I HELPED TO DRESS my father and mother-and place them in their caskets. It was an intimate and sacred way to express my gratitude to them for their gift of life and their care of me. It was also an aide in my grief journey with each parent.
My mother died at age 63 in 1980 from a stroke following hip surgery. My last act while she was conscious was feeding her. The funeral director was more resistant to my request to participate in the burial preparation than my brother. When we arrived to assist in the process, her body was in a private viewing parlor resting on a gurney. She was respectfully clad in undergarments and a full-length slip. Our task was to assist in dressing her in a skirt, blouse and jewelry. It was a tender and emotional time for me as I thought about how she had nurtured me into life, fed, clothed and bathed me; laughed with and cried with me. Numerous memories, painful and joyful, filtered through my mind and heart. My brother and I worked quietly, sharing brief images, and then lifted her gently into her casket.
A similar process was repeated five years later with my father. Again, one of my last memories was feeding him before he slipped away. At the funeral home it was different. The director said that he had honored many requests to assist in the preparation of a body for a funeral, especially among parents who had lost children and infants. They knew how important the intimacy of departure can be when saying goodbye.
For my father, the deed was not done in the fancy parlor. We were escorted directly to the staff's preparation workroom. Our father, wearing only boxer shorts, was laid out on a stainless steel worktable. As we dressed him my mind flashed through a kaleidoscope of scenes from life with him. Again, my brother and I worked quietly and carefully we placed him in his casket.
What led me to risk this behavior was observing some Roman Catholic brothers prepare the body of one of their own to bury him. It felt so right, so respectful, and so sacred. I wanted to extend the same to my beloved. Dying and death are part of our lives. To extend our caregiving to our deceased by participating more intimately in their departure is a sacred gift that walks with our beloved on their journey to eternity.
Most of us have moved away from the intimacy of our grief and turned the process of care and burial over to professionals. Perhaps we need to reconsider the emotional and spiritual price we pay for that exchange. Robert Frost exposes the painful aloneness of parents who bury a child in "Home Burial." The father who had dug his child's grave pleads with his wife: "Let me into your grief."
Once again, some people are initiating home funerals as a way of assisting their grief process and making the life/death experience more intimate. Conversations are beginning to take place in Death Cafés, perhaps an off-putting name but certainly an idea that has enticed many to engage in conversations about end of life issues across our nation. These venues date to 2004, when sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting such cafés in Switzerland. Generally coordinated by hospice workers, these cafés have been spawned from California to Maine.
Not long ago, I was deeply moved when I attended a showing of the tender, respectful Japanese film, Departures, which tells the story of a cellist who loses his job when an orchestra disbands. He retreats to his hometown and winds up taking a job as an undertaker, performing the elaborate preparations of bodies after death. At first, his family is horrified. Later-well, watch the film unfold and you will appreciate the stirring conclusion.
Many cultures around the world follow such intimate traditions to this day. In American Muslim communities, among the men and women who attend prayers at each mosque there often are a handful trained in the sacred preparation of the dead for the simplicity of Muslim burial. This places an extra reminder in the gathering of a Muslim community: Someone praying next to you, shoulder to shoulder, may be the person who one day will bathe and wrap your lifeless body.
These are wonderments-profound, ancient stirrings of our faith-that we have tried so hard to hermetically seal away. America's most famous undertaker, poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, won the American Book Award for The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. He argues that our desire for up-beat memorial services, often with the loved one invisibly reduced to an attractive little container of ashes, rob us of one of life's deepest spiritual truths.
In the final pages of his book, Lynch writes: "You should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leavetaking in a room, a cemetery chapel, at the foot of the altar. None of that. Don't dodge it because of the weather. We've fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won't take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it's over. Until it is done."
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