Open Coffins: On Noah Pozner and Emmett Till

Abby Zimet

Veronique Pozner, whose six-year-old son Noah was killed at Sandy Hook, has responded singularly among grieving families to the Newtown tragedy. She movingly testified, with a few others, at last week's gun control hearings. After the shootings, she insisted on seeing Noah's body, not a photograph of it. And she insisted on an open casket at his funeral. She also purposefully brought the governor to look at it because, "If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.” It was real. Noah took 11 bullets. His mouth and jaw were blown away; a cloth covered that part of his face. Most of his left hand was gone. The governor wept. Maybe he'll remember.

For some observers, Pozner's fortitude and determination to make the horror real echoes that of the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy hideously murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. His mother Mamie Till-Mobley famously insisted on an open coffin at his funeral, which drew tens of thousands of mourners. “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box,” she said at the time. “No way. I just wanted the world to see.” The world did see, and evidently remembered. Today, the murder of Emmett Till is viewed as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement.

In an interview, Veronique Pozner tried to explain her decision to view and put on view her son's body. “I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad, the ugly,” she said. “It is not up to me to say I am only going to look at you and deal with you when you are alive, that I am going to block out the reality of what you look like when you are dead. And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.” She added, "His jaw was blown away. I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered."

Will a potent moment of making the ugliness real, of showing rather than telling, make a difference in our ongoing debates on gun control - or, for that matter, war? Newtown was a start: Is there anything worse than the death of children? But change comes hard. Since Noah Pozner was laid in the ground, at least 1,584 people have been killed by guns.

Emmett Till's mother Mamie at his funeral

Some of those killed by guns since Sandy Hook


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