By Maurice Lamm
From the standpoint of psychotherapy, the idea of viewing the corpse as standard funeral procedure because of the therapeutic value inherent in the practice has not been proved clinically and, in fact, appears to contradict the very basic thrust of its method. "Grief therapy" works, it is claimed, to soften the shock of death. It alleviates that sudden cut-off and, momentarily, returns those lost to us.
But, if therapy is conceived as a form of self-enlightenment and self-understanding, what valid function can viewing perform? Shall we believe that man requires a neurotic distortion of truth in order to protect himself from the trauma of truth? It seems far more sensible to rely on the faith that man can summon the strength with which to confront the raw, if sometimes bitter, truth without the aid of fabricated distortions. Viewing is as much "grief therapy" as painting a jail with bright colors is "thief therapy."
It may also be that not only is viewing not therapeutic, but is, in fact, injurious to the viewer. The first stage of mourning is characterized by anger, despair, and the denial of death. Fixation on any one of these reactions represents, from the psychological point of view, a pathological response. It is entirely conceivable that viewing may lead to a fixation on the denial of death. The refusal to give up the object of love is perpetuated by the illusion of life that the embalmers strive so mightily to create. The religious ritual of the funeral compels one to acknowledge the finality of the physical loss, and thus enables the "working through" of the grief process. To fix one's mind on what should be an ephemeral reaction is possibly to short-circuit the entire effectiveness of the grief process.
To speculate further, is it not possible that viewing may meet the bizarre needs of certain individuals and precipitate vicarious deviations from the usual grief reactions? Indeed, it is possible that in a predisposed person it may give onset to excessive fantasies or delusions. It does not mean, of course, that the result must be pathological, but it may certainly create a variant response to mourning.
There is, unfortunately, little statistical data available on the entire subject, but speculation compels one to regard this self-styled "grief therapy" with the gravest suspicion.