Bereavement due to traumatic death

Viewing the body

Many people hear about their relative's death from police at their door or when friends or relatives phone with the terrible news. Most people we talked to wanted to see their dead son, daughter, parent, partner or friend at once, but how soon they reached the hospital or the mortuary, and what happened next, varied greatly depending on how the person died and, to some extent, local practices.
 
Josefine and her husband Nicholas started the Natural Death Centre. After Nicholas died in a car crash she went to the hospital mortuary. She visited him for hours every day for three days.
Jayne saw her husband soon after he died from stab wounds. She was allowed to stay with him in his room at the hospital for two or three hours. She was left alone and could talk to him, sing to him, and reassure him he wasn’t alone. The next day Jayne saw Jonathan in the mortuary. Viewing the body there felt very different.
The undertaker trusted Jayne not to ‘lose the plot’ and allowed her to spend time alone with Jon. She appreciated that, unlike the police, the undertaker treated her with respect and dignity. Partners and parents often felt they had to care for the person even after they had died. When Elizabeth heard that her daughter, Marni, had died in a car crash, she wanted to go to the mortuary straight away because she was sure there was ‘something she could do’.
Some coroners ask the coroner’s officer or another official to stay in the room while viewing the body takes place. These officials usually remain quietly in the background, but when Lisa went to identify her ex-boyfriend she was disturbed by police ‘chatting about irrelevant stuff’. She said she wanted some ‘quiet time’ with her friend without disturbing interruption.
 
Pat’s son died when riding his motor bike. She wanted to reach him as soon as possible. She bitterly regrets that she was not allowed to stay with her son in the mortuary without the coroner’s officer. Pat could not understand why she had to ask permission to see her son and that she could not wash and dress him. Peter’s son died in a car crash. Peter wasn’t allowed to touch Tim when he went to the mortuary.
There are no regulations about who is allowed to touch a dead body, but if a criminal offence is suspected most coroners will not allow the body to be touched before the first post-mortem in case evidence is lost. Some relatives feel upset that the body is treated as police property without regard to the feelings of the bereaved.
 
Viewing the body of the deceased may be delayed. Linda’s son Kevin was murdered and she was not allowed to even see his body for 24 hours. She had to wait until after the first post-mortem. She found this very hard to accept, though she said that on reflection perhaps the 24 hour delay, between seeing her son being rushed to theatre and seeing his body, allowed her to adjust to the shock of what had happened. When she did see him she was told she should not touch his body because lawyers would want a second post-mortem.
Ann was also ‘desperate’ to see her son after he was stabbed to death but like Linda she also had to wait a day before she could see him at the hospital.
After the post-mortem and after the coroner has issued an interim death certificate most bodies are taken to a chapel of rest. Once there relatives can usually see the body as often as they wish. Occasionally a funeral director or family liaison officer will advise a family against viewing the body because of bodily injuries or because of decomposition. The family liaison officer, coroner’s officer or funeral director may tell people what to expect. Sometimes photographs of the dead person exist which relatives can be shown to give them an idea of what to expect. Some families do not want the body embalmed and so the body changes in appearance relatively quickly.
 
Sometimes the body of the deceased is brought home and may remain there until the funeral. This may lead to a problem if the weather is hot and if the funeral is many days later.
William asked the police what his daughter’s body looked like before he made the decision to see her. The decision is not always easy, but people who chose to do so often wanted to take this last chance to say good-bye and some said it helped them to accept that the person had really died. Some were relieved to see that the person had a peaceful expression on their face or that they looked as if they were sleeping.
 
When Dorrie was killed, Ian and his family were initially told that they could only go in to see him two at a time, but they decided that it was important to them to go in together.
Some people regretted seeing the body of the person they loved; others wished they had been better prepared by the police, mortuary attendant or undertaker. Jocelyn was given a description of his son’s body by the mortuary attendant and decided not to view. Sally identified her mother, who was badly burnt in a fire, (see Identifing the body). She saw her again at the funeral home but deeply regretted seeing her mother on both occasions because she didn't look as she did in life. She found it hard to believe that anyone looks peaceful in death but others recalled calm, even euphoric, expressions.
 
Circumstances sometimes did not allow people to view their relative’s body. Cynthia was not allowed to see her daughter’s body, perhaps because of her daughter’s severe head injuries. Looking back she said that she would have liked to have known this at the time and at least have had the opportunity to have held her daughter’s hand.
Rachel very much wanted to see her son’s body but her husband and daughter both decided not to, preferring to remember him as he had been when alive. For similar reasons Michael also decided he did not want to see his son’s body in the funeral parlour.

Last reviewed October 2015.

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