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The corpse in the casket

When my son was about six or seven years old, he was seized with a sudden urge to see a dead body.

“I want to see a dead body,” he informed me solemnly.


“I don’t know.”

“How about a picture of a dead body?”

“No,” he said. “A real one.”

I wavered and procrastinated. Sometimes he had these sudden impulses that disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared.

Other times, he wouldn’t let go until I conjured up whatever it was he needed, like the time he needed to touch a pig.

In the case of the dead body, as in the case of the pig, procrastinating didn’t work. He kept bringing it up, day after day.

“I want to see a dead body.”
“I want to see a dead body.”
“I want to see a dead body.”

I started scanning the obituaries, looking for a suitable dead body. Someone old. Someone we didn’t know. Someone being waked at a funeral home within walking distance. Someone with a large family, so we could just blend it amongst the legitimate mourners, sidle up to the casket, catch a quick glimpse and slip out again.

Eventually someone met my criteria. He was an old man with a large family, and he was being waked at the Kelly Funeral Home on Somerset Street.

James was very serious and quiet at the wake. He hung onto my hand and at the moment of reckoning, he hesitated and hung back a little.

“We don’t have to,” I said, “If you’ve changed your mind.”

“No,” he said grimly, “I want to.”

We approached the casket and he peered at the old man for a few moments.

Then he squeezed my hand, whispered “okay” and we slipped away.

He seemed more relaxed after he’d seen the dead body than before, and it seemed to put the matter to rest.

Contrast this with my first dead body. Eleanor was a woman in my community and I liked her very much. She had a horse named Star and she would invite me over to ride him. Then she’d make me grilled cheese sandwiches and we’d chat. She was 27 years old when she suddenly keeled over during a baseball game. I was about 12 or 13. She spent the next few months in the Civic Hospital, where she died. I still don’t know what she died of.

I went to her wake. It was an open casket and there were two lineups by the casket. As you approached the casket you had to go through the lineup of her in-laws. As you left the casket, you had to go through the lineup of her parents and siblings. You were to shake each person’s hand and say something nice.

As we neared the first lineup, I suddenly felt acutely anxious and veered away. I didn’t want to shake anybody’s hand. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to see Eleanor’s dead body. But one of her in-laws seized me by the shoulders and pulled me back into the lineup. I was propelled forward and pushed toward the casket. I saw her dead body.

Eleanor was a farmer. She dressed for comfort and practicality. She didn’t wear makeup. She wore her hair in a ponytail. She was beautiful and healthy. Eleanor’s dead body wasn’t anything like Eleanor. It was heavily made up and powdery and its hair was fancy and it wore a dress and jewelry. And it was dead.

I found it very disturbing.

I’ve seen lots of dead bodies since, and I’ve found pretty much all of them disturbing, especially after the embalmers and undertakers have had their way. Dead bodies are so chalky and thin and groomed and transparent and…corpse-like. I think it’s the artificiality that disturbs me the most. The way they get stripped of their personal style. The way their hair is done. The way their suit is too big for their shrunken body. The way their hands are folded on their chest. All the attempts to make them look more lifelike just seem to emphasize the fact that they’re dead.

Maybe James had it right. Maybe it’s best if your first dead body is a stranger, when all you have to deal with is the fact that it’s a dead body. You don’t have to feel any grief, and you don’t have to reconcile the dead body with your memories of the person you loved who used to inhabit it.

10 comments to The corpse in the casket

  • I didn’t find Gramma Eady disturbing at all. I was so relieved actually. She looked like herself before going to Bingo, and she was wearing her glasses. I liked that.

    Everyone else has made me sad because it was so clear that the people who tended the body were strangers, who didn’t know the person at all. Otherwise, they’d have done their hair and everything else differently.

  • I’ve never been a fan of open casket. I don’t understand the need to walk up to the casket and say goodbye to the body – the person isn’t there any more. But maybe some people need that physical representation for closure – as for myself, I’ve told my family I don’t want my body on display – and both my Dad and I want to go out viking style – floated out into the water and lit on fire! – I doubt Natural Resources would go for that though….

  • XUP

    My first dead body was in high school. Like your son, I also decided it was high time I saw a dead body and pursuaded my friend to accompany me to the local funeral home and see who was on display. Fortunately it was also someone old with a lot of people milling around. I’m sure they’re still wondering who those teenage girls were that showed up at grampa’s wake. I find dead bodies look unreal even before the undertaker has his way with them. The essential humaness always seems to be missing — making them look like plastic shells.

  • Manon

    When my mother passed away 4 years ago, my stepfather was persuaded by the funeral home to have an open casket visitation. When she was alive, my mother always proclaimed her disapproval of open caskets, which she considered to be “in very poor taste”. I was shocked when I arrived at the visitation and saw her in her open casket. When I approached, nerves and the memory of what she had said years ago nearly made me laugh uncontrollably. She looked, well… so thoroughly pissed off, it reminded me of her face when I had done something she disapproved of (which was rather often, as I got older). It didn’t look like her at all, just a very angry version of her. I made sure after that to spell out in my will exactly the way I wished for my remains to be taken care of. I have no problem with open casket visitations, if that is the wish of the deceased; I object to funeral homes taking advantage of a vulnerable family member by convincing them to spend extra money on enbalming when the deceased had specifically given instructions to the funeral home, but not bothered to communicate these instructions to the rest of the family. All that to say, unless the funeral home is given a photo of the way the person looked when they were alive, the deceased rarely looks like they did in real life. I had a feeling of detachment when I saw my mother and I felt upset for her that she ended up ironically the way she objected to the most.

  • Deb

    I always found that people who wore glasses looked more like themselves. I am telling my whole family now, I do not want an open casket…there are enough of you here to make sure it never happens.

  • I just told my husband I want to be cremated…none of this open casket stuff. I also told him I’d haunt him if he cheaps out on the catering too. Thanks for sparking that important subject.

  • I also don’t see why so many people want the open casket. The first time I saw an open casket was for a friend who was only about 21 years old who had died of cancer. It was so tragic and I remember that my eyes were drawn to the casket, but that I didn’t really want to look. It felt like I was gawking at the scene of a traffic accident.
    But ultimately it should be up to the person and their immediate family.

  • Thanks so much for your comment. I have been lurking here for a while and I really love your blog. Your voice has really resonated with me and I have gone back and am making my way through your older posts. You helped to get me going with my own writing, so thank you for the inspiration (sounds hokey, but is true).

  • reb


    The first time I saw a dead body was in my early teens too. A neighbor’s son chose not to wear a seatbelt while partying with other teens. I remember he just looked like he was asleep. the next time it was my Grandmother and although we chose a closed casket for the public times we had an open casket time for us. Since then I have been at way to many funerals and wakes and I agree that it is very weird to see people made up in ways they would never look in real life.

  • Krista M

    My dad is a minister, so dead bodies are just part of the day to day…actually, I have assisted him with lots of visitations to terminally ill people to bring them communion, pray with them, or just hang out and watch tv, so often it is a relief to see them in the casket finally at peace.

    A schoolmate of mine died when I was in 8th grade from an accidental gunshot wound to the head…parents, lock up your guns!. It was so sudden and so tragic that the whole town was destroyed. Anyway, his dead body did a number on me.

    I would never make someone view the body, like what happened to you. That’s just thoughtless and rude, in my opinion.