Often we need the formal ceremony, to begin the process of recognition as well as to realize and recognize that we do have support from friends and loved ones. By not seeing the deceased we lose the chance to confront the reality of death. Often seeing the body is an important first step to acceptance. Many people ask why at funerals and visitations we view the body of the deceased. Psychologists tell us that viewing is usually helpful because our natural tendency is to deny death. Visitation acknowledges that a death has occurred. Seeing is believing, where simple telling is not always helpful. Visitation and viewing also play a social role. The deceased usually has many friends who would like to express their sympathy. Seeing the deceased in the presence of friends eliminates shock and disbelief. Friends are given a chance to say their goodbyes and to provide a family with some needed support.
The lack of a funeral can cause loved ones to have trouble accepting and beginning the process of moving on. While choosing not to have some type of memorial will have no effect on the deceased, it can have serious consequences to the survivors.
I have a friend whose father was living overseas for 4 years before his death. He died overseas and, because they had a very contentious and difficult relationship she made the decision to not repatriate his body, and specifically requested that no one talk to her more about it or send any of his personal effects. After some difficulty involving embassies and language and cultural differences his friends overseas managed to put together a small but fitting funeral for him. Nothing formal, just some friends at the cemetery speaking about someone they loved, followed by a bonfire on the beach in front of his favorite bar. 5 months later, his daughter called one of his good friends to ask more about her father, and admitted that she was having trouble accepting his death. She had trouble believing he was really gone and not just "away", and she asked for some of his personal effects. His friend, having anticipated this reaction, sent his most treasured belongings (a ring, a hat, and pictures of his daughter and grandchildren), as well as pictures of him and a short video of people speaking about the man they loved, her father. This video exposed his daughter to a side of her father she had not known, the part that other people saw. It also helped her to see that he was really gone and begin the healing process, both grieving his death and making peace with a father who was not ideal, but, as it turned out, wasn't the worst.