Bereavement due to traumatic death

Identifying the body

After a death the body must be formally identified. Often a close relative is asked to do this, but this is not a requirement. When someone dies in a fire or explosion, dental records or DNA may have to be used for identification.

Martin saw his wife’s body seconds after the fatal accident in which a bus ran her over on a pavement. Two days later he was asked to identify the body at the hospital.

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Martin was asked to identify his dead wife. He was shocked when he held her hand and found it so...

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
Did you ever get to see your wife again after that day?
Yes, yes, I had to go to the hospital morgue, two days after the accident to do the formal identification, the police liaison officer took me obviously, and my sister came with me, and Steph’s Mum and Dad and her two sisters came as well. I had to go in first to do the formal identification to the police, and I’d never been in a morgue before. We went to a little room which was just like a normal hospital waiting room, nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever, and they said to me, the police liaison officer, he said, she’s got some bruising around the face, I just did not know what to expect, I went in through this room, and she was covered up to her neck with just her left hand, they’d left out of the sheet for me to hold.
If that was a little bit of bruising then I wouldn’t want to, like to see what serious, she was, even my sister had to say, “Is that Steph?” ‘Cos she had to bear in mind that that bus has gone over her and it’s crushed her to death. I’ve only got very vague memories now, but I remember her mouth being open, and they’d done some stitching around the eyes, I think it was just to, but her face from the mouth up to her nose was black and blue, obviously there’d been a lot of, I think that tyre had gone over her face basically, and I just held her hand and I was absolutely shocked at how cold it was.

When Dave, Rachel’s son, was killed by a bomb in Iraq he was flown home. The next morning Rachel identified his body at the funeral home. Neither Rachel’s husband nor her daughter wanted to come, preferring not to see the body.
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Rachel's son died overseas in a bomb explosion. She could identify him from tattoos and his...

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
He was flown home the following week, the following Monday, and by this time I’d met, who had I met?
The Coroner’s officer?
I had yes, who was very pleasant and she explained to me what would happen. And that’s when we realised that there obviously would be a post mortem, and that was not greeted very well to be fair because obviously we were told that he was, there was a lot of injuries, and we’d been told by the company that he worked with that obviously there was a lot of head injuries and etc, because obviously it’d been crushed, and we just felt that in taking him off, you know, to then cut him up even more was just, “Why?” Because we know we know how he, you know we know what killed him, it just seemed a very pointless exercise. But unfortunately it’s the law and we had no choice in the matter whatsoever. But again they were very good because they flew him back on the Monday, and they said they would take him for the post-mortem on the Tuesday, and I insisted I had to, I wanted to see him before they took him for his post-mortem. And he flew into Heathrow at midday, and he eventually got to where we live, to the funeral parlour, and they rang me at quarter to midnight that evening to say, that he was here.
So did you go round to see him the next day?
The following morning, yeah. First thing the following morning, we went up there, because I had to identify the body, and obviously he had a couple of tattoos, so he was, he was quite easy to identify and I had to, she asked me what the tattoos were, and I told her. And she obviously had his passport with them, and she showed me the picture in the passport and asked me was that.
Was this the coroner’s officer?
Yes it was. “Was that my son?” I said, “Yes it was.” And I asked her, she had obviously been involved in cleaning him up, because she said she had been involved in that, and I did ask her, “Would I recognise him?” And she said, “No, I don’t think you will.” And that was a bit of a shock because it was, and she said, “I don’t think, he doesn’t look like he does on that passport,” is what her words were. And then I went in to identify the body.
Were you on your own?
Yes. Yeah my husband and my daughter didn’t want to go in. And they never did go in. So, they didn’t want to.
Was it the right thing for you to go and see him?
Most definitely. Yeah. I had to make that that was my son, because you know, they might have made a mistake, but yes it was.
Were you, could you stay there for a while with him?
Yeah, as long as I wanted to stay there, yeah.
And could you stay on your own?
They, she stayed at the back, but she wasn’t intrusive, she was right at the back of the room, so she was in there, but she, although on that particular day the first day, she, she stayed in there, but on the other occasions when I went, I was on, there was no-one, I could go in on my own there was no-one else there.
So you went back to see him on other occasions?
I went back every day to, every day till we buried him, yeah.
And his, his friends, I allowed his friends to see him. I allowed anyone who wanted to see him could see him.
Did you find it comforting to be there with him?
Or was it just that you still wanted to persuade yourself that he’d really died?
Yeah, I think it was probably in my, you know sort of, it was him, and even though he had lots of injuries and you know, he had a massive like head injury and had snapped his leg, and all down his left side was completely injured, sort of squashed was a better word for it, but it was still him. And even after a week being in Iraq it was, it was still, it was still Dave.

