When I began my work as a Minister serving the Church one of my first assignments was organizing a funeral for an elderly woman. This woman had a large family, most living far away, so the coordination took some time. One of the requests the family made was unique to my experience, they wanted an open casket, not only for the visitation (I had seen that on a few occasions) but for the funeral itself. The funeral director told me that within some denominational and cultural settings this was the norm. I confess that my reaction then was one of shock, it felt a tad maudlin and morose. Subsequently others who have had the experience of attending funerals with an open casket have felt likewise.
But I am shifting that perspective. Lately in our death-avoiding, aging-phobic, and positive-thinking obsessed culture the idea of looking at a dead body would seem strange, even wrong. But the funeral I attended yesterday featured an open casket and it felt “right”. As I watched the interactions between family and friends with the open casket I saw genuine connection and understanding, their loved one was dead, it was final, there was no turning back. The reflections shared by family members all made reference to conflicts that needed to be addressed “before we die too”. Death has a way of reminding us that we can’t put things off indefinitely, there is a time when things are “too late”. Further, there was a sense of “getting to it” from those who spoke, a reminder that the deceased had shown the way and now was the time to focus and make changes to get there.
There was also a powerful and beautiful dance offered by great-grandchildren, a moving tribute to a life of strength, compassion and resilience. The children looked to be pre-teens and all danced with poise and skills. But they also danced in front of the open casket. I could just hear many parents of our current culture, “what will this do to the children?” I have sympathy and I agree with much of the shift in parenting; I do not believe in spanking or striking a child or any other type of discipline that involves violence, I would not use toxic substances around my house, and I think praise and affirmation always trumps shaming and carping criticism. But I also think children need exposure to death, albeit with support, listening and feedback. Mortality is part of the life experience and children who grow up going to funerals, visiting nursing homes and hospitals seem to be better adjusted to the reality of human misfortune and are not so terrified when death comes to those they love.
Maybe an open casket is a healthy way for all of us to acknowledge death. You will never see me walking toward the casket during a funeral and kissing the deceased but is there anything wrong with that, is it not a human reaction to a painful separation, a final and complete separation we tend to walk through with little acknowledgement of the real feelings going on inside us. Is there not a danger in rushing through the funeral without giving the grieving family and friends the outlet to express their pain? I wonder.