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Last Respects


There is an emotional component to the responsibility of actually seeing or participating in the physical disposal of a loved one's remains. In modern times many of the old family-participation practices, such as assisting with bathing or dressing and "laying out" the remains, have been placed in professional hands. As professionalization of responsibility progresses, the family is often deprived of the satisfaction of seeing the body returned to the soil or the furnace, entombed, lovingly submitted for research, or in cold climates, vaulted to wait for spring.

When all of the family participation is relinquished, a sad commentary on our loss of humanness emerges. We sometimes forget that the body was the house of the magnificent spirit that once was here and dwelled in that body. The body provided a means for us to see and embrace that spirit, that personality. When that spirit departs, our respect and care for the bodily remains reflect our caring and respect for the spirit of the dearly departed itself.

In recent years, there have been many repercussions from families' neglect of actually seeing their loved ones' remains to the final resting place. The national news media have reported incidents in which morticians have been accused and convicted of fraud for improper disposal of remains. In October 1994, families discovered in Ft. Meyers, Fla., that their "sensitive and sincere," skilled mortician had secreted 32 bodies in a storage shed and a boarded-up funeral home. In another case in Gallatin, Tenn., a mortician pleaded guilty to fraud after he was accused of selling expensive caskets to the families, then changing to cardboard or less expensive caskets for the actual burial. One stillborn child was found wrapped in a plastic bag and buried 12 inches beneath the ground.

It is not unusual for people to place complete trust in the funeral director, who has long enjoyed two roles. One is that of professional counselor. In some instances the funeral director is imbued with a reverence similar to that held for clergy, no doubt because he or she has responsibility for caring for the remains of loved ones. Indeed, in the minds of some people, the funeral director is caring for the very essence of the departed one. It is understandable, then, that grieving families often turn themselves and their plans and resources over to the funeral director. They are reluctant to cause a stir when the director does not honor traditional or desired practices, such as letting them witness the body's descent into the grave. Some will recall these words: "This is the completion of the service; please retire to your homes." Out of reverence, respect and, perhaps, deference and intimidation, most families obey.

Happily, most funeral directors and crematorium managers are ethical and respectful and do not deserve the bad press that results from the reports of unethical or criminal behavior on the part of their fellows. Still, if families will take back their right to be the final authority in the proper disposal of their loved ones' remains, it will serve to prevent even the opportunity for unethical or overwhelmed directors or managers to desecrate the remains of their loved ones. When one can pass a cemetery and see a coffin sitting there alone under a canopy, apparently abandoned, there is potentiality for disrespect and abuse. Such a sight means that an anonymous gravedigger has the "honor" of burying the body. No loved family member to place a flower on the coffin on its descent, no one to place the first shovelful of earth.

Whose responsibility is it to help families have the courage and power to fulfill their duty to their deceased members? The duty falls to the clergy to assume responsibility for carrying out the complete funeral process. Indeed, clergy persons recite words of committal, such as "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," so it behooves them to finish the ritual, to include helping the family oversee a reverent disposal. The clergy's authoritative and benevolent guidance is necessary because the funeral director's primary role is that of businessperson. The time and financial expediency of funeral directors are important, and so they must balance when cemetery staff is available, what days require overtime pay, cient businessperson can easily overshadow the role of reverent professional counselor.

The clergy is the prime comforter at a time when grief or shock has sapped the vitality of the bereaved. Seeing the dead into the final resting place provides power, closure and release, and can prevent a state of emotional denial. With kind comfort the clergy can help the family to accept the finality, without lingering doubts that death has occurred, or guilt about their failure to carry out the final courtesy for a loved one. The clergy can help our communities now to return to some of the family practices that honor the dead. There is peace and release inherent in the finished process of a respectful, decent, dignified burial or disposal.

The abandonment of the family responsibility for proper disposal is but another example of the creeping impersonalization which is governing more and more aspects of our lives today. There are certain responsibilities which we must not wholly commit to professionals or other institutions. The family is the primary institution and must maintain its responsibilities for respect for and care of its members. If we lose respect for the dead we also lose respect and meaning for their sojourn here. And, in the process of disrespect for the dead, we lose compassion and respect for the living. S

Mabel Gilbert Wells is an associate professor emerita in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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