“A meaningful funeral celebration is about saying hello on the pathway to goodbye.” Dr Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.
Consider how you were raised. Some of the first words after ‘momma’ and ‘dadda’ were some form of ‘hello’ and ‘bye bye,’ complete with a little wave of the hand. Children even express those sentiments to complete strangers, but what really makes a parent/grandparent’s heart glow is when it is directed to him/her.
Can saying ‘good-bye’ be sad? Of course it is, especially when the separation will be a lengthy one. Even a child knows that if we get to see Grandma every day, that’s a different feeling than if grandma only comes to visit a few times a year. In either case, it is an instinctive need to say ‘good-bye.’
When the separation will be permanent, I could argue that the need to say ‘good-bye’ is even more important. This is one of the true values of having a visitation following the death of someone. Sure, we can try to act like nothing happened, but even children know that things are different. One of the best ways to begin the grieving process on the right foot is to allow relatives AND friends to say their ‘good-bye.’
What are the good and bad points of a visitation? I will start with the negative arguments and debunk them with several decades of personal experience. “Visitations are barbaric.” I have actually heard that comment more than once in my career. I would respectfully submit that beating people, dragging bodies through the streets, and things like lighting people on fire are barbaric. Visitations are many times uncomfortable and there are often tears, but that doesn’t make something barbaric.
“I don’t want my children to be sad.” Well let me tell you that the visitation and funeral are not inherently sad, but that the death of a loved one IS sad. So not having a visitation does not remove the sadness, it only removes one of the methods of expressing that sadness. Imagine a child who has lost a grandparent not being able to express that grief because mom has stated that since no funeral will be attended; there should be no expectation of sadness. I can guarantee there is sadness. The question is how the child gets to deal with it. Will it be a lonely journey or will that child see that others feel sad, and as Rabbi Earl Grollman stated, “Grief shared is grief diminished.”
Some well meaning people even go so far as to prearrange a funeral with instructions to have no services. Once again, they think they are ‘protecting’ their family or making things easier since they won’t have to cry, etc. The memorial service/visitation/funeral may be the only way the family and friends get to celebrate the life in a meaningful way. Be careful not to deny them the need to say ‘good-bye.’
Tears may be shed and it’s always uncomfortable (though certainly not barbaric) to cry in public. One of societies ‘rules’ is that it’s okay to cry at a funeral! Asking people to come to a visitation to say ‘good-bye’ almost always results in tears. But the positive side is that there is shared grief as well as an acknowledgement that the person is gone, our life is going to be different, but these people who attended care about us so with their help life can go on.
“I don’t want to put my family through that.” Once again, maybe your family needs it. Following several very large visitation which exhausted the family, we almost uniformly hear about the psychological boost that the visitation provided. Sure it can be physically exhausting (women, please wear comfortable shoes!), but the emotional response lifts families up as they are surrounded by love.
One other consideration is the need of friends and co-workers to express their support. If one does not schedule a specific time with specific hours, these people will wait until the next time they see you to ‘pay their respects.’ What is the best place to do that? Is it at the funeral home with other family members surrounding you, or at the grocery store in the frozen food aisle? I have always thought of the visitation as a form of lancing a boil. It hurts for a moment, but at least you know when and where it’s going to hurt the worst! After that it’s not nearly as painful.
And people who are grieving need to tell their story. By this I mean visit about the life of the person who died as well as visit about the death itself. I can remember doing that with both mom and dad, and how with each telling it became a bit easier to talk about. Now, what at that time seemed like such a defining bit of my life is just a short bit of their story. We don’t focus on the deaths like we used to, but more on their lives (Wouldn’t they both enjoy this year’s Cub team!)
The final point is whether to have a body present for the visitation, or just have a closed casket or no casket. Once again I will relate my experiences with these options. Sure I understand the variation of the phrase, “I want to remember her as she was,” or “I don’t want people seeing me looking like this.” To the first comment my response is that of course you will remember her as she was. That was the animated person you knew and loved. What is in the casket is only the shell or cocoon. However, viewing can help breach that emotional issue of denial.
And with proper preparation, one can have the opportunity to say ‘good-bye’ to the person without dwelling on the ravages of age and disease or even injury. Remembering mom like she was would have been an ordeal for my family as mom was struggling with every breath the last week of her life. But in the casket she was the beautiful and glamorous Charlotte.
Many times I have had people come up and thank me with words like, ”Thank you for giving me my father back.” If they had not opted for any viewing, they would not have had the peaceful feeling associated with their sendoff.
Visitations are not for everyone. But viewings should be, even if only for the family. Everyone has the need to say ‘good-bye.’ Please carefully consider whether you want to restrict one’s friends and families from having that meaningful opportunity.