As a youngster I experienced the deaths of my paternal grandmother, a cousin who was killed in an automobile accident and a babysitter from my neighborhood who was killed in Vietnam. Of course, my parents required me to go to the viewings as a sign of respect for those people who were a part of my life. I did as I was told, but I never saw much sense in looking at a dead body. Over the years I attended many wakes and always wondered the same thing, why is it so important that we view our dead before burial?
Fast forward to 2003 when my beloved father died suddenly and unexpectedly. My dad was a big man, former prison guard and an avid angler. In spite of his size and the fact that most of my friends were afraid of him, my dad had a gentle heart and generous spirit. Throughout my life he was the anchor of the family and my mother
and siblings loved him dearly. He began his life as the orphan of a father killed in a mining accident; the economic status of the family was further affected by the onset of the Great Depression. At the age of 17 Dad enlisted in the Navy, lying about his age to serve during World War II. After the war he moved to Wilmington to join his mother and sister who moved here after my father and his two brothers joined the service. In 1949 he met my mother during a visit to the dentist where she was a dental assistant. My dad asked her out on a date and the rest is our family history. They were married on Jan. 8, 1949, and spent almost 55 years together raising four children and helping to raise their grandson.
On Dec. 4, 2003, Dad came downstairs and told my mother he was not feeling well. I was due to come over to the house that morning, so Dad was waiting patiently in his recliner for me to take him to the hospital. At some point he passed out and my mom wisely called 911. When I drove up to the house I saw the ambulance and knew something was wrong. Paramedics were working to revive Dad and he was rushed to Christiana Hospital where he died. Upon arriving at the hospital, my mom, sister, older brother and I were escorted to a conference room where we were informed of my dad’s death. We were all shocked and numb with grief, however, when the doctor asked if we wanted to see Dad, we all agreed. This was not a pleasant experience, since Dad’s body had tubes in his nose and was quite disheveled. The sight of my mother caressing his bruised face and telling him how much she loved him, was almost too much to bear. I cautioned my sister to quiet her hysterics, as this would further upset my mother.
In making the funeral arrangements, my older brother said that dad never wanted a viewing. I replied that funerals were for the living and we would abide by mom’s wishes. She wisely chose to have a morning viewing the day of the Mass and entombment. Upon arriving at the funeral home I had a little time to spend with my dad. Approaching the casket I was struck by how nice he looked. The funeral director had done a superb job of restoring my dad to his everyday appearance.
For some reason the site of my dad looking at peace did a great deal to comfort me. I could now see the value of viewing the body as an important part of the grieving and healing process. While there was sadness in knowing Dad was physically gone from us we were able to remember all of the wonderful things he did for us during his 80 years on this earth.
In the eight years since Dad’s passing, his presence remains a part of every family gathering. We remember the happy and sad times and always are so grateful that Dad was a part of our lives. In Dad’s later years he often reminded us to pray for him when he was gone from this earth. He often said he realized that he was just not good enough to get directly into heaven and our prayers would help him get there. Not a day goes by that I do not pray for Dad.
Not everyone has someone alive to pray for them. Although prayers for our dead should be a part of our daily prayers, we often forget to remember those who have no one to pray for them. This is why the church designates November as a time of prayer for our faithful departed with a special reminder to pray for the Poor Souls. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.”
This article is by Mark Christian, the director of the diocesan Cemeteries office.