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Why it Matters; A Father’s Reflections on the Value of Viewing
By: Shane A.S. Ritchie, CFSP
I always considered myself an advocate for the value of viewing, but I will admit that dealing with the negative information that seems to come from everywhere regarding viewings and funerals in general (the internet is ripe with scathing articles), coupled with the day to challenges of the funeral profession can sometimes leave you feeling that people just don’t care anymore. But on occasion, we are called on to help people make some sort of sense and take some sort of meaning from an event that often makes no sense and whose meaning is seemingly impossible to decipher; the sudden, tragic death of someone they love. In 2007 just such an instance changed the way I looked at the value of embalming and viewing forever.
The young lady was 24 years old when she was very suddenly stricken with breathing difficulties. A trip to her doctor resulted in a diagnoses of a respiratory infection for which she was prescribed antibiotics and told to rest for a few days. Within two days her condition had worsened drastically. She was talking incoherently, evidence of hypoxia, and could hardly breathe. Her family called 911 and she was taken to a local hospital where she was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs. She was placed in the ICU, put on IV medications and oxygen.
About 3:00 AM the following morning her condition worsened again and she was placed into a drug induced coma and put on a respirator to help her breathe. Over the next 14 days, in spite of the best efforts of her doctors, her condition gradually deteriorated and her organs began to shut down. She began to look as if she had gained about 100 pounds due to the introduction of large amounts of IV fluids. On Saturday, March 3, 2007 at approximately 9:30 AM, she passed away with her family at her side. She never regained consciousness.
Her father stood at her bedside with tears streaming down, heart shattered, helpless, hopeless, feeling totally numb and so alone. Mad at the doctors for not being able to save his baby, though he knew they had done all they could. Mad at God for taking her way too soon, but mostly mad at himself for not being able to protect her as a daddy is supposed to do. You see, I know all this because this girl was my beautiful daughter, Felicity.
At that moment I found myself in a very foreign position. After helping others through the death of loved ones, I suddenly I found myself on the other side of a situation I had been involved with a thousand times before. Confused and in shock I began to understand what all
those families were feeling when they came to me for help. There was never any question in my mind. It was not a case of whether I wanted to see her; I had to see her, to hold her hand, and tell her goodbye. I asked a trusted friend who was an experienced embalmer to take care of my baby and please do everything he could to make this possible.
When the day of her visitation and funeral came, I was emotionally and physically drained. My embalmer friend put his arm around me and walked me to the casket, holding onto me and giving me support that was absolutely invaluable. I could feel his compassion and concern though he didn’t say a word.
I have to tell you that at the visitation I really don’t remember much other than she looked beautiful. No traces of the edema, no tubes, no wires, remained to mar her lovely face. Through the pain of grief, I realized that my friend had given me a gift that no amount of money could have adequately compensated him for; he gave me my daughter back so that I could tell her how much I love her one last time to tell her goodbye.
My ex-wife Mary, Felicity’s mother, had a very different experience. A well-meaning but misinformed “friend” decided to be helpful and give her a handful of Xanax tablets the morning of the visitation to help her “cope”. Not realizing what a powerful effect these drugs can have, she took them thinking they would someone help her face this nightmare that no parent should have to face. Unfortunately, the effects were so pronounced that she sat half conscience throughout and could barely even stay awake. For all intents and purposes, she missed the whole thing. In the days and weeks that followed she grieved to the point that she could no longer work. She would set for hours upon hours watching the memorial video and sorting through Felicity’s pictures and various personal items. Over the course of a year she went from 165 pounds to around 95 pounds. I could see that she was suffering from complicated grief brought on by never being able to say goodbye. The last memory she had of our daughter was the lifeless, edematous body with the wires and tubes at the hospital.
In November of 2009, Mary died from an intentional overdose of the same pills that had robbed her of the healing experience that had meant so much to me. I truly believe that she died from the grief of a broken heart vastly complicated by never being able to say goodbye. If these two extremes that I have personally experienced in my own life don’t sufficiently tell the story of the value of viewing, I don’t know what possibly could.
What we do as embalmers is a calling of the highest order. When a family entrusts us with the last part on earth of someone they love, it is an awesome honor and responsibility. We sometimes perform our tasks not thinking of the incredible emotional and spiritual impact our work carries. I can tell you with no doubt whatsoever that had my embalmer friend not been able to do the incredible work he did; I would likely not be here today. Embalmers are the only people who can make that experience for families possible and my friend performed flawlessly. I am forever in his debt.
In the months that followed my daughter’s death I began to realize that one of the biggest problems with our profession is that too much of the time, we have lost sight of what those who come to us truly need. When people needed true concern, compassion, and to be educated on the true value of embalming and viewing the body, we gave them pretty boxes, boxes with seals, boxes for boxes, memory drawers, every manner of trinket, and, of course, celebrations of life where the body need not be there to spoil the party atmosphere.
When the going got tough, too many in our profession just did as they were told and obediently closed the lid; no attempt to educate. Instead of an alternative to burial, we have allowed cremation to become an alternative to bother, with no, or at the most, an anemic attempt to teach the reasons why people have had funerals since the beginning of time. Where does this leave those who come to us for expertise and help? As Thomas Lynch so eloquently put it, “you can pay the bartender, you can pay the shrink, or you can pay the undertaker. Either way the dead will exact their pound of emotional flesh from the living”.
With all the positives that I experienced from viewing, even in the face of the most horrible instance of my life, I know the true value of what only a skilled embalmer can offer. American society in general is immature, confused, and conflicted about death and need proper guidance now more than ever. We must hold ourselves, our colleagues and our profession to a higher standard. The days of mortuary school being the completion of our formal embalming and restorative art education must come to an end. Constant learning and skills improvement must be a lifelong journey. We cannot afford, and most importantly, the families we serve cannot emotionally afford, anything less than our very best.
So what does the future hold? No one can be certain but throughout history men and women of great passion have moved mountains and succeeded against insurmountable odds. It is my plea to you, as the leaders in our profession, is to start a grassroots effort to respond in a knowledgeable way to all the negative information that is out there. We must write and speak at every opportunity. Take your story to every news outlet in your area. Put articles on your website and Facebook site. Offer to speak to churches, civic groups, state associations, schools, etc. We cannot allow others, who often have no expertise at all, to define who we are. If we don’t tell our story, who will?
I ask now that you all join me and make a commitment today to cultivate and practice “A Dedication to Educating on the Value of Viewing”.