Viewing death the traditional way

Part 2 of “Dead of Winter,” a series on death, mourning and rituals

Can you grieve without seeing a dead body?

Well, obviously. But does seeing your loved one after their death help the grieving process?

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Anyone who saw the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve probably cannot forget the scene in which forcing a young girl to give a goodbye kiss to her dead grandmother leads to a particularly Hollywoodesque version of what was known as split personalities (now called dissociative identity disorder).

The film came along at a particularly fortuitous time. There have always been superstitions and fears around dead bodies, some of them legit. The Three Faces of Eve introduced the idea that contact with the dead could actually make you crazy.

The movie arrived when North Americans were significantly changing the way they treated death. Before the Second World War, especially in less urbanized areas, families tended to their dead themselves. Even when a professional “undertaker” was involved, there was almost always at least a viewing, if not an open-casket funeral.

Soon enough, depending on one’s culture and geography, the process would be streamlined to the point where you see Grammy the day before she dies and the next thing you know she is safely and almost hermetically sealed in a pretty box, all signs of death limited to the symbolism of flowers and solemnity.

Tom Crean, owner of Kearney Funeral Services and a man with strong opinions on these things, contends that a “traditional” funeral — body in casket, mourners accompanying it — remains the healthiest way to mark a loved one’s passing. An open casket, which forces (or invites) mourners to confront the reality of the loss of life, can be a healthy part of the grieving process, he says.

Whatever advantages may accompany an open casket service, the fact is the decision is most likely to be determined by one’s religion or culture.

“There are ethnic groups where the casket is always open unless there’s a level of disfigurement that it’s impossible,” Crean says. “Of the people who have church funerals, I would say half the casket services we have, the casket is open. All the Orthodox [Christian] services we have, the casket is open, again unless there is disfigurement. The Chinese Catholic funerals we have are all open. Pretty much all of the Buddhist services the caskets are open.” European Catholic traditions — Irish, Italian, Polish — tend to have an open casket. English funerals tend to have closed caskets.

Crean’s statistics, though, have to be considered in light of the fact that he is speaking only of funerals. At a memorial service, by definition, there is no casket and no body. The issue of open or closed is irrelevant.

Since his family has owned Kearney for more than a century, Crean’s traditionalism is understandable — and it extends beyond the issue of viewing the deceased.

The funeral industry has adopted a number of comparatively newfangled developments of which he is not a fan. One is the idea of a vault. Some cemeteries in the early half of the last century began insisting on “liners,” which are essentially floorless boxes, intended to avoid the earth sinking when a casket inevitably collapses. Because the liner is open on the bottom, decomposition proceeds comparatively normally.

Vaults, on the other hand, may be the ultimate fruitless grasp for immortality. Usually made from concrete or fibreglass but sometimes expensively lined with copper or bronze, these are sealed vessels into which the casket is placed. The idea that the body is kept permanently from the elements undermines the ancient intention of burial: earth to earth and all that. But it also precludes reuse of plots.

“What is the point of not allowing each generation to reuse the same plots? When I go to Ireland to visit the ancestors, I’m standing there looking at eight centuries worth of my relatives in the same family plot,” he says.

Decomposition happens more quickly than most people might realize and 25 or 40 years is plenty of time to allow before reuse. Crean knows this from experience. He and his brother exhumed their uncle to move his remains to a different cemetery.

“What we found of him was his rosary, his Knights of Columbus badge and a big femur bone,” Crean says. “So we brought all of the earth that we could find around there, but basically there was no casket left. And that’s been the way of burial around the world for millennia. You bury on the basis that the land is reusable. They don’t force you to buy some $10,000 sarcophagus to make sure you’ll never ever be back to the elements.”

Yet Crean says he knows of only one cemetery west of Quebec where plots may be reused — Vancouver’s city-run Mountain View cemetery at 33rd and Fraser.

The impact, he says, is that every generation must purchase new plots. That’s the micro impact. The macro impact is more macabre than intermingling femurs of successive generations.

“If our great creator lets this country live long enough and we don’t change this law, eventually the whole continent will be a graveyard,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”

To read part one of the Dead of Winter series, click here.

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