By Robert Brook
All I wanted was to have my Dad back. Of course I knew that he couldn't miraculously be brought back to life, nor would I ever wish for him to return to a body that for a good six months had deteriorated around his mind, challenging everything he was, everything he believed in or ever could be.
Death does that. In the case of a terminal illness, death can slowly strip away the physical and the mental familiarities of those we love. When it does, it implants those damaging images into our very souls. When the death is sudden or tragic, again the images of that moment can scar us for a seemingly endless period of time. It is those images of death that are far too easily recalled, either by choice, or too often without warning, and they serve to bury the memories of the good times we shared with our loved ones. It is not fair, but it doesn't have to be that way. From the past to the present, Restorative Arts have played an integral part in the grieving and consequently the healing process for families and loved ones. As we look to the future, Restorative Arts should continue to evolve to benefit the changing thoughts and needs for families and their decedents.
We often speak of restorative art in the modern sense of the word, which claimed its title in the 1930’s[i], but clearly we can understand that funeralization, in and of itself, has always been about our restorative efforts. All world cultures have throughout time engaged in restorative efforts, whether it is to return the soul to the creator or gods, or to ensure the body is preserved for purposes of resurrection. For example, the ancient Egyptians were practicing a range of restorative techniques on the emaciated features of the dead. These restorative practices ranged from filling the inside of the mouths with sawdust to improve hollowed cheeks to stuffing linen under the eyelids or replacing eyes with stones. The practice of returning the body to its life state included, tending to any disability, injury or disfigurement until the face and the body were returned to as close to the original features and shape of the person they were preparing for their death ceremony.[ii] Funeral professionals help restore people’s faith in their beliefs, and we help them restore their memories and love for the departed, their families and their friends. By embalming, we have, since the American Civil War, restored the dead so that not only could the families mourn the death but the funerary ritual could involve the larger community beyond the family.[iii] Thus, friends could now not only acknowledge and accept the death, but benefit from a more pleasant image of the deceased without the grieving imagination creating inaccurate and haunting images for them. Through this, our profession has recognized the importance of that image, and from that we began to extend our efforts into reconstructive restoration efforts for the benefit of the families we serve.
I truly didn’t know what to expect when I approached my father’s casket that September afternoon. I was nervous. I was numb with grief. I was angry at the cancer that consumed him at just 67 years of age. I felt robbed of the future that should have been, and I was haunted by the image of him created by the disease with each and every passing day following his diagnosis. To me it wasn’t about the “temporary preservation and sanitation of the deceased body”. [iv] To me it was simply about my needing to say goodbye to my dad as I remembered him from those many years before the cancer, and how much I needed to remember him that way as I went forward with my life.
When a death is tragic, those grieving the loss will be even further traumatized by the images they will naturally have conjured up about the visual effects of the tragedy to their loved one. Not knowing what happened to the deceased can be more destructive for them because an imagination can run uncontrollably wild during the grieving process, and the need to see the decedent unharmed and at rest is even further enhanced. When funeral directors persuade families to forgo a viewing, or when we allow a family to make this decision in haste, we are effectively acknowledging that the picture is bad, and we are leading them down an emotional path of which there is little recovery. By doing this, we would be failing our families by not placing ourselves on their side of the arrangement table, and realizing that the information we have in regards to the benefits of a period of visitation with an open casket needs to be communicated to them. If there is ever a need for restorative efforts to be utilized, it’s when a death has been tragic, and we must answer that call for restoration to the best of our abilities.
As funeral professionals we must recognize that with the increasing popularity of cremation, the opportunities to help our families cope with the emotional effects of death are being lost. Fewer traditional services with periods of visitation and open casket viewing mean fewer opportunities to both utilize and showcase our skills in restorative art, the result of which will ultimately benefit the emotional well-being of those who are grieving a loss. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our restorative skills also stand to remind people of our importance in helping people with far more than the basic formalities that arise when a death occurs. The formalities of which many aren’t even aware take place.
There is an ever increasing mindset that all things are quick and efficient – microwave foods, text messaging. However this should not carry over to death.[v] With the advancement of technology, and the increasing rapid rate that everything seems to pass us by, it appears only inevitable that our decision processes will also be affected. Too often we see people accommodating others at the time of a death rather than their own needs. Or they capitulate to the ‘last requests’ of their loved one. “Let’s have the funeral on a weekend so no one will have to take time off work”, or “I’d like to get this over with as soon as possible” are just a couple of statements we have all likely heard which signify that people are dismissing their own needs during their time of loss. This mindset often results in fewer visitations with open caskets, so the benefit of restorative art is lost, and the grieving process can be lengthened and more difficult for family and friends of the deceased.
