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Objective: Whether bereaved relatives should be encouraged to view the body after a traumatic death is uncertain. This analysis of narrative interviews interprets people's accounts of why and how they decided whether to view the body and their emotional reactions to this, immediately and at a later stage. Design: In depth interviews with qualitative analysis. Participants: A maximum variation sample of 80 people bereaved because of suicide or other traumatic death. Setting: Most people were interviewed in their homes. Results: For those who had the option, decisions about seeing the body varied. Some wanted someone else to identify the body, because they feared how it might look or preferred to remember their relative as they had been in life. Those who had wanted to see the body gave various reasons beyond the need to check identity. Some felt they ought to see the body. Others felt that the body had not lost its social identity, so wanted to make sure the loved one was "being cared for" or to say goodbye. Some people wanted to touch the body, in privacy, but the coroner sometimes allowed this only after the postmortem examination, which made relatives feel that the body had become police property. Seeing the body brought home the reality of death; it could be shocking or distressing, but, in this sample, few who did so said they regretted it. Conclusions: Even after a traumatic death, relatives should have the opportunity to view the body, and time to decide which family member, if any, should identify remains. Officials should prepare relatives for what they might see, and explain any legal reasons why the body cannot be touched. Guidelines for professional practice must be sensitive to the needs and preferences of people bereaved by traumatic death. The way that relatives refer to the body can be a strong indication for professionals about whether the person who died retains a social identity for the bereaved.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ (Online)

Publication Date