This I Believe

Cheryl - Pitman, New Jersey
Entered on May 10, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: death
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This I Believe

I believe that I have to see the corpse. The dead body of someone I cared about tells me something that allows me to go on living. Meghan, our daughter who lives about two hours away, recently called to say she was taking Crumpet, her beloved cat, for the last visit to the vet.

“I’m not even coming home here. I’ll drive directly to you and Dad. We can bury her in the side yard.”

The side yard, our pet cemetery, holds tropical fish, goldfish, bunnies, chipmunks, the 21-year-old cat who introduced our three children to animals—and even a butterfly.

When Meghan arrived with the cardboard box, I asked to see Crumpet.

“Sure, Mom,” she said, “I put her on the front seat because I thought as I drove here that I’d reach in and pet her. But I didn’t. I held her while she got the shot and in just moments she was so not there.”

Years ago, in my 20s and 30s, I read in death and dying literature that it was important to see the corpse of someone you cared about. I thought all funeral customs were barbaric then. Why would anyone need or want to see a corpse? Now I’m 60; I believe in seeing the corpse. This is not to say that I believe that all funerals should be open casket. Closing the casket can focus attention on the grieving—which is often as it should be. However, if the deceased is someone I care about, I want to see the corpse.

Sometimes this hasn’t been possible—with my beloved grandparents and more recently with my brother—but it’s easier to let go, to grieve and go on if I can see the corpse.

Though I saw my father the day before he died, I needed to see his corpse two days later when I flew back for his funeral. I could look at him and, like Meghan, assure myself that he was truly not there. My brother was cremated immediately after his death and, though I’d seen how sick he was and didn’t want him to suffer any more, there’s still a part of me that believes he’s living in that body somewhere. Now I know that’s not true. Whenever I’ve seen a corpse, I know that the vital part of that person, or animal, the part I love, is so not there.

Religiously, I’m at the point that is popularly referred to as “spiritual but not religious.” Seeing the corpse transcends religion. It allows me to let go, yes, but it also promises me something. I remember the law of conservation of matter and energy I learned in school. Nothing is lost. I believe the energy of the dead is not lost. I have no idea where it goes or in what form, but I believe that those I love still exist. Seeing how absent they are from their corpses helps me accept that. This I believe.