fter 30 years directing funerals, I've come to believe in open caskets. A service to which everybody but the deceased is invited, like a wedding without the bride or a baptism without the baby, denies the essential reality of the occasion, misses the focal point. It is why we comb wreckage, drag rivers and bring our war dead home. Knowing is better than not knowing, no matter how difficult the facts; and seeing, it turns out, is believing. That's what hurts, the heart-sore widow says of the body in the blue suit in the box. Births, deaths, marriages -- the fashions of these passages change, but the fundamental obligations of witness and remembrance remain. And whether we bear witness to the joy or sadness, the love or grief, the life or death, the sharing of it makes the bearing of it better.
The same is so for executions. Knowing is better than not knowing. Seeing is believing. Such an extreme exercise of the public will and the state's power demands a public witness.
Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, has requested that his execution be televised. Mr. McVeigh has no rights in the matter. But we do, and the state that executes in our name ought not abridge our right to watch the exercise. Seeing Mr. McVeigh put to death by lethal injection ought to be easy. To visit on him a tidy, state-sanctioned and technically efficient fraction of the homicide he visited on his victims seems a tiny evil we must endure, a vaccination against madness and inhumanity. When the state kills in the name of its citizens -- no matter how justly, righteously or humanely -- oughtn't its citizens be obliged to watch? And if not obliged, at least allowed? What other justice, righteousness or humanity would we turn our faces from?
But many of those who favor capital punishment reject the notion of making it as public as the Super Bowl or Senate hearings. They cite the fear of turning Mr. McVeigh into a martyr or a spectacle when all they want to turn him into is a corpse. They insist that only the victims' families should be allowed to see his execution. But what American was not victimized by Mr. McVeigh's spectacular terrorism? Whether to deter or to punish, whether for riddance or for revenge, it will be we the people who put Timothy McVeigh to death in a few months' time. And we the people should be allowed to watch.
Of course, for many the real concern is that seeing an execution may sour our stomach for capital punishment. The idea of the thing is somehow less troubling than the thing itself. Debating a woman's right to choose is more pristine than looking at a fetus in a jar or watching a late-term abortion. And here in the Michigan suburbs, we considered for years the relative merits of ''assisted suicide'' and ''the right to die'' and acquitted Dr. Jack Kevorkian every time we could until we all tuned in one Sunday evening to watch him do it, with our own eyes, there on the TV between commercial breaks.
To many, the idea of the thing, in the Kevorkian case, was tolerable in the 120 killings we never saw. But the thing itself -- once we saw it, a living, breathing man going still -- we saw it was wrong. We have dominion over our pets, but not other people. The angel of mercy seemed more like a serial killer. A few months later Dr. Kevorkian was sent to jail.
Thousands of hours and millions of dollars were spent retrieving the bodies of the 168 dead from the rubble in Oklahoma City -- bodies, with names and histories and homes to which they would never return. The search was horrendous and heroic -- and televised. The families feared both finding their loved ones and not finding them. This terrible ambivalence made clear that dealing with loss begins with confronting what has been lost; seeing their bodies is believing them dead.
It is the same with the national ambivalence about doing evil to our most evil evildoers. The loss of innocence is real both in the crime and in the punishment. As in the other life-and-death debates -- war, abortion, euthanasia -- there are more opinions than witnesses. We cannot declare closure or proclaim justice done. We can only hope to achieve them by confronting our most difficult realities. If we cannot watch, then we should reconsider.
If seeing war creates a hunger for peace, perhaps watching an execution will make us hunger for justice and righteousness and humanity. But whether it soothes or saddens, comforts or vexes, whether it moves us to march against it or to pray, whether we are silenced or sickened by it, is it not our duty to have a look? Before we close this painful case, we should face what's in it.