It has become a common practice at American funerals, among all religious faiths, to display the body of the deceased as part of the funeral ritual or service. This custom is of recent American origin, having no roots in ancient culture or contemporary European usage, with the exception of the "lying-in-state" of kings and emperors.
The lifeless body is removed from the hospital or home and taken to the funeral establishment. There it is embalmed and "restored" by manipulating it, injecting it with chemicals, covering it with cosmetics, dressing it neatly, and supporting it with mechanical devices. It is then displayed in a "reposing room," or in the chapel, before the religious service begins. Clergymen usually insist that the casket be closed during the service itself.
The viewing of the corpse is one of the fundamentals of the economy of the funeral industry. Before the body is offered for presentation to relatives and friends, it must be perfumed, restored to a look of perfect health, dressed in expensive garments, and placed in a respectable, "comfortable-looking" casket. These requirements of viewing usually constitute the bulk of the funeral costs.
The new, American, quasi-religious ceremony is justified to the public by two high-sounding phrases. One is that viewing the corpse is "paying your last respects." This form of farewell to the deceased is made to seem the minimal courtesy a man can pay his beloved; it has become the natural and logical thing for mourners to do. The second is that it is a necessary aspect of "grief therapy," helping the bereaved to remember a sweet, content, smiling face rather than the vacant, pain-ridden, drawn look of a cadaver.
To the layman, both these arguments seem quite plausible, requiring no further investigation--certainly not at the time of death. The practice of viewing the remains has, therefore, become standard, and a "traditional" part of the American funeral.
Viewing the corpse is objectionable, both theologically and psychologically. It shows no respect for the deceased, and provides questionable therapy for the bereaved. On the contrary, we believe that while viewing may seem desirable superficially, deeper consideration will show it to be devoid of real meaning, and, in fact, detrimental in terms of both religion and mental health. Religiously, it expresses disregard for the rights of the dead and a perversion of the religious significance of life and death. Psychologically, it may serve to short-circuit the slow therapy of nature's grief process that begins from the moment of the awareness of death.
Traditional Judaism regards burial procedures, for the most part, as yekara d'schichva, devoted to the respect, honor, and endearment of the deceased. Mourning laws are primarily yekara de'hayye, therapy for the living, devoted to the mitigating of intense grief, the slow disentanglement from the web of guilt, anger, fear, hatred, and rebellion that enshrouds the mind of the mourner after his relative has been taken from life.
The sages wisely noted that one cannot and should not "comfort the mourners while their dead lie before them." Comfort and relief come later, after funeral and burial arrangements have been completed and the dead have been interred. Until that time, the deceased remains the center of concern. His honor and his integrity are of primary importance.
Whether, in fact, respect for the deceased is primary, or the comfort of the mourners is the principal goal, it is difficult to justify this new practice of viewing the remains as a standard feature of the funeral service.
First, if that sublime concept in Genesis that "God created man in His own image" is right--and all of our major religions are based on it--then the whole procedure for preparing the body and restoring it, which is prerequisite for viewing, is offensive and abominable. If man is fashioned after his Creator, how can we allow the stippling and the nailing, the molding and the smearing, literally the "man-handling" of that which was created in the image of God?
It is a horrifying experience to witness the restoring process for those who died after sustained illness, or intense suffering, or as a result of accident, or, for that matter, for all except those who died in the bloom of health. Can this handling of the deceased be considered a tribute to God's creation and to man's living in the image of God?
Isaiah's description of the righteous dead (Is. 57:2) "May peace come, may they rest in their resting place," is all but absurd with the development of the restoring process. There is no rest for those who should rest in peace (not even, we may add, if the ceremony takes place in what is called a "reposing room"). The image that is born, fondled, loved, respected and honored, the dignity that inheres in man as a creation in the image of God, is now desecrated. A person's last right should be the right of utter privacy, the privilege of remaining untampered with after death. It is amazing that this process of disturbing the rest of the deceased is called, "paying our last respects."
Secondly, Judaism postulates that the dignity of man derives from two basic sources. One, mentioned above, is that man is the creation of an all-good God. This endows him with the spark of divinity, and it is the divine image in man that grants him innate value. The other derives not from man's creatureliness, but from his personal social development as a human being living among other human beings. What is important here is man as he exercises the freedom of his will, the person as he develops his own anschaung, how he handles the existential crises that beset him, what he does with the qualities that were inborn in him, his unique individuality. The sum total of his personal experiences and his reactions to them grant him "value" in addition to that innate dignity he derives from being a creation of God.
