Study examines how corpse viewing affects the cognitive processing of grief

Research published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior has examined the potential effects of viewing the body of a deceased loved one.

The study of 142 bereaved pet owners examined a¬†phenomenon dubbed “false recognitions,” in which a person attributes sights or sounds to a deceased loved one, “followed by the disquieting recollection that the person is dead.” The study found that having been exposed to an intact corpse was not associated with a reduction in false recognitions in the months following the death of a pet, but exposure to a non-intact corpse did predict such a reduction.

PsyPost interviewed Claire White of California State University about her study. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

White: I was interested in the topic for two reasons.

First, there is a lack of evidence-based research concerning the potential effects of viewing the body of a deceased loved-one. I came to learn of this due to a personal tragedy. My dear friend died tragically just over one year ago and professional services came swiftly to take his body from my apartment. I insisted that I spend time with him, and they reluctantly agreed. I am personally very happy with my decision, but afterwards I started researching the effects of being with a deceased loved one in their naturalistic state, and I was astounded that there was not more research on the topic. This struck me as an important gap that needed to be filled in the literature. Although a few case studies have been published, they are anecdotal, and usually focus only on perceived mental health outcomes, which, although important, are not the only type of outcome. You’ll notice from the paper that we focus on potential cognitive effects of having viewed a deceased loved one, what we term “false recognitions”, which are simply when the bereaved person thinks they hear or see the deceased in the immediate environment, followed by the realization that the person is dead. These anomalous experiences can cause people to be afraid, sad, or even feel happy, but they are extremely common. Thus, we wanted to extend the repertoire of potential effects of viewing a deceased loved one to include aspects that would be interesting from an evolutionary perspective.

Second, as mainstream bereavement theorists have pointed out, there is a lack of evolutionarily motivated, theoretical studies on grief. Evolutionary studies ask questions such as what, if any, is the adaptive function of grief? They also investigate potential mismatches between our current, and ancestral environments to generate predictions about human thought and behavior. I (along with collaborators) had already conducted a study of funerary practices where we discovered that on the whole, the modern western world is an outlier, because most people do not engage in physical contact with the corpse, rather we recruit professional services to do this, and the body is treated to be as life like as possible. These services were not available to our ancestors, and so, it seemed like one possibility is that by camouflaging death and removing our exposure to it, we were retarding a grief process where we come to represent the deceased on a cognitive level as dead. So I was motivated to investigate whether this was the case.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The study suggested that when it comes to the death of a loved-one, it’s not whether you see the body, but what you see, that matters. The study suggests that removing naturalistic cues of death may affect the cognitive processing of grief (and lead to more false recognitions), whereas exposure to naturalistic cues of death may dampen these anomalies. It’s important to note, however, that in the study we are not prescribing or even recommending that people should see a deceased loved one’s body if they have been subject to grievous bodily injuries, which may well be traumatic for the bereaved. The study does not focus on emotional well-being or psychological suffering but rather the association between viewing the body and cognitive outcomes.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

The study is conducted with people who have lost companion animals (e.g., cats and dogs). Even though research suggests that bereavement for humans and animals to whom we are highly attached is similar, we cannot assume that they are identical. Thus, the study needs to be conducted with those who have lost another human being, and we also need research on the health outcomes associated with seeing the deceased’s body and of course, what the person looks like when they are viewed (e.g., embalmed to look life-like or not). I am currently working on both.

In addition, the study demonstrates associations between seeing a deceased loved one’s body, the state of the body when viewed, and false recognitions. Association is not causation, so we cannot conclude that one causes the other, even though this may be possible.

The study, “The effects of corpse viewing and corpse condition on vigilance for deceased loved ones“, was also co-authored by Daniel M.T. Fessler and Pablo S. Gomez.