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The widow of fallen soldier La David Johnson reported recently that the military didn’t allow her to view her husband’s remains. As a followup to my post a couple days ago regarding my past experience in the funeral industry regarding military honors I can provide some insight regarding this kind of situation. Now, I will submit to you that some of the following I will be discussing might be a bit gross to some readers. I mention that more as a courtesy to make sure you’re not eating while reading this. BUT… each and every person should be aware of what goes on inside the funeral industry in general. Why?
I’ll not get too much on my soapbox regarding the funeral industry here and truly I say that not to suggest there is anything wrong or illegal or unseemly. It’s more about.. well, chastising the general public for not knowing or wanting to know what goes on simply because of some squeamish level toward dead bodies… and as a society allegedly with some measure of religious devotion.. we choose to not hold death with much reverence. Much of it is Hollywood and a lot of it is this crazy idea that five minutes after your loved one dies icky things start to happen to the body so you want the funeral home to take it away.. embalm and make pretty one more time for viewing… then into the grave (or cremated). As a society we do not really respect our dead because we are way too much in a hurry to bury them. Ok.. enough of that. This isn’t the venue to complain about that. But… my entire point is to shed a little light on this idea where the deceased is in such bad shape that the casket should be closed.
The Body Is The Property Of the Next-of-kin
For the most part, once the body of La David Johnson was brought to the funeral home it became the “property” of his surviving wife. She could have told the honor guard to just go home at that point if she wanted to, but obviously this isn’t generally done of course. Nonetheless, if she wished to see his remains no one can object. This is the technical part of who truly has final say. Now, that being said, if the body of any deceased person has been damaged or mangled in such a way where viewing the body is strongly not recommended there are indeed things to consider and the funeral home, and in this case also the military liaison assisting the family, should try and convey to the family.
One of the toughest things to do is tell the family that they should not view their deceased loved one’s remains. You have to imagine the bad of the bad in your mind in what a body can look like following an auto accident, a fiery death, airplane crash where the body parts are all over the place, building collapse where the body is crushed… and of course, the body has been left in the elements for a period of time where nature takes its course in decomposition, or the remains are simply skeletel. If you need a visual think about your loved one looking like a Hollywood zombie.. times ten.
Again.. viewing the remains is totally the option of the next-of-kin. Now.. the typical reason given to the family is that they should remember their loved one as they were.. and not have their last image of them be a mangle slimy mess. That’s part of it. The other part of it is the psychological trauma many people will come away with if they did indeed take a look. Depending on state laws, funeral homes have been victims in court in having civil liability in “permitting” family members to view their charred or decomposed loved one. At our funeral home we had a waiver form that we showed to the family to help illustrate the potential importance of re-considering their request to view. As funeral staff we all knew that even if they signed the form it was nearly worthless in a future civil suit to hold the funeral home harmless. In every closed casket situation I always showed this form (more as a king of prop) and made sure the family read it, and told them they would be required to sign it if they wished the funeral home to allow them to see mangled Aunt Edna. I never had a family insist on viewing after that… and my convincing reasons (which are many and varied).
But… had any family member wished to view.. as many are concerned with the very human need to somehow confirm it’s their loved one… I would have recommended one person selected by the family… rather than just flip open the casket with six generations of family members present, half of which just want to see how gross a body can look. Now, if the funeral home did not wish to allow it, that was legal only to the point that the funeral home would be obligated to have the deceased transferred to another funeral home of the family’s choosing that would allow it……. Or… it IS legal to transport dead Aunt Edna to someone’s home or other designated family choice of location. The family then could do whatever they wished at that point. Few people understand or realize this option. There is no law requiring engaging a funeral home. There may be a local requirement for transport of the remains and when there must be a disposition of the body.. either cremation or burial. It’s generally a health code violation having an unburied corpse around the house. But the point here is that the funeral home is NOT required.
