The Lifeline: How Viewing the Body Helped Me Let Go
Twenty years ago, my grandfather died. He was the grandfather I knew the best and the longest. He loved me dearly and I him.
He lived and died 600 miles from me and, although I got there as fast as I could when I heard the news, it wasn’t fast enough. He was gone.
I kept calm... surely there will be a viewing. Please tell me, Grandma, that I can go to the funeral home down the Street and see his body. I need to do that. I need to see him one last time.
She looked at me like I had grown horns. She wasn’t going to pay for an embalming and a cremation. What sense would that make? Throwing good money after bad. She hadn’t gotten to where she was in the world by being a fool with finances. And she wasn’t going to be a fool now.
I just stared at her, disbelieving. My beloved grandfather was gone; his body was gone. And, that was that.
I ran to his bedroom, sick with grief. I grabbed his bathrobe and held it to my face. The robe smelled like him. I started to panic. Maybe if I drove to the crematorium fast enough maybe nothing had happened yet. I could still have a chance to see his body before...
I ran to Grandma again. When were they going to cremate him? Maybe it hadn’t happened yet. She looked at me again like I was really pushing her patience. She told me that of course it had been done already... you couldn’t wait on a thing like that.
I was stunned into silence, feeling cheated and alone.
What it would’ve meant to have his body to cry over. What a relief it would’ve been to have seen his face relaxed instead of contorted with the pain of cancer and the betrayal of old age.
Yet, Grandma had made the decision she thought was best. After all, she had lived through the war years and the Great
Depression. She had seen her father lose everything he had in the ‘30s. She had always been able to stretch a dollar further than anyone I knew. She was being the “practical” person she had always been. Embalming a person who was just going to be cremated didn’t make practical sense. You know what he looked like and you have your memories and that’s enough.
My no-nonsense (and dearly loved) grandmother lived another ten years. Nine of the ten years were good ones, filled with the joys of great-grandchildren and wonderful holidays. Her final year was a rough one, filled with dialysis appointments, exhaustion and the quiet, yet persistent look on her face that said “ This isn’t going well.” One sunny February afternoon, as she awaited further tests in the hospital, she closed her eyes for a nap and never woke up.
When I got the phone call, my heart fell. My grandmother, my last living grandparent was dead. As the news sank in, I had another horrible realization… I would never see her again. She would, no doubt, be cremated immediately. Why would I think otherwise?
My aunt, another practical person, was in charge of making the arrangements. Her usual business-like demeanor, however, was now punctuated with wrenching sobs and blank stares. I hugged her and we talked. And, somewhere in the middle of a conversation about eulogies and arranging for lunch after the memorial service, she made a matter-of- fact statement: “There will be a viewing.” With those five simple words, I felt like I had been thrown a lifeline.
And so, two days later, I walked into a funeral home where a kindly gentleman directed me to a small, quiet room. I stood over my grandmother’s body. I touched her and stroked her hair and whispered my love to her. I traced the lines on her face with my fingertips and looked at the hands that had held me with such tenderness. I had my grandmother with me one last time. It was a precious and wonderous day.
Dawn Finnigan is a student at Mt. Royal College. Originally published by Canadian Funeral News, June 2006, page 41.