The culture shock of an open casket

Courtesy of Eliyahu Gasson | Duquesne Student Eliyahu Gasson as a blonde baby with his mother. Great grandmother, Marilyn Brown is pictured on the far right.

Eliyahu Gasson | Staff Writer

Last week my great grandmother, a true matriarch and a bedrock for my family, died at the age of 88. She was patient, intelligent and caring. Her house always served as a refuge for us when we needed a place to get away from whatever undue stress we had. She was a pillar of her community, attended church every week and would take the time to prepare food in its kitchen for people when they needed it most.

Growing up, my family would visit her during the holidays. Despite our religious differences — she, a devout Lutheran and us, Jewish — our annual holiday visits were a cherished tradition. There was never, as far as I could tell, a hint of tension; we exchanged gifts and ate whatever she had prepared.

A more vivid and recent memory I’ve had of her was a phone call we shared. I needed to interview someone over the age of 80 about what media they consumed in their youth. I learned that her favorite song was “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” by Eileen Barton and that the first movies she had ever seen was Disney’s “Song of the South” at 11 years old.

Slowly the conversation shifted from the media to her young life in general. She lived through World War II. She told me about the times her father would check on the neighbors to ensure they were following black out protocols in case the Germans bombed Northwest Ohio. She would can rabbit meat and vegetables they grew in their garden to cope with rationing. She and her siblings would gather up any nylon and rubber they didn’t need to donate to the war effort.

All this is to say that I knew her best by her heart and her mind. She was someone I could always reach out to if I needed comfort, advice or just a story.

When I first heard that she had died, I was heartbroken just like anyone else in my position. The build up to the funeral was full of wrought emotions. The ride to Toledo was somber. I knew what to expect as I had also gone to the funeral of my great grandfather in 2015. Now, however, I was a different person with a more developed conscience.

I thought I was prepared for what was to come. “It would feel the same as the last one,” I thought. A viewing followed by a church service and a luncheon. I was not ready, as it turned out.

I waited for hours in the kitchen at the funeral chapel. Members of the family were gathering into the viewing room in generational order leaving my siblings, my cousins and I to go last. The build up leading up to the viewing did not help with what was to come.

When it was our turn to view her body, my grandmother guided us to the casket. I was feeling emotional before seeing my great grandmother lifeless, but I did not cry until I looked at her.

Her face was caked with a thick layer of makeup and her right hand was folded over her left. The person who I had known for being full of life and wit was laid out before me with neither.

I was and still am in shock. My gut reaction was to question why anyone had thought it was a good idea to display the corpes of someone who meant so much to all of us. Was it some kind of way to manipulate us all into crying?

Looking back on the experience and talking it over with my family and other people that I respect, I have come to the conclusion that a major part of it came down to family and religious traditions.

I am one of six Jews on my mother’s side of the family. That being the case, my religious beliefs differ greatly from theirs especially in how to treat the loss of life. In Judaism there really is no funeral service. People will pray with the body after death, but at no point is it put on public display.

The grieving process is also a more intimate affair, with members of the community visiting the home of the bereaved with food. I suppose my gut reaction was a sort of culture shock.

I respect my Christian family’s decision to hold an open casket viewing and I can appreciate that the goal is to aid in the grieving process. Regardless, I cannot rationalize the practice. I still ask what good seeing the lifeless body of a loved one does for somebody. After all, what value do we get from each other if not from our mutual interactions?

You cannot hold a conversation with a corpse. You cannot share a meal or exchange jokes. All you can do is cry at the sight of them. Now that will be the last memory of my great grandmother, crying beside her dead body.

As I close this article out, I realized that through the writing process, I have gone through all five stages of grief.