Each year, more than 1.8 million American men, women and children are reported missing. Although the majority of these people are located, many stay missing, leaving their families to wonder for years and years if the person they love is dead or alive. Sometimes, this situation is the result of a monumental tragedy, like 9/11, that strikes an entire community or nation. Other times, it’s as simple and as devastating as a woman with dementia walking away from her caregiver, never to be seen again. Whatever the circumstances, the uncertainty, pain and isolation felt by the person’s family and friends is the same…and unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced it.
When tragedy strikes and people are presumed dead, but no body is recovered, it changes everything that traditionally surrounds the natural process of grief. Two recent news stories have included just such situations–the missing Malaysian aircraft and the big mud slide in Washington State. Families and friends of those involved in these situations are experiencing this rare types of loss. They yearn for both answers and a starting point from which to confront their loss. However, without a body, the mind still wants to believe anything but the truth. Such deaths, called “ambiguous deaths” by the psychiatric community, require unique handling and sensitivity from family and friends as well as funeral professionals called upon to oversee the final arrangements.
Death in the news
On March 8, 2014, Malaysian flight 370 disappeared without a trace. The nightly news has focused regularly on the recovery efforts by crews from more than a dozen different nations. More than one month later, not one fragment of the plane or its occupants has been found. The latest speculation is that the plane is at the bottom of a particularly deep part of the Indian Ocean, more than 2.8 miles from the surface. If this is true, there is little likelihood of the plane and its dead will ever be recovered. The pressure at such depths makes it impossible for any manned craft to navigate the area where the plane likely lies.
The 238 passengers and crew members of MH370 came from 13 different countries, but their families share a common pain, the roller coaster ride of hope and the despair of not knowing what happened to their mother, husband, daughter, father, wife or son.
Another situation with unrecoverable bodies occurred recently in Washington State last month when a rain-soaked hill collapsed without warning, engulfing more than three dozen homes in a massive mudslide. As I write this, 36 bodies have been found and 10 people are still missing, including two children. Recovery efforts continue more than four weeks after the disaster.
Why are such enormous resources–both in manpower and money–expended trying to recover bodies long after it is reasonable to assume that a person could have survived? After 9/11, the recovery effort continues for more than eight months and ended with a solemn ceremony at the site. Our culture associates death with a body. Not having that body of our loved one disrupts the entire grieving process.
Grieving without a body
In our society, we associate death and grieving with a physical body. Most funeral arrangements involve a viewing, where friends and family can share memories and get a last glimpse of the body that once was their friend or loved one. We usually follow that with a service that culminates in the lowering of the casket in the ground or the handing of the ashes to the survivors. Without a body, all of those traditions are disrupted.
Denial is one of the classic stages of grief. Our mind naturally wants to assume that our dead loved one will walk through the front door any minute. When their is no body, our mind can get stuck in this stage, even when all evidence points to the fact that the person is gone. This is why enormous amounts of time and money are spent on recovery efforts in situations like the mud slide and the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner even when the likelihood of finding a live person has long since passed.
Planning funerals without a body
Deaths where there is no body present challenges for funeral professionals as well as for family and friends. Like loved ones, funeral professionals are used to dealing with a physical body as part of the funeral rites, either as a burial or a cremation. A death without a body throws this traditional system out of alignment, while at the same time offering the challenge of trying to comfort a family during the most terrible time in their lives.
Deaths without a body, while rare, are not unique to current events. After 9/11, friends and family of thousands of men and women missing from the Twin Towers had to deal with their grief even though fewer than a quarter of the bodies of those in the buildings had been recovered. Some chose to use an empty casket at the funeral to give the service a sense of normalcy. Others used caskets for whatever part of their loved one had been found, even if it was just a finger.
Often funerals without a body are handled similarly to memorial services, with photos and/or videos of the deceased adorning the service, so that family and friends are able to “see” the person who died one last time. Having the family put together these images, even making a video or a few photo collages can help in the healing process. Take it a step further and have the family create a memorial table filled with items that were important to the life being mourned .
When dealing with deaths where people are presumed dead but there is no body, it is important for funeral professionals as well as friends to be especially empathetic and willing to listen. Any death of a relative or loved one is somewhat isolating, but a death without a body can make the survivors feel that they are the only ones who have ever had to go through this anguish.
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