What Happens When I Go To Identify a Body?

I have only ever been to identify one body. Therefore I write of my experience and personal opinions on that. You may be facing the very same yourself and you may be searching the internet for some help or advice. I hope that my account can assist in some way. Not every experience of the same event will look/feel/transpire the same.

please keep in mind when reading

My viewing of the body of my husband was necessary for identification. Although he had thought that dying with his passport in his back pocket would bypass any other formal procedure, sadly he was wrong. Initially I asked the police for more time but they were eager to press forward as they wanted a postmortem to take place and it was coming up to the weekend. This was eighteen hours after the point of death. Needless to say I was not ready for what would be the last time he and I were in the same room together that wasn’t a cremation chapel. But as often happens when someone dies suddenly there is no time and no choice.

The police escorted me and my father in law to the hospital’s viewing room in their car. I remember the police working in couples – a man and a woman each time. The men dealt with the practical stuff like driving and talking to colleagues. The women talked to us. Unlike the police couple who came to give me the news, this couple were chirpy and smiling and patient.

When we arrived we were asked to wait by the reception desk in full proximity to the rest of the waiting room. This was the middle of the day and I remember feeling so raw and exposed in a waiting room full of people that I just buried my face in my father in laws jacket. I also remember the brightness of the day and the way it hurt my eyes as I had been woken by police with the news at three am and spent another three hours chain smoking and staring at the wall until family members started picking up their phones.

A chaplain came out to see us and told us he looked peaceful. Yes they really do say that. My thoughts later were how diplomatically he described the point of death on my husband’s face which I was later to recall as excited and enlightened. It is the only way I can describe it. Imagine if a chaplain came out and told you your recently departed looked excited? There are certainly times when diplomacy and tact are the only way forward.

We were taken into the waiting room part of the viewing room and told a few basics beforehand. Basics like you can touch him but don’t move him. Don’t prop him up for example. Also a couple of reminders about what to expect. Because it was a hanging you are going to see marks on the neck. Because his head hit a shelf during the rescue so to speak, there is blood on his head and the pillow. Don’t move this or touch it. I was listening to what they were saying but it was all washing over me. I felt pretty much paralysed anyway I didn’t feel their warnings applied to me. I could see my husbands feet sticking out from under a purple coloured shroud through the open door. How could I touch any part of that?When we finally went through I did what I had been doing ever since that first night and did constantly over the course of the first year – my hand went to my open mouth in shock.

Shock reactions like this – I learned how to mimic them in Drama class. I never realised that hand to mouth shock was so immediate, so natural a reflex and that I would be doing it so often.

Accounts from my friends and family who have been with loved ones at the point of death described to me often peaceful endings – warm hands embracing, flushed cheeks, beautiful visions and wonderful feelings. I have never been in that place. My experience is of an eighteen hour old corpse going purple and blue at the edges. Ice cold. A stage I later learned called maximum rigor mortis. One of his eyelids was slightly open and I could see his eye. The neck wounds were visible. The blood also visible. His mouth slightly open and yes, looked happy. And yet awful. Because there was someone we loved for better or worse, having done this to themselves, willingly. At this moment I fully felt and understood that the body and the soul/spiritual part of ourselves are truly separate. My husband was in that room for sure. But not in the body. That body was well and truly abandoned. Like a wrecked car. My husband on the other hand seemed to fill each and every inch of the room, like thick smoke or fog – it was heavy energy but very definitely everywhere around us.

We stayed for some time paying what you may call private last respects. If you include anger too. As I had a lot of that for a very long time. And then we closed off the viewing and I did not return or see him again in fact no one did. We were able to password protect the viewing room which was comforting at the time. We were escorted home again by the very chipper police couple whom I asked how come they could stay so unaffected by death – by grief of others. But of course they replied they saw it daily – so often that they had to utilise their defence mechanisms and get the bereaved through their visits. And then go and have their lunch.

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