The exception when embalming is required is usually for interstate or foreign transport (like airline.. or even if you want to load Aunt Edna into the pickup and take her to Idaho for burial… personal transport also being legal). Likely every military theater of operation has a mortuary services that performs embalming when possible. Deceased persons are not generally dressed and made presentable until the last minute in order to guard against leakage ruining clothes. It’s likely deceased military have final preparation once back in the states, if for nothing else than to have more ready access to uniforms and accessories.
Contrary to what people have been conditioned to think, embalming is NOT required. The 1980’s included government ethics reforms and truth-in-pricing regulations for the funeral industry as a result of many funeral homes making outlandish claims of what is allegedly required in order to make more money. The embalming process, originating back during the Civil War, was to delay decomposition so that the deceased could make the long journey back home. It does NOT sterilize or sanitize the body, nor does it preserve the deceased forever. Once embalmed an unrefrigerated body has about a week (or sooner depending on external temperatures) before noticeable “things” begin to happen and certain smells enter the your nose (the idea of giving flowers at a funeral was the result of having fragrant flowers help cover the smell from unembalmed bodies, before embalming became popular).
The body is of course a close circulatory system. The embalming process is generally introduced in the carotid artery and fluid is pumped in forcing out the blood through the jugular. Now embalming can also include three other stages but the reader can do a search if you need that detail. If the body is broken up, dismembered, then obviously the circulatory system is not longer closed. While it is possible in some cases to embalm legs, arms, even a torso separated from the legs… it’s obviously a job given the clamping off of veins and arteries to prevent leakage… and usually it means a separate wrap in plastic. Obviously military deaths can present difficult challenges due to the tragic things that can happen to a body in battle.
In a few instances from vehicle accidents where the head is destroyed or disfigured I have convinced a family member to have a private moment before visitors arrive to simply touch the arm or hand as I simply raise the casket lid a few inches. But it sounds like the damage to this fallen hero was too significant in trauma to even allow that.
One Last Time…
It’s a completely human response to want to see a deceased loved one, one last time.. or even to want to touch them one last time… especially when the deceased are children. After the attacks on 9/11 it was more a matter of collecting body parts, identifying those parts through DNA, and that’s all the family gets to bury. I recall one victim in the Twin Towers attack.. all that was identified was some flesh from her left thigh. Life is not always fair, much less fair to the surviving loved ones.
Regarding Mrs. Johnson’s concerns, she should have been given the option to view her deceased husband regardless of condition of the remains. But.. it’s up to the funeral home, or more specifically the casualty officer liaison. Even if he has so tell her all that’s left is a slimy mass in a plastic bag (with diplomatic compassion, of course) and that there is really nothing left to see and touch, then that’s valid also. Also… the military most assuredly performed an autopsy on all the soldiers that were killed and will have a very good idea of causes of death, manner of death (was it quick or was it lingering, or was there torture). They could even determine within reason if there was any post mortum atrocity. Family generally wants to know those things to understand their loved one’s final moments of life.
That military liaison, and the military, has to also understand that part of the psychological aspect of the grieving process when there is a closed casket situation are the doubts that rise to the surface regarding “is he even in there?”, which Mrs. Johnson had already mentioned herself. We can again thank Hollywood, and the all-too real doubts we all have about government conspiracies and outright lying.. and of course “fubar” situations. Is my loved one really still alive somewhere hooked up to machines to be turned into some cyborg experiment? Are there drugs being smuggled in his casket (Iala Vietnam)? Is he sequestered deep inside some government medical facility, crying for his wife or mother, unable to escape because the government wants to cover up some illegal operation and he is still alive? Most importantly.. did they identify my husband correctly and that’s not someone else in there.. and my husband is secretly in a coma somewhere? These all sound like wild scenarios.. but.. we are conditioned to think the worst whenever the government is involved, and more so when in high stress emotional situations such as mourning the death of loved one.
If she is asking these questions then quite obviously the liaison hasn’t performed his job all that well.