland report in a paper published online April 30 in the British Medical Journal.

“We were surprised that many people expressed such an intense need to see, touch, hold, talk or sing to the body,” Chapple says.

Getting up close one last time drove home the reality of loss for some relatives, helping them to move on with their lives, the researchers propose. Other survivors cared for the body in ways that allowed them to say goodbye or to forge a continuing bond with the deceased person.

Relatives who had mixed feelings or regrets about seeing the body said that authorities coerced them into identifying the deceased person, or failed to prepare them for what the body looked like.

Little is known about how relatives respond to viewing the body of a person who has died violently. Chapple and Ziebland’s study highlights the diversity of reactions to this tragic situation, remarks medical sociologist Glennys Howarth of the University of Sydney in Australia.

The question of how to best deal with such tragedies arises often: In the United States alone, 173,472 people died in accidents, killed themselves or were murdered in 2006, the latest year for which federal data are available.

“People seem to be able to tell whether it will be beneficial for them to view the body,” comments psychologist Camille Wortman of Stony Brook University in New York, a bereavement researcher. Requiring someone to look at the body against their will or rejecting a relative’s request to view the body can inflict emotional damage that lasts for decades, Wortman says.

Chapple and Ziebland focused on 80 bereaved British citizens from different social and ethnic backgrounds. In 2007 and 2008, Chapple interviewed participants in their homes about deaths that had occurred from four months to more than nine years earlier.

Half of the bereaved suffered losses due to suicide; half had relatives who had been murdered or killed in other violent ways.

Of 49 people who chose to identify or view the body, 35 said it was the right thing to do. Another nine had mixed feelings, two regretted seeing the body and three had no comments about how they felt.

Family members often decided among themselves who should view the body. One woman viewed her son’s body after it had been shipped back from Iraq following a deadly bomb explosion. The woman, whose husband and daughter didn’t want to see the body, told Chapple that she had to make sure her son had really died.

Another woman took her children to see their dead father following his suicide so that they wouldn’t have to imagine what he looked like. Others viewed the body out of a sense of duty to the departed or to fulfill religious obligations.

Six people in the new study found the dead body after a suicide. Three chose to view the body again later and were glad they did.

Remaining participants had chosen not to view the body, were not allowed to see it or last saw the person at the time of death.
Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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