Some relatives had no access to the body. Matthew could not see his brother’s body after Timothy was killed in the Bali bombing. A few days after it happened, the authorities in Bali and the foreign office no longer permitted visual identification because the bodies had deteriorated.

A few people chose not to identify the body. Karen’s mother died in a fire and was identified by dental records though she says that ‘half of me wishes I had gone and done the ID myself’ because she felt that only by seeing her mother's body could she satisfy herself that she had died in peace. Rosemary could have identified her son’s body after the London bombing in 2005, but decided that it would be better if he were identified using DNA.


Rosemary was asked if she would like to identify James’ body after he was killed by the London...

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Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
I mean one of things I was going to say about that is, one of the police liaison things, which was very unpleasant for them, was having to say to us, "Do you want to identify the body?” and I mean our immediate reaction, in fact my sister-in-law, who has been involved in this kind of area said, “Don’t, definitely don’t because you don’t need to do that and in the circumstances it will be an appallingly difficult thing for you to do”, but of course other people, that’s very important that they did. But I still wonder if I’m really honest whether I should have done but I’m not sure that, I don’t know, I’m ambivalent about it because part of me feels that it’s not closure, because it’s not about that where I’m concerned, it’s about understanding the reality of what happened, and I’m not sure that if you don’t do that whether you really do. But perhaps that isn’t the right way for you personally to deal with it in the future, I don’t know but I think as far as I’m concerned it is an unanswered bit of it really whether I should have done that.
So they asked you and then you discussed it as a family?
We decided definitely not and they actually said, right decision, basically and that was obviously because, I mean some of the other questions they had to ask was if they found any other body parts could they just dispose of them, I mean they have to ask you that sort of thing I understand that and you’re kind of numb so you don’t, it’s only afterwards you think, God what are they asking me here and whether they, and they find things, you know, things that belong to somebody, you know, do you want them back, that sort of thing. So you, you wonder whether, whether that’s the sort of thing you should have actually said, “Yes I do” and it’s the right thing to do but, I mean, lets face it this is the subject of many a plot this kind of thing and my feeling still is that we made the right decision because that isn’t the right way to remember somebody, I don’t think it really isn’t. 
Sarah’s husband died in a road crash. Initially she did not want to do the identification, preferring to wait until her son-in-law (a doctor) arrived so that he could do it. But when the boyfriend of another of her daughters offered to do it for her she was very touched and decided to do it herself.

Sally and her brother were asked to identify her mother’s body. Initially she said that she did not want to but her brother said that he could not recognise the body so Sally had to do the formal identification.
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Sally wished that she had not identified her mother's body because she had been burnt in a fire...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
So then they asked us to identify her, and I said I can’t, because they said she’d had black soot all going in her mouth and she didn’t look particularly, and I said, “I can’t do it,” so he went in but he, he couldn’t recognise her.
Is this your brother?
Yes. He said, “I can’t, I don’t, it doesn’t look like Mum, that’s not Mum.”
So they, I had to go in to formally ID her, because he couldn’t ID her.
Oh no.
Because he said it looked nothing like her.
That must’ve been awful.
So, yes, so I had to, I saw her and I knew it was her and I just literally, one second and then, because I just thought I can’t have that, look, that thought, in my head all the time of her, and I think that was probably the worst part I think of the whole scenario actually, was actually seeing her. I wish I hadn’t done that, that was the worst experience of it was actually, and I don’t, I, personally I’d never do that,, I’d avoid seeing any dead body because I think that was awful.
Were you two were the only ones that could’ve identified her?
Yes. Yeah. And he didn’t recognise her, I was saying, I don’t know, that was the worst experience I think, and that was the worst part out of the whole thing was that.
Does that image still bother you now?
[Sigh] no, I can still see it.
I still could see it strongly and know exactly how she was, and but it will lower, I literally just looked and just said, “Yes that’s her.” And left.
Was there a glass screen between you?
No she was laying in a hospital, on the ward. 

Last reviewed October 2015.

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