Early in the 20th century it was common to view the body after death, but today in the United Kingdom it is usual to have a closed casket for the funeral, and people may not see the body beforehand.1 People may feel ambivalent about the status of the corpse.2 3 They may wish to protect the body yet also fear the corpse because its decay is associated with pollution and disease, and because it is such a powerful symbol of death.4 5 Our society emphasises a need for order, with clear classifications and boundaries, so a corpse may also feel dangerous because it leaks bodily fluids.
When bodily secretions are not contained people respond negatively to “matter out of place,” as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown.6In spite of possible fears, people often wish to see the body of their dead relative. However, nurses may not understand that viewing the body may matter to relatives.7 When a traumatic and perhaps disfiguring event has caused death, professionals may be particularly reluctant to allow viewing because they may fear that relatives will have to live with unpleasant,
uninvited memories.8 9 There may also be forensic reasons to restrict access to the body. There are no regulations about who is allowed to touch a dead body, but if a criminal offence is suspected most coroners do not allow the body to be touched before the first postmortem examination in case evidence is lost. In 1998, 270 people died when a plane exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland. The procurator fiscal, who has the role of coroner in Scotland, forbade bereaved relatives access to any of the bodies until they had been identified from fingerprints and dental records.
Officials then told the funeral directors that it would be better if relatives did not see the bodies. Pamela Dix, whose brother died in the disaster, wrote about her bitter regrets that she was not allowed to make an informed choice about whether to see his body despite the fact that she had been told that her brother was intact and fully recognisable. She wanted to see her brother’s body at the crematorium but was told that this was against crematorium regulations and “medically inadvisable