The Talmud records a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai as to the most significant phrase in the Bible. They disagree as to which of the two foregoing qualities endows man with greater value. Rabbi Akiva declares that it is man's righteous exercise of the freedom of his will, the love of neighbor, the social values that are primary. Ben Azzai dwells on the creation of man in God's image as the major source of his dignity.
If we reject manipulating and masking the cadaver in preparation for viewing as a violation of the image of God, we must also reject holding up for display the physical remains of the human being who achieved dignity from the sum of his life experiences, his loves and interests, the elan vital that was the hallmark of this man.
In Jewish literature and law, the human being is compared with the scroll of the Torah. The death of a man, for example, is equivalent to the burning of a Torah, and, in both cases, the onlooker is required to rend his garments. As the Torah, used for holy purposes, retains its holiness even when it becomes religiously disqualified, so man, having lived for noble purpose, retains dignity even in death. The remains possess the holiness that characterizes the Torah itself. Thus, too, one may not dishonor a corpse, as one may not desecrate the holy Scroll. In Traditional Judaism, the dishonoring of the dead includes not only untoward and derogatory remarks, or joking and jesting, but even eating, drinking and smoking-even studying the Bible in the presence of the deceased-any indulgence in the pleasures and needs of the living in the company of the helpless and nonparticipating corpse. One may not deal with the dead as though he were living, as if he were merely sleeping. For those who thus ridicule the dead, the sages apply the phrase from Proverbs 17:5: "Whoso mocketh the poor, blasphemeth his Maker."
When we place on display the remains of the person we loved, we may, in fact, bring ourselves some temporary comfort, but this, surely, does not constitute respect for the dead. What we are doing, essentially, is holding up a lifeless, bloodless, mindless mass of flesh and bones. The "color" of the deceased lay in his wit, character and personality-or lack of these qualities-not in the embalmer's rouge and lipstick. What should be remembered is the indelible impression upon us of a full-blooded, living person, not the expression on his lips as fashioned by mechanical devices.
What we view is the ghost of a man, not the man. It is sheer mockery to parade before this ghost to say, "Goodbye," or to take one last look by which to remember him. This is not the person, but a death mask, even if prettied up artificially. When we display our dead, we exhibit not their, loves and fears and hopes, their characters and their concerns, but their physical shapes in their most prostrate condition. Strangely enough, we readily understand sick people who, wracked with pain and emaciated from suffering, do not wish to be seen in their deteriorated condition. Yet, while we appreciate the vanity of the living only too well, we are insensitive to the ghastliness of holding up the helpless ghost, painted and propped, in morbid exhibitionism.
Jewish mystics refer to the look of the deceased as mar'eh letusha, "a hammered image." Indeed, the viewer emerges, after the ordeal of the funeral, with a new and sordid dimension added to his memories and feelings. This is not the person he knew in life, nor is it the cadaver gripped by death; it is a make-believe, a figure out of a wax museum, a being neither dead nor alive.
Thirdly, both Judaism and psychotherapy express in their own idioms the view that a masking of reality will not enable the human being to cope with reality. The truth is that the end has come. The deceased shall no longer walk the earth and share happy occasions with his relatives. To extend into the time of death the countenance of cheerful life is to disguise the end, to introduce by subterfuge the possibility of continued, though passive, existence and to risk causing severe damage to the mental state of the bereaved.
Judaism explicitly postulates that the funeral must be a finale. The service, the prayers and the rituals do not attempt to hide death, much less to deny it. They confirm it and acknowledge it unhesitatingly. It is only the acceptance of the reality of death that enables man to overcome the trauma of death.
During the cleansing and purification of the deceased in preparation for burial, a very ancient prayer-more than a thousand years old-is recited. The prayer is, as it were, a presentation of the dead before God, asking for His mercy and for forgiveness for the dead. The prayer at graveside is likewise a justification of the God of truth: the Lord who has given and the Lord who has taken. There is no mask of death in the Jewish ritual. The deceased is buried in the earth itself, dust to dust, and the grave is filled in the presence of the relatives and friends. Indeed, it is the closest of friends and the greatest of scholars who are invited to be the first to fill in the grave. The thump of the clod of earth upon the wood of the casket sounds the sure finale to a precious life.