"In order for us to get through the grieving process, we need to see the body, we need to know for a fact this person is gone… As soon as you see the body, you can now move forward."[vi]
Since the beginning of modern day embalming, it was only inevitable that restorative techniques would be developed to mask evidence of trauma, or many of the natural indignities that could occur to a body pre or post mortem. When we think of the evolution of funeralization over many centuries, we can understand and appreciate that every aspect of the process plays a vital role in providing both a mental and visually dignified tribute to the deceased. To not make the effort to ensure the appearance of the body was familiar, restful and at peace would only serve to cause unnecessary discomfort to the bereaved. By eliminating this discomfort through our restorative efforts, we are granting them a direction to move forward in their healing. This is why, as funeral directors and embalmers, we should never underestimate the value of restorative art. We simply cannot allow an evolution towards cremation to deny us from offering our expertise in this important piece of the profession, and we must never allow ourselves to become so self-critical that we fear an imperfect result with any restorative effort. “The need and desire for viewing pushes the need for increasing our skill levels and accepting challenges that we know may not turn out perfect”. [vii]
Improvements in restorative art and funeral director skills are multi-facetted. First, as chemical and product development occurs, advancements in restorative art are sure to follow. Second, networking with other funeral professionals is a vital piece to the restorative art practice because each professional brings their own unique experiences with restorative situations. Further, this is a chance to share skills and techniques for the vast array of restorative requirements. These, of course, benefit all in the industry. By connecting with each other and sharing those stories we are forever improving our knowledge base and our families and the profession itself will benefit greatly. Third, professional journals, trade magazine articles and conferences are wonderful resources for restorative stories and practical applications from which we can all learn. With knowledge, comes a greater degree of assuredness as we are confronted with needs requiring these skills in the future.
From the early records of death and restoration, we know there is value and health that goes along with seeing a loved one free of the ravages of illness, disease of mutation. It is paramount that we, as the funeral professional, create that semblance of normality and provide the opportunity for closure. For various reasons, the number of cremations and less traditional ways of disposition have increased – cheaper, quicker, unpleasant past viewing experience. This is having a detrimental impact on the future of the traditional services. However having this information and knowledge, we will be better able to balance the needs and risks of restorative efforts. Coupled with our ability to continue to educate ourselves, we can ensure that restorative art does not become a lost piece of our profession. We cannot allow people to believe that a viewing is not beneficial. There continues to be value to seeing a body in a casket at a funeral home. It allows friends and family to properly say goodbye. We know of the emotional risks a family takes when they choose to forego a visitation for the wrong reasons, and we know they won’t be aware of the outcome of that decision until it is too late. By passing our knowledge along to our families, we are allowing them to make informed decisions and truly being honourable to our role.
As I walked toward the casket, I was greeted by that very man and more. Before me, was the father with whom I joked, hugged, kissed, and shared special moments in conversation. This was the man who gave me the last five dollar bill from his wallet as he saw me board the bus to return to the city for another week at college. Before me was the man with the chubby face and crew cut who taught me to paddle a canoe, ride a bicycle, catch fish and so much more. The shades of his illness were replaced by the hearty colours of the man I loved. Gone was the cancer. Gone was the look of pain and stress, and gone was the control that the disease had over me and it was replaced with my being able to grieve losing my very best friend.
[i] History of Embalming and Restorative Art (http://corp.elitecme.com/dynamic/pdf/FIL03ERI11.pdf), 9.
[ii] M-Gillies, A Brief History of Restorative Art
[iii] Jacqueline S. Thursby , Funeral Festivals in America: Rituals for the Living. (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2006) 23.
[iv] Robert G. Mayer (2012). The Theory and Practice of Embalming, Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
[v] CJ Carnacchio, “Oxford Man Restores Dead to Bring Peace to the Living” (http://www.clarkstonnews.com/Articles- News-i-2011-11-09-244438.113121-sub-Oxford-man-restores-dead-to-bring-peace-to-living.html) November 9, 2011.
[vi] CJ Carnacchio, “Oxford Man Restores Dead to Bring Peace to the Living”
[vii] Jack Adams, CFSP 2012. “Surreal Restoration”. (Dodge Magazine. Winter 2012), 4-6.