Essay / Theology

On Viewing a Body

Frankly, I wondered about the wisdom and place of a viewing. Our church was devastated by the death of Midi and Nathan Mikasa, mother and four-year-old son, less than a year — but such a year — after we opened our doors. I remember my pastor’s call one morning. I had been planning to call him, and considered it a happy coincidence when I saw his name on my cell phone. John’s voice broke when I picked up, prompting my near automatic, ‘Is everything okay?’ I may not forget his response: ‘No, Matt, it’s not.’

Weeks of corporate agony followed. I have never seen a company of people respond with such singular grief, in such unison. A mark of the church being family, it took me by complete surprise.

Then again, how else could one who knew these two respond? Midi served without noticing she was serving. She was a delight, a strong disciple of Jesus, a kind friend. Nathan was all joy and ruckus, never away from the twin brother who would’ve been his best friend throughout every stage of life.

In those days, I began to make the transition of thinking of Midi and Nathan in the past tense. I remembered small group at their house, the weekly offer of food to a bachelor Midi had once caught showing up on an empty stomach. I looked at pictures of them and remembered who they had been.

Until the viewing. Like I said, I wondered a bit about the viewing. Unsure of its purpose, suspicious of a tendency in such times to veer to the macabre, I’ve never been able to place the viewing in the larger post-mortem movement.

What happened when I approached the coffins surprised me. I had the slightly jarring sense of being claimed by these two. Suddenly, they had dropped back into the present tense.

Robert Jenson speaks of a body as one’s availability for others. Since their deaths, Midi and Nathan had become unavailable. They were, in Auden’s words, ‘altogether elsewhere’, in the bosom of Abraham and the heavenly city, in memories of the past and expectations of the future. But they weren’t here and now. Until I saw their bodies.

The thing about a viewing is that one’s loved one is semi-available. This is disturbing for two reasons. On the one hand, she is not fully available in the way she has always been for us. The last time we saw her, she had been speaking and moving. She had been another subject with whom we could relate, a ‘Thou’ to our ‘I’. Now she hovers somewhere between a ‘Thou’ and an ‘It’. Maybe she is a ‘She’, one to whom (still whom, though) we refer in the third person. But she can no longer serve in the second person capacity. She can no longer be addressed properly, and she no longer addresses us.

Still, we do address her. She is available to us. This may be a partial availability, but it is an availability nonetheless. I was surprised by the way in which I felt claimed when I saw the heads of my two friends sticking out of their caskets. I no longer felt comfortable thinking and speaking of them in the third person without remainder. It is a similar feeling as when you are talking about someone and then they walk in the room. A sort of presence demanded attention. This was, in some sense still is Midi and Nathan.

All this sends me back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It’s a favorite of that awkward element, the well-wisher, the sharpshooting prooftexter with just the word for any occasion — in this case, one about being ‘absent from the body and present with the Lord.’ Sadly, that verse gets snatched up and out of context to deny that there is any abiding significance to something like a viewing. ‘It’s (notice the pronoun) just an empty shell, a mortal coil rightly shuffled off.’ While there is a hint of truth in this, the accent in Christian death falls on a different note, as does the accent in the passage from 2 Corinthians.

Paul writes only a few verses before:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building form God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we grown, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

To be human is to be a body. It may be more than that, but never less. Seeing Midi and Nathan lying dead reminded me of the doggedly persistent fact of our embodiment. In that moment, it was difficult, uncomfortable. I didn’t want to think of them as these dead bodies in front of me. But viewings are about more than facing the present darkness. They are also about recalling the light of resurrection. This tent may collapse, but God is pitching a far greater one for us at the Last Day, that day on which we will be ‘further clothed’, that day on which we will be, once again and also for the first time, fully available to and for one another.

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