Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 11:00 UK

Relatives 'should have choice to see body', report says

An empty wheelchair in a hospital ward
The study found the majority of people did not regret viewing the dead body of a loved one, even when the body was in a damaged state

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

Imagine a close relative suffered a sudden, violent death. Would you want to see the body?

A new study has concluded that relatives should always be given the choice - no matter what condition the body may be in.

The research, published in the British Medical Journal, has studied the psychological effects on relatives after viewing the body of a loved one killed in traumatic circumstances.

She felt she had to identify the body, and was very upset by seeing her mother in quite a damaged state, and certainly in her account that had stayed with her for quite a long time afterwards
Sue Ziebland

The study included relatives of those killed in terror attacks, such as the London and Bali bombings, as well as family of men killed in Iraq.

Of the 49 people in the study who had chosen to see their relative's body - in a hospital ward, mortuary or funeral director's chapel of rest - only two said they later regretted doing so.

Nine people expressed mixed feelings, while 35 said it was the right thing to do. Three people in the study decided not to comment on this particular aspect of their feelings.

The interviews have been posted online, along with videos of other people dealing with health problems.

'Very comforting'

For Ian, seeing his brother's body was very important to him.

"As a family we went in," he recalls.

"We walked in together. He was just laying there as though he was sleeping, so still.

"For me that was very comforting."

It was not until Ian had saw his brother - who had been shot - that it hit home he was really gone.

"Until I saw him, he was still alive - even though I'd been told he was dead, it was important for me to go in and see him because it would confirm to me that this was the truth."

Ian's experience was one mirrored by a number of those interviewed, including Rachel, whose son Dave died after an explosion in Iraq. He was working for a security firm.

Although the coroner's officer advised she did not look at the body, Rachel insisted.

"I had to make sure that that was my son, because you know, they might have made a mistake."

Different theories

The report was written by Alison Chapple and Sue Ziebland from the University of Oxford.

Ms Ziebland told the BBC World Service's Health Check programme that the subjects interviewed for the study all took different benefits from seeing the body of a loved one.

"There are different theories about why it's helpful.

"It helps people to believe that it's true, and to believe that it really is their daughter, their husband… whatever the circumstance.

A coffin
Seeing a body before burial offers closure, some people said

"It may also be that they can find it reassuring to see that the person looks peaceful."

She says the report highlights concerns that some families believe they must identify bodies, even though they have a choice to request identification is done by other means such as dental records.

"One of the women in our study had identified her mother after a fire, and had not wanted to do the identification.

"Her brother was unable to make the identification - he said he couldn't recognise their mother - and so in a way she was forced into a position where she felt she had to do it.

"We worry that nobody came along and told her that an identification could have been made by dental records or something instead.

"She felt she had to identify the body, and was very upset by seeing her mother in quite a damaged state, and certainly in her account that had stayed with her for quite a long time afterwards."

Other interviewees expressed grief at not being able to see the body - as officials decided the bodies were in too bad a condition.

Complex response

Due to the varied and complex responses, the report concludes that relatives should simply be offered a choice whether or not to view a body, regardless of what condition it may be in.

Health Check
Health Check is the weekly health programme broadcast from the BBC World Service
It is broadcast on Monday at 1032GMT and repeated at 1532GMT, 2032GMT and on Tuesday at 0132GMT
It is also available as a podcast

It suggests that officials should properly prepare relatives for what they might see, as well as explaining clearly any legal reasons which would mean the body cannot be touched.

"People need to be given information about how else the body might be identified," added Ms Ziebland.

"They need to perhaps be prepared for what the body might look like, and told that if they wanted to see the person's hand, for example, if that hadn't been damaged, that would be fine as well.

"And given a bit of time to make up their minds."

The full interview with Sue Ziebland can be heard on this week's edition of Health Check from the BBC World Service . The programme can also be downloaded as a podcast .

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