Why the first dead person you see shouldn’t be someone you love

Poppy Mardall lining a coffin with calico
Lining a coffin with calico

Six minute read

Death is often hidden away, making it difficult to talk about openly. Few of us have the opportunity to see someone after they have died, and even fewer of us take that opportunity up.

At Poppy’s, we believe death is part of life. Our Founder and Chair, Poppy Mardall, explains how we could all benefit from spending time with the dead.

It was only after I had the idea for starting Poppy’s that I saw a dead person for the first time. I was helping out as a pall-bearer with Colin Fisher Funeral Directors. Colin kindly allowed me to come and spend some time with him behind the scenes. It felt obvious that I couldn’t launch a funeral service without some good experience with the dead.

I remember thinking, ‘yes, you look very dead.’

Walking into his mortuary was a powerful experience. It was a cool room with three or four people lying on tables. I remember one elderly woman in a pale pink nightie — she had not been embalmed, so she was in her natural state.

I remember thinking, ‘yes, you look very dead.’ But this wasn’t something bad. She looked natural and calm, but lifeless.

I felt absolute clarity and wonder that whatever animates us through our lives goes somewhere else when we die. And I felt deep respect for the body that had carried her through her life for seven decades or more.

It was an important life experience that I was privileged to have. The more I thought about it, the weirder it felt that I hadn’t done it before. I thought about all the people I had known who had died, none of whom I had seen after their death.

Doing better for the living by caring for the dead

The idea behind Poppy’s came from an ambition to do so much better for the living — families and friends who are grieving — by caring for the dead. Spending time with the dead that day, and ever since, I have developed a vision for what great care for the dead can and should look like.

For me, it means treating people, as much as possible, as if they were alive. Calling them by their name. No production-line treatments or unnecessary invasive procedures. Being led by family and friends to ensure we’re doing only what they want and nothing more.

Respect for the human body and for the natural world

Time spent with the dead has also deepened my respect for the human body and the remarkable job it does for us throughout our lifetimes.

It has deepened my relationship with my own body and with the natural world and has helped me appreciate the relationship between the two. If you don’t acknowledge death, you can’t really appreciate life.

Every single one of us will die. We will each be a dead body and so everyone we love will be too. It unites us as human beings. In common with every other part of nature, we will die.

"Death is taboo. Mostly, we don’t talk about it until we absolutely have to."

Modern rituals rarely create opportunities to be with the person who has died. Although, if someone dies in a hospice, close family will likely have been given time with the person after death. It is normal for funeral directors to ask the people organising the funeral if they’d like to see the person who has died in the ‘chapel of rest’.

But these opportunities are mostly reserved for very close family. Some families keep children and young people away from the person who has died in an attempt to ‘protect’ them from anything upsetting.

There are many communities that practise more open rituals around death — whether that be an open coffin at the funeral or washing the body of the person who has died. When these rituals are practised, the whole community gets the opportunity to see death before it happens to someone close to them.

However, unless we work in end-of-life or death care, most of us will not see someone who has died until someone very close to us dies.

The embodied experience of death and loss

Two intense, transformative experiences are combined when the first dead person you see is someone you love.

Firstly, when you see someone who has died, you see death embodied. You realise that death is real and that it will happen to you. Being with death is a rite of passage.

No matter what you’ve read or discussed or studied, it is something you need to understand bodily. It is a physical experience and a wake-up call.

Secondly, because this is someone you love, you feel loss. This person who you rely on and need is not here anymore. Nothing will be the same again. This is a huge thing to take in. You need lots of support and love to help get you through.

I feel strongly that taking in these two realities at the same time makes both experiences more overwhelming than they need to be.

To see death is a big thing, but not a bad thing. If we can accept death as a part of life, it can help us find meaning and mindfulness in our lives.

To feel loss is very, very hard and cannot be fast-tracked. But spending time with the person who has died, and being supported to do so, can be a really helpful step in the process of grieving.

Read about what it's like to visit someone at Poppy's.

Bring death care out into the open

So how can our society change so that the first dead person we see is not necessarily someone we love? There are several ways.

If we want to, and it feels right and natural, we can take the opportunity when someone dies to invite people to come and see them. This could be at the funeral director’s, but it could also be at home.

The experience of seeing someone dead in their coffin is very helpful. It can be an opportunity to say goodbye, to show respect for their body and to start moving towards a relationship with that person which is no longer physical.

We can also do much less embalming. This turns people from looking dead to looking embalmed. I have spoken to so many people who felt negatively affected by seeing their person after they’d been embalmed.

Read more about a natural approach to death — why you don’t need to embalm.

Education about death care

And is it possible to bring people into the mortuary so they can see death before it happens in their community? We think it is.

Our open days allow anyone who wishes to visit our mortuary space and hear about the work we do. But it's not an opportunity to see or care for people after they've died.

However, we do bring carefully vetted health-care workers to spend time with us to see what beautiful, gentle death care can look like. It's a powerful, and important, experience, which helps them in their work.

Find out about how to book a talk or tour for your team.

As a society, we could improve the understanding of people who work with the dead. This includes funeral directors, but also coroners, the police, and healthcare workers. We could use education to shift attitudes away from seeing the dead person as an infection control problem and towards treating them as someone worthy of respect.

Read more — what it's really like working in a mortuary or why we don’t use euphemisms to talk about death.

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