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You have seen it hundreds of times in movies. Someone dies and the doctor, priest, cop or someone else, moves their hands over the dead person's eyes and the eyes magically close. It's as if the eyes were somehow magnetic. I'm sure in reality it takes an undertaker to sew them down.

The only conclusion I can come to is it's the best way to ensure you don't see the actor blink.

Or is it some ritual that goes back thousands of years? I'm not sure, seems odd as I have seen it so often in film and it always makes me think.

So what do you think is the reason?

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Most probably rather a cultural than a movie thing. Kind of like giving them rest or putting them to sleep. –  Napoleon Wilson Mar 17 '13 at 22:16
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2 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

It is done to give the dead body dignity and show that they are sleeping (peacefully). Everybody does it when their loved ones pass away. Whether they can is a different matter.

If it is soon after death occurs, you should be able to close the eyelids quite easily. After a while, once rigor mortis sets in, it can become difficult. I'm not sure about sewing them shut nowadays, but undertakers do glue them together:

In the natural decomposition process, the softer, membranous tissue in the face dries out, causing the eyes to sink into the ocular cavity (a.k.a. "eye socket") and the lips and cheeks to contract. To prevent this, the mortician places a semispherical plastic cone with a grated surface over each eye, behind the eyelids. A potent moisture-capturing cream is the applied between the plastic and the inside of the eyelid to keep the outer skin hydrated and soft-looking. To keep the eyes closed, a thin trail of adhesive gel is carefully applied to the edge of the eyelids.

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If it is soon after death occurs, you should be able to close the eyelids quite easily. That statement is both inaccurate and uneducated. Eyelids will fix in their final position upon death. When death occurs, the pumps that work against calcium diffusion stop working. So the calcium flows into the sarcomeres, which allows all the myosin to bind to the actin. This bond is strong enough from the overload of calcium that it can't be broken until the muscle dies and decays a little bit. Either that or someone forcing the muscle to move, essentially tearing it. Stop believing Hollywood =/ –  user7618 Jan 15 at 0:38
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I believe it is a combination of both of your thoughts. In ancient times, Greece and Rome specifically, people would bury their dead with two coins, one over each eye, as a payment to the ferryman to speed them on the way to the underworld. As a film technique since directors can't truly kill their stars they close the eyelids to prevent the audience from notice the subtle twitches a human has even while remaining still.

There might be one more reason for doing this. I have heard that the eyes of the dead are extremely creepy and are often compared to that of a doll's eye. Due to the fact this was a person you knew in life you might feel uncomfortable about leaving the deceased just starring into space or into you.

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Love your last point! –  user4371 Mar 16 '13 at 23:19
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