Seeing is Believing: The Empty Caskets of 9/11

Seeing is Believing: The Empty Caskets of 9/11

There’s the age old phrase, “seeing is believing” and for so many of us, it rings true. At O’Connor we’ve seen families testify to this truth over and over, telling us that seeing their loved one at peace helped to bring home their new reality. Seeing gave them a physical object and an image to process in the future as a mental touch point and marker of what has happened. It doesn’t seem like looking at someone who has died should be comforting, but so many people describe it that way and my own personal experience tells the same story. But what about when there is no body to bury?

Each year the anomaly of the empty caskets of 9/11 come to my mind.
It isn’t a few bodies that have never been found, it’s half.

Here are some statistics on what was found at the World Trade Centers:

  • The number of people believed to have been killed in the World Trade Center attack hovers around 2,780
  • Six weeks after the attack only 425 people had been identified.
  • A year after the attack, only half of the victims had been identified.
  • 19,906 remains were recovered from Ground Zero, 4,735 of which were identified. Up to 200 remains were linked to a single person.
  • Of the 1,401 people identified, 673 of the IDs were based on DNA alone.
  • Only 293 intact bodies were found.
  • Only 12 could be identified by sight. (source)

As of today, no trace has been identified for about half of the victims, despite what has called the “greatest forensic investigation in history.” (source)

In reading about these 9/11 families without anyone to bury, I came across some deeply stirring descriptions of this terrorist induced epidemic. One author wrote,

“The victims were no longer alive but they were not yet ‘safely dead,’ … Both the victims and their families were in a kind of limbo … between one identity and another” (Kastenbaum 2004, pg. 7).

010916-N-7479T-501 Ground Zero, New York City, N.Y. (Sept. 16, 2001) -- A lone fire engine at the crime scene in Manhattan where the World Trade Center collapsed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Surrounding buildings were heavily damaged by the debris and massive force of the falling twin towers. Clean-up efforts are expected to continue for months. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. TIlford. (RELEASED)

photo taken on 9/16/2001

Without a body, even a trace of a body, there is an argument for hope. And hope prevents us, for better or worse, from accepting the same terrible thing it protects us from. One family, the Ragusa family, refused to hold a funeral for their son until they could locate him. Almost 2 years after 9/11 Michael Ragusa was the last of the 343 firefighters killed at the Trade Centers to be buried. A vile of blood was found that he had donated and laid to rest in his casket.

His mother said, “It’s hard to fathom: no trace of so many people. It can’t happen that way. … People don’t just disappear.”

But at 9/11 they did. And families were without that center piece, the natural guidance that caring for a body creates; we care for bodies, celebrate the life lived, and we lay bodies to rest.

Another author describes these ambiguous losses:

“Sally Regenhard waits for the day she can erect a gravestone that will proclaim to the ages that her son Christian lived and died. Diane Horning waits for the day she will receive another part of her son Matthew. She already received three.” (source)

Another author stared up at the changed skyline and wrote,

“Its emptiness still holds us. 9/11 is embalmed, not here and not gone either.” (source)

Yet, so many who have this chance, this privileged opportunity to say goodbye, pass it off as weird, scary, morbid. They allow social clichés to rob them forever of a much-needed “emotional connection point” (Hoy, p. 111).

I know not all of you talk or think about open caskets as often as I do, but I want you the next time you are attending or planning a funeral to seriously think about your family, your friends, all of the people in grief and not minimize the intrinsic need in all humans of seeing to believe.


Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Hello! I'm Molly and I run & manage the Blog here at O'Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who's deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try. Work at O'Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective. I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.


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  4. Amy says:

    What a day that most of us will never forget. I can’t even begin to imagine the families that will never get the complete closure that they so longingly wait for. How they have been robbed of the peace of mind that comes with physically seeing your loved one.
    Thank you for making it real in everyday life too. Its what people need, even though they don’t think so. What we do is powerful. I will continue to promote viewing and visitation for these very sad reason. Seeing is believing.

  5. Becky Finch Lomaka says:

    Hi Molly,
    As I sat watching documentaries this past 9-11 with tears still welling up in my eyes, I thought about all of those families who never had the opportunity to “see and believe”. I even think of certain religions that do not advocate for viewing of the body, yet the mere presence of the casket at the ceremony and knowing that there is a body in that casket brings peace. These 9-11 families have been robbed of this healing moment. It is yet another layer of tragedy in the wake of these attacks.

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