Once again: embalming is not required for viewing. Funeral homes are required to tell you this, in writing and when you meet with them. However, each funeral home or other facility can set their own policies when it comes to viewing of an unembalmed body, and most will restrict viewing to immediate family only. Although it sounds crude, a body on display is advertising for the funeral home, and people who view the body will form an opinion about the funeral home, and will spread the word. The general public cannot be expected to know just how much embalming can improve a person’s appearance; they may not know the body wasn’t embalmed at all because of the assumption many people still have that embalming is required. They will assume the funeral home staff are simply unskilled.

During my first year as an intern, I remember one such viewing. The lady had been dead for about two days and had severe postmortem staining on the face (purple bruising; common in bodies not found for a day or so after death). I washed and dressed her and did her hair as best as I could and set her on a table in the viewing room. I remember thinking she was a very pretty lady and it was a shame that I would not be able to fully reveal that, just because her family wanted to save a few dollars.

During the arrangement, we told the family that our policy – not the law – was to allow only immediate family to view an unembalmed body. And wouldn’t you know; they just happened to have fifty “immediate” family members who all lined up outside the viewing room. Literally; they stood in single file and the line reached the funeral home parking lot. And one by one, they all walked in and voiced displeasure at the appearance of their…cousin, according to everyone. “May I ask how you are related to her?” “She’s my cousin.” How many cousins can someone have? And even if that were true, since when is a cousin “immediate” family?

One little girl looked right at me and said, “My grandfather said you did a very poor job.” Her mother admonished her, saying, “Sweetie, it’s because she’s been dead for so long.” No, it was because she was not embalmed.

Later, I worked for another funeral home who clearly spelled out their “immediate family” policy. Spouse, parent, child. In the case of a child death; siblings were allowed as well. Now obviously, if your sister dies and you really are her only living relative, I’m not going to say “NO! Get out!” But it was good that viewing of human remains not in their best condition was restricted to those who were very close to that person; those who had been offered the option of embalming and had declined.

I serve a lot of migrant Mexican families, and I have learned some about how different cultures view “immediate” family. A few weeks ago I had a severely mutilated case and was uncertain if I could make him viewable. I put a lot of work into him and considered him marginal. It would be ok. He basically needed a whole new face and I was able to create something that looked like a human face.

And then I saw a family photo of him…and said hell no. This case is not viewable. I had restored the body to the look of a human male, but I could not recreate the handsome boy I saw in the photo. What’s the point of viewing if you don’t recognize the person? It would be basically me showing them a dead body and just asking them to take my word for it that it was him. And if that’s how it’s going to be, why not just show them another body who wasn’t so badly wrecked?

But I have learned, with every Hispanic family I have served over the last two years, they don’t take “no viewing” for an answer. I’ve had some of them barge in wanting to view in the middle of the autopsy repair. “Just throw a sheet over him.” Or even a decomposing body; it doesn’t matter how bad the person looks, how they died or how long they were dead before coming to me – they are going to view him.

And we cannot tell them no. We can strongly recommend they not view, and can even make them sign a waiver (which I drafted, in English and Spanish, in this particular instance). And we can still restrict the viewing, even of an embalmed case, to immediate family only.

My mother is very fluent in Spanish and has studied in Mexico, and she brought us there for a vacation one year when I was about eight or nine. They do “family” a little differently…or maybe my family is just sad and lame and scattered everywhere…but we spent most of our time staying in various homes rather than hotels, and while I don’t even know how many cousins I have, in Mexico, you might grow up with your cousin. You might spend your entire life living with your parents, and when you marry and have your own children, you all still live with one set of parents. I remember women in their twenties asking their brother’s permission before going on a date. I couldn’t fathom asking my little brother if I could date a particular man; I used to pour juice all over his room when we argued, or rip pages out of his nature magazines and then sell them back to him for a quarter.

The rules of “immediate family only” cannot apply across all cultures. You are not “just a cousin” if you grew up together and lived together and perhaps were still living together when he died. Luckily my intern is Hispanic and can educate me when I need it, otherwise I probably would have just told that family no and ended up with very upset people.

The family had their viewing. They did not recognize him. But evidently he had some sort of foot anomaly [not noticed by me] by which they would know it was him, and they asked to see his feet. I cut away the layers of plastic I had wrapped around his legs and showed them his ID band, as well as the feet, and they were satisfied. They knew how he died and weren’t expecting a miracle, they just wanted to be sure it was him. They stayed for about an hour, and then had another family-only viewing at the church before the closed-casket service.

And this is why you always wash the feet of a deceased person.