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Putting a Good Face on the Final Adieu

June 13, 2004|Mary Roach | Mary Roach is the author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" (W.W. Norton, 2003).

I once asked a professor at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science about the practice of open-casket viewings. Where did this originate -- this odd, mild voyeuristic practice of lining up to look at a corpse? He had two explanations, neither of which I'd expected. The first was that it gave the undertaker a chance to show off his talents. A well-preserved body on display at a large funeral was free advertising in a sense. He told me that even before embalming caught on, when bodies were simply made up and posed, they were often displayed on beds of ice. (Though not, of course, at the funerals of those whose religion prohibits such display.)

Bob Boetticher, the man assigned the task of embalming Ronald Reagan, described the job as the highest honor, and it was obvious he took the utmost care in attending to the remains. In his casket, President Reagan probably looked better than he had in years. But few could appreciate the job well done, as the remains stayed hidden from the public, the casket closed.

This has not always been the practice with presidential remains. Abraham Lincoln, most notably, traveled in an open casket by train from Washington to his hometown, Springfield, Ill., with 13 stops along the way for viewings by an estimated 1 million mourners. Lincoln was the first president to be displayed in this manner and -- not coincidentally -- he was the first president to have been embalmed. Embalming was an innovation perfected on the battlefields of the Civil War. Lincoln's embalmer, Henry P. Cattell, not only did a laudable job ("he closed the eyes, arched the eyebrows, and set the mouth in a slight smile," reports the Museum of Funeral Customs on their website), he traveled along with the body, providing touch-ups. The body looked surprisingly presentable, and people took note. In mortuary circles, Lincoln is the man who put embalming on the map.

Since 1964, all the bodies that have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda have done so in closed caskets. This brings me to the other thing that professor said. Open caskets offer assurance that the person inside is indeed the person we've come to mourn. Funerals engender all manner of irrational fears: What if they've got the wrong guy in there? What if someone stole him or sold him for parts? What if we're crying over an empty coffin?

For all these irrational reasons and more, I'd like to see a return to the open presidential casket. Last week, I was on the phone with my husband as he watched Reagan's funeral procession on TV. "I bet there's nothing in there," he said. If I made the decision to spend six or eight hours waiting in a line to pay my respects to someone's remains, I'd prefer to know for certain that that someone was in there. I'd also -- forgive me here -- want to be able to take a look. Not because I'm a vulgar rubbernecker (though I am), but because I think it ennobles the moment.

Ten years ago, I stood in line in Red Square to see Lenin in his glass-enclosed tomb. I went in as a gawker, to steep myself in state-sponsored kitsch, but I left feeling sobered. The sight of his remains instilled a vague, ineffable sense of awe. It was hard to pin down: Was I awed by the skills of Lenin's embalmers or by the immensity of his legacy, or perhaps by death itself? In a way, it didn't matter. It made the moment significant and memorable in a way a closed box could not.

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