I’m reading Cries Unheard: The Case of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny, written in 1998 about a ten-year-old British girl who, in 1968, murdered two small boys by strangulation. This book was based on several interviews with Mary Bell, now living under an assumed name.
Mary spoke of not really understanding the permanence of death; of saying she knew she had killed the boys but didn’t know that meant “dead forever.” She explained that she had never known anyone who had died; that she had a dog who died “several times” and came back; her father had simply replaced the dog with an identical one, as many of us do for our children when their pets die.
I’m not suggesting she wouldn’t have turned into a killer if her father had simply said the dog died. But many parents do possibly damage their children, unintentionally, by keeping secrets around life’s biggest fear.
One mother told me of her autistic child who was finally making progress with a therapist. He was seven years old and had just started speaking for the first time. Then the therapist died. The mother, not knowing what to say, told her son that the therapist moved away.
So this autistic child who had just learned how to relate to another human being was then led to believe his trusted helper had abruptly moved away without saying goodbye, because his mother did not know how to say the words she died.
I can’t say I’ve always been completely honest with my children about death. I remember telling my oldest daughter the gerbil had died; she was just over two years old and would then announce “Stubby got dead” whenever we had a visitor. She would also tell her father she hoped the visitors would not kill our chickens. But when my youngest, not yet two, stabbed a snail she had been playing with, I told her it was sleeping. She had been having fun with it and kept asking what happened, and I just didn’t want to tell her.
Both kids know what I do for a living; the oldest doesn’t want to hear about it and the youngest was a little TOO interested. I hope she considers a career in the funeral industry, because I have this desire to turn her into a broke, bitter alcoholic. Actually I don’t know anyone like that…I just have an incredible skill that I wish to pass along, and I don’t see my oldest really interested in any kind of career.
I have always believed children belong at funerals (though disruptive behavior should never be allowed). If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve. Children belong in the viewing room at an open casket. They should see their grandfather, their mother, their baby brother who didn’t make it. I believe there is almost no chance a child will be “traumatized” by viewing a body, and a very good chance they could be traumatized by not receiving closure; by not understanding the finality of death.
If you say that Mom went off to have a baby and then Mom comes back with no baby and no one ever speaks of it again, what does the child learn? I think a great lesson for that child to learn is that sometimes babies die; that even though this baby (who should have a name that is SAID) couldn’t live with us, we can have a meaningful ceremony to say goodbye. We can bury him with toys and blankets that we had wanted to give to him, and no matter how many other children we have (if any), this baby will always mean something to us. He was a person. He was our son, your brother, not this thing that we just don’t discuss.
We think dead bodies are gross and scary and no child would want to see one. We believe this because we are told it is so. I’ll bet none of you can name one gross thing about a dead body that is not present in a living body, aside from decomposition, which most of you will never see, and which I would discourage a child from viewing.
Dead bodies smell bad. No, decomposition smells bad. Funeral homes smell bad. Embalming fluid smells bad. Nursing homes smell bad. If your relative died at home in normal conditions, it would take days before any noticeable decomposition or odor would set in.
There is blood everywhere. Have you ever seen a birth? Far more blood. When I work on a body I usually have a small area around my table to mop up. When I had a baby at home, the entire living room and kitchen were draped in plastic. If you weigh yourself right after giving birth and see that you have lost fifteen pounds, and the baby was only nine pounds, the remaining six pounds are in fluids all over your house. And, of course, no funeral home will present a bleeding body in a casket for a public viewing.
Dead bodies feel weird. Embalmed bodies are very stiff and dry, which is necessary for preservation and for cosmetic restoration. Most people are only touching the face and hands, but there are fluids that are meant to give a more “lifelike” feel to the skin, and I will use these fluids if the deceased was very young and is likely to be hugged a lot in addition to being viewed. Unembalmed bodies feel no different than living tissue, except for being colder. The stiffness known as rigor mortis appears within 36 hours of death and disappears in about the same time later.
I think rather than dead bodies being gross and scary, they simply remind us of our own discomfort and our own subconscious fear of death. Seeing death means seeing what will happen to you.
I remember, years before becoming a funeral director, seeing posts on an online message board from a woman whose premature baby had died. There were several photos of the baby, Mary Rose, who looked like the pictures you see of fetal development at about five months. My two-year-old daughter saw what I was looking at and exclaimed “A baby!” She didn’t scream about a dead body or say it was gross. Many (male) embalmers will discourage a mother from viewing a premature baby because these babies do not look like what we imagine babies to be. They sometimes have no facial features; they are too small for clothing; their skin will always be a dark purplish color due to rapid decomposition (the only way to embalm these babies is to submerge them in fluid overnight; this will stain the skin orange and leave a strong chemical smell).
I always say, let me be the judge…as a mother, there are certain situations I’m just plain better qualified to handle. I look at the baby and then ask the mom if she has seen him yet. If she has, I ask how he looked. I have never heard a mother say “gross” or “nasty.” If she has not seen the baby – such as a surgical birth under anesthesia where the baby was immediately removed to the morgue – I will describe his appearance and encourage her to view. I have not had one mother who regretted it.
Most fathers can attest to being far more grossed out at their child’s birth than at a funeral.