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Viewing the body after bereavement due to a traumatic death: qualitative study in the UK

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 30 April 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2032
  1. A Chapple, research lecturer,
  2. S Ziebland, university reader in qualitative health research
  1. 1Department of Primary Health Care, University of Oxford, Headington OX3 7LF
  1. Correspondence to: A Chapple Alison.chapple{at}
  • Accepted 3 March 2010


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.


  • We thank the people who took part in the interviews, our multidisciplinary advisory panel, and all those who helped us to recruit. We also thank Andrew Herxheimer, Alexandra Pitman, Annette Braunack-Mayer, and Emmie Arnold for their help with earlier drafts of this article.

  • Contributors: AC conducted the interviews. AC and SZ analysed the data. AC drafted the paper; AC and SZ contributed to the subsequent drafts and final version. AC and SZ will act as guarantors for the work.

  • Funding: The Department of Health funded the work. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the funder.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Ethical approval: Ethics committee approval was given for this study by Eastern MREC, Papworth Hospital NHS Trust, Papworth Everard, Cambridge. All participants gave informed consent before taking part and have given written consent to their interview data being included in publications.

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