There was an interesting and sad article in the NY Times a few weeks ago regarding a funeral home in the Bronx mixing up two women’s bodies, and presenting the wrong body at an open casket viewing.
Almost all the adults believed that they were viewing the body of Val-Jean McDonald. While most of them noticed that she didn’t look as they expected this was attributed to her cancer treatments. So the conditions that created the perception were the trust in the funeral home and the belief that because of how she died she wouldn’t look like herself. Of course perhaps the most important condition was the desire to be seeing the body of Val-Jean Mcdonald. For the most part, people believed their perception and not the fact that it was actually the body of another woman. Interestingly, the only people who were certain that the body was not Val-Jean McDonalds’s were the children. In a situation such as this, it would seem that the children would have no strong conditions skewing their perception so they saw what was real.
This was of course, disturbing and sad because at such a time, people put their faith in funeral homes and in this case that faith was clearly mis-placed. The situation was even worse for the family of the woman who was cremated by accident in that they did not believe in cremation and also ended up having a closed casket (presumably an empty casket) viewing.
Perceptions arise at every moment of experience and perceptions are not always (perhaps rarely) true. Sometimes they are helpful of course and keep us out of trouble, but usually they are colored by conditions that we consider in themselves to be real. Moment to moment moods create a lens of perception, what you had for lunch can impact perception, your last experience with a person impacts perception etc.
How often through the day are we mis-guided by our perceptions? It may be that a prior experience with a colleague clouds our view of who this person is at that moment. In other words, when we see this person, we are actually seeing our perception of that person based on the last time we saw him or her. Of course, this may at times be essential if it’s someone who has done us harm we certainly may need to be vigilant, but at the same time we need to recognize what’s happening.
Then there is of course chronic stress that is often a result of the mind’s mis-perceiving a thought for reality and reacting to the thought versus what’s really true.
Mindfulness is certainly the cure for this. In a Buddhist context, perception and consciousness co-arise. This follows our contact with an object of awareness—and then the resulting pleasant, unpleasant or neutral experience that arises with that contact. It is in the moment of perception and consciousness that an action (or reaction) will result. As our mindfulness strengthens we are more and more aware of this interaction and of the conditions causing a particular reaction and in time reaction becomes appropriate response. As well, we learn to accept that others are reacting from perceptions so that the anger we may feel from another toward us can become less personal and we can actually develop compassion for this other person.
Now back to the sad case of the mis-placed bodies. I didn’t get the sense from either family when the truth of the mix-up was discovered that they reacted with anger. They were certainly upset. In the case of the family of the woman who should not have been cremated, the man said that he had to walk off his anger and digest what had happened.
There will no doubt be some financial compensation to these families, but I had a sense of forgiveness knowing that it was an honest mistake with no ill intent. I suspect though, that the family of Val Jean MacDonald has learned something about perception.