Roma: Death and American Funeral Essays

Submitted By chayoyazmin1998
Words: 492
Pages: 2

An Introduction to the Viewing

The central event of a contemporary American funeral ritual - and the focus of

the funeral home – is the viewing. After the death, but before the funeral

ceremony and burial, the family and closest friends of the deceased gather at the

funeral home and are visited by interested membersof the public (usually more

distant friends and relatives). These visitors are expected to express their

condolences to the bereaved and to “view” the corpse. In certain circumstances,

the casket is “closed,” but this is an exception rather than the rule – in some

instances the body is too disfigured to display and at others, religious

prohibition or individual preference is honored by the funeral director.

Americans are not the first or only ones to incorporate looking upon the dead

body into their funeral rituals, nor did the practice originate with the funeral

home. The first Europeans to settle in North America brought with them the

tradition of laying the body out inside the home before it was buried, during

which time neighbors could visit the home of the bereaved and take a last look

at the deceased. There are variations on this practice in other times and cultures,

with two important examples being the Christian “wake” and the Jewish

religious ritual, the “watching.” In both of these cases, the gaze upon the body is

active and inquisitive, searching the body for signs of movement or life in order

to avoid giving the person a premature burial.

Although medical science has removed all doubt in the process of verifying

death, the word “wake” continues to be used for the social gathering at the

funeral home. On the one hand, this reinforces the fundamental importance of

the gaze and its production or denial in many death rituals throughout human

history; on the other hand, however, it suggests that viewing practices in relation

to the dead are often circumstantial and are formed as much by their social

context as historical rituals. Often, as Jessica Mitford explained in her 1963 bestseller,