Noah Pozner’s mother chose to see his body after he was killed in the Newtown, CT school shooting of 2012. She felt that she, “owed it to him as his mother” to be with him through the “good, the bad, and the ugly.” The viewing happened at the funeral, as he lay in a box, looking “like he was sleeping.” She described how his thick, shiny black hair lay on a pillow, his “beautiful, long eyelashes” resting on his cheeks.
Noah’s mother was one of the few Newtown parents to see their child once the bodies were released for cremation or burial. After the massacre, Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. H. Wayne Carter II, allowed families to identify their children from photographs rather than permitting access to the remains. In his opinion, it was “easier on the families” to do it this way.
Blog posts soon appeared raising questions about the authority of the medical examiner to restrict access to the dead. How hard must it have been for those grief-stricken parents to be separated from their children? Yes, coroners and medical examiners have the right to bar individuals from “the scene” and from the victims’ remains, if this may compromise an investigation into the cause and nature of death, especially at a crime scene. But should officials have the right to determine whether a body is viewable?
The edited research article from the British Medical Journal Looking at Death (our title), was the inspiration for this issue of NTM Responding to Crisis. The authors consider whether officials should encourage or discourage viewings after traumatic death, or whether they should promote informed choice.
Grief that arises after sudden death can be more complicated simply because no-one had a chance to prepare. There were no advance farewells, reconciliations, confessions of love, all of which can bring closure to life. So the aftermath of death is of even greater significance. In cases of unexpected bereavement, families may experience an even more urgent need to find closure and resolution. Compassionate support staff like victim advocates and grief counselors can make a difference, helping families find opportunities, not simply to survive and cope with loss, but to integrate and heal from it.