I don’t get the phenomenon of the viewing. The funerary custom, that is.
The last viewing I attended was in 1996 or 1997—I feel terrible that I don’t remember the exact date—for a member of Salt Lake Chapter, Order of DeMolay, the youth group I was involved with until mid-1995.
I wasn’t particularly close to him, but I was pleased to be included in the service because it gave his family the chance to tell me how much I’d meant to him during the time we’d both been involved with the youth group. And it gave me a chance to reconnect with many of the Chapter members whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.
And then it was time to pay my respects, so I went into the parlor where the family stood stoically to one side, the casket to the other, a receiving line starting at the casket and filing toward the family to offer words of condolence.
The deceased had been in his mid-teens. He’d died unexpectedly from a medical condition that had come up quickly (I also feel bad that I don’t recall the details of it). The casket was open, and he was the first dead person I’d ever seen up close like that.
I’ve heard many times how people lying in caskets supposedly look like they’re deeply asleep, at peace. But he didn’t look that way to me. He looked gray and cold. He looked dead.
The display of the body in this way utterly mystified me then, and still does now. As I gazed at the casket surrounded by flowers, the body resting among the ruffled satin coffin lining, I thought:
I don’t understand this. It has to be extraordinarily more painful for the family to look across the room and see their son this way.
Ronald Reagan lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda
It makes even less sense to me when the casket is closed, as is the case for Ronald Reagan. The photos show long lines of people slowly filing past the flag-draped casket, paying their respects, and I just don’t get it.
They know the former President’s remains are inside the casket. The primary reason for the closed casket is almost certainly Reagan’s physical condition at his death—he had wasted away over the last decade of his life and might not even have been recognizable to most of us now. I’ve seen this type of change directly: My grandmother also succumbed to Alzheimer’s and was but a shadow of her former self, both physically and mentally, when she died.
Of course for most of the people who’ve waited in lines in California and now in Washington, D.C., seeing the casket provides them a sense of finality they may otherwise miss. And it’s an appropriate honor for a man who served two terms as President of the United States, whose administration saw some of the biggest changes in the world.
But it still mystifies me.