Posts tagged Adam Lanza

An Unimaginable Decision: A Funeral Director’s Reflections on the Sandy Hook School Shooting

Today is the day that some of the obituaries for the victims of the Newtown Shooting will begin to be published.  You can view some of those obits here.  Grab a box of tissues before you read them.

What isn’t seen in those obituaries is that in order for them to be published, the parents and the families had to make one of the most difficult decisions of their life: to view or not to view.

As the details of the shooting were coming out over the weekend, I was particularly struck by one piece of information: the shooter had shot each of his victims multiple times (3 to 11 times).  Many will interpret such information as farther evidence of Adam Lanza’s psychosis (and that would be a correct interpretation), but we funeral directors see it from a different perspective.

When there’s a tragic, sudden death, when there isn’t an opportunity to say one last “good-bye”, it’s a natural, innate response for the family to want to see their deceased one last time, just to see them face-to-face and say that final parting gesture.  No matter how opposed you may be to viewing the deceased, those walls are torn down in a tragedy and “we just HAVE to see our little angel.”

As a funeral director, it’s often our job to let the family know just how bad the deceased is mangled.  We then have to be honest with ourselves, “Can we reconstruct the severe trauma?  Can we make this look somewhat normal?

The conversation goes something like this (and it assumes the family wants/needs to view):

Funeral director:  “Your loved one experience physical trauma.  I will do everything I can to make him/her viewable.  But, you have to decide what you want.

One.  You can have a private viewing at the funeral home and then cremate after you view.  We can have a memorial service whenever you want.

Two.  You can have a private viewing and then have a closed casket for the funeral service.

Three.  You can have a private viewing and if you feel comfortable with the way he/she looks, you can have a public viewing as well.

What follows is the beginning of one of the toughest decisions of their life.  They want to view, but do they really want to see their child with ….

Gun shot wounds are unpredictable creatures.  They can be utterly destructive or they can be so small you wouldn’t even know the wound was there.  My guess is that the wounds at Sandy Hook were of the former and not the latter.

And this is the nature of evil.  It keeps taking and taking and taking.  Not only was your son or daughter taken, but now – because of the trauma of these deaths, you have to make a decision you NEVER, EVER could even imagine.  You could never imagine your child would be taken in this manner.  You could never imagine that you’d have this insatiable desire to see your child.  And you never thought you’d have to confront this unimaginable reality: your child may be too distorted to be viewed.

This shouldn’t be happening.  This should never happen.  But, over the past weekend this decision was made 27 times.

After the Sandy Hook Shootings: What Happens Next?

On Friday, December 14th, Sandy Hook Elementary experienced a tragedy that is creating a new normal for the town of Newtown, Connecticut.

The very same day as the school shootings I worked a viewing at a small Mennonite church in Gap, PA.  As with most Mennonite churches, the pastor is bi-vocational.   This specific pastor works as a part-time pastor and full-time salesman for an agricultural feed company.  The area that he covers includes Bart Township, the same area that experienced the Amish school shootings in 2006.

We walked in to the church, set up the casket and flowers and I broke the news to the pastor about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  His countenance fell as he immediately connected the Sandy Hook shooting to the Amish School shooting.  “I’ve been the salesman there for years.  All the Amish families are my friends.  Just the other day one of the mothers who lost a daughter told me she’s reminded of her daughter every time she sees children coming home from school.”

This, like all tragedy, finds a life of its own.  Friday, December 14th marks the first day of a new normal for Newtown, Connecticut.  In many ways, this new normal is a sad birth.  In this blog post, I want to look at the practical side of how the next couple days and weeks will look for Newtown.


TRAUMA RESPONSE: Thankfully, there are professionals who are being tasked this very moment in setting up response teams.  The American Red Cross, various hospice programs and the American Psychological Association all have large scale trauma response teams who are trained to counsel children and parents in psychological and bereavement support, organize support groups and guide the community back to some type of semblance.  The response teams will evaluate, support, offer guidance and help as the children, parents and teachers begin this dark journey.

Children do grieve.  As long as there are relationships formed, there’s grief.  And while the general public is not very adept at understanding a child’s ability to grasp death, those from the APA, Red Cross and hospice programs are.  All the children will experience traumatic grief (CTG), many will experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the hope will be that these children, like the youth from Columbine, will bond together and find deep fellowship in their grief, sorrow and pain.

Pragmatic questions like, “When do we restart school?” and “When should I go back to work?” will be guided by these wonderful angels from the response teams.


BODY IDENTIFICATION AND FAMILY NOTIFICATION:  By deduction, the families know whether or not their son or daughter, husband or wife is dead by the simple fact that they didn’t come home.  But, their son or daughter, husband or wife may be so … that the bodies have yet to be identified.

Some families may be called into the hospital to visually identify their loved ones, other bodies may be too distorted and will need to be identified through other, more technical means.  All the bodies will be studied, some autopsied, some given for organ donation and one – the shooters – will be looked upon with contempt by all who view him.

Once identified, the families will start the funeral arrangements.


These police were apparently some of the first on the scene of the Newtown shootings.

FUNERAL ANNOUNCEMENTS:  There’s only one funeral home in Newtown, Connecticut. And while I doubt the Honan Funeral Home will bury all the victims and the shooter, they will probably bury many of them.  From what I can tell by the obituary section on their website, the Honan Funeral Home is not a very large funeral home.  In fact, they’ve only advertised 12 obituaries in the past year.  They will need help as they could very well have twice their yearly volume in one week.  And thankfully, per this article, other surrounding funeral directors are offering their help to Honan.

Any funeral home and funeral director who works with these families will need their own type of support over the months to come.  Most of us don’t enter this business because we’re cold hearted; rather, we enter it because we’re generally big hearted.  These tragedies hurt us as well.  Embalming the body of an elementary school student that has been autopsied and shot is enough to permanently disturb anyone, including a seasoned funeral director.

Questions of “how will this family pay for this funeral?” are likely taken off the table, either by the funeral director’s generosity or by nonprofits like Bury a Child (run by my friend Nancy Burban, who lives in a neighboring town) who are already donating caskets and raising funds for funeral expenses of the children (UPDATE: Per Nancy, all the funds have been raised to cover the funeral expenses of the victims).

Police and other first responders will carry a burden that no man or woman should ever carry.  They have seen images no one should ever see.

Pastors, too, will experience many sleepless nights as they prepare words for an unspeakable event.


THE NEAR FUTURE: The funerals will be large, sad and no doubt full of horrible theology explaining how we can’t question God, how God will turn this into good, etc.  Yet, despite the horrible theology, many churches will find themselves full.  Churches will comfort some families.  The community will become more closely knit.  Memorials and monuments will be built to honor the memory of the children and the teachers.  School will eventually reconvene.  On December 14th, 2013 CNN will hold a special marking the one year anniversary of the shootings.  And in five years the world will forget.

But the pain will linger.  The grief will remain in the hearts of the parents and their families.  Time will not heal these wounds.  This is the new normal for Newtown, Connecticut.

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