It is a perversion of the true religious import of the funeral to disguise the reality of death. The display of the dead in the most lifelike appearance, the semblance of life through the use of cosmetics, the clothing in gowns or tuxedos, the propping of the head and use of pillows, the facsimile of a happy person asleep, is contrary to the spirit that religion seeks to engender. Man does not, as the happy phrase would have it, merely "go to sleep with his forefathers." Man dies and decays, and his physical existence is no more. His good works live on after him, but his body returns to the earth as it was. His personality, his goodness go on to a greater dimension of existence; the chemical elements decompose and return to their original state.
From the standpoint of psychotherapy, the idea of viewing the corpse as standard funeral procedure because of the therapeutic value inherent in the practice has not been proved clinically and, in fact, appears to contradict the very basic thrust of its method. "Grief therapy" works, it is claimed, to soften the shock of death. It alleviates that sudden cut-off and, momentarily, returns those lost to us.
But, if therapy is conceived as a form of self-enlightenment and self-understanding, what valid function can viewing perform? Shall we believe that man requires a neurotic distortion of truth in order to protect himself from the trauma of truth? It seems far more sensible to rely on the faith that man can summon the strength with which to confront the raw, if sometimes bitter, truth without the aid of fabricated distortions. Viewing is as much "grief therapy" as painting a jail with bright colors is "thief therapy."
It may also be that not only is viewing not therapeutic, but is, in fact, injurious to the viewer. The first stage of mourning is characterized by anger, despair, and the denial of death. Fixation on any one of these reactions represents, from the psychological point of view, a pathological response. It is entirely conceivable that viewing may lead to a fixation on the denial of death. The refusal to give up the object of love is perpetuated by the illusion of life that the embalmers strive so mightily to create. The religious ritual of the funeral compels one to acknowledge the finality of the physical loss, and thus enables the "working through" of the grief process. To fix one's mind on what should be an ephemeral reaction is possibly to short-circuit the entire effectiveness of the grief process.
To speculate further, is it not possible that viewing may meet the bizarre needs of certain individuals and precipitate vicarious deviations from the usual grief reactions? Indeed, it is possible that in a predisposed person it may give onset to excessive fantasies or delusions. It does not mean, of course, that the result must be pathological, but it may certainly create a variant response to mourning.
There is, unfortunately, little statistical data available on the entire subject, but speculation compels one to regard this self-styled "grief therapy" with the gravest suspicion.
In addition to the foregoing, it is interesting to note that this new ceremony of viewing the remains is but a reflection of our general value system. By making a display of the flesh minus the mind, we are, in fact, demonstrating our lifelong emphasis on appearance over value, on externals and possessions over the inner life and growth of the sensitive and sentient human being. As such, viewing is an extension into death of the kind of attitudes that tax life: to use Buber's terms, the attrition of the "thou" in favor of the "it." When we take a human being to whom we once related as a subject, as an equal, as a "thou," and manipulate him as one would a piece of merchandise, we reduce him to an object, a mere "it." The tendency of those attending funerals is to note that "he looks good" rather than "he was good," and conversations tend to dwell on the person as a man of means, rather than a man of ends. But the person himself, in his own intimation of immortality, hopes and expects not that the shape of his nose and jaw, or the tilt of his chin, will be remembered, but that his deeds, his teachings, his attitudes, his strivings, his good intentions and efforts, and the accomplishments of his children will somehow bring him the immortality he craves.
We cannot agree that man's soul is so impoverished that he cannot remember the living image of his departed; that he is so neurotic that he cannot be permitted to confront the ultimate truth; that he is so self-indulgent that he will willingly disturb the departed for the sake of his own peace of mind; that he is so afraid of fact that he must create for himself a fiction.
From both viewpoints, that of Traditional Judaism and that of psychotherapy, there is no valid reason for this new, American, quasi-religious ceremony. On the contrary, man, created in the image of God, participating in the dignity of human life, deserves to rest in peace. And the mourner deserves, at this traumatic moment of intense grief, to be allowed to work through, naturally and at his own pace, an acknowledgment and an acceptance of his loss.
This chapter was written with the kind assistance of a noted psychiatrist, Dr. Naftali Eskreis. It was published as a separate article in the April, 1966 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health.