Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Things We Do For Love

More than 10 years ago, I was in a hearing in Domestic Relations Court. It had been rescheduled because the magistrate had a death in her family. She thanked us for our flexibility in changing the date and then explained that her mother had passed away.

She is Muslim and she told us that it is their tradition that the close female relatives of a deceased woman (not the undertaker) wash and dress the body for the funeral, which generally occurs within 24 hours of death. She and her aunts and sisters joined together to do that on the day we were to have been in court. Of course I and the other attorney were gracious about the rescheduling. These things happen; we never know what life has in store for us. We went on with our business before the court.

As we left the courthouse, the other attorney turned to me, and said, "I could never do that. How disgusting! Wash a dead body!"

I responded, "I don't know, I have never been asked to do it, but it seems like such a loving thing. A final way to take care of a person you loved and make sure that they are treated with care and dignity, not yanked around by a stranger." I thought it sounded like a beautiful tradition.

"I guess you're right, but I could never do it."

"I don't know, but I think I could."

We went our separate ways, back to the busyness.

On my walk back to the office, I mulled it over. I hadn't known about this Muslim tradition; hadn't known that this magistrate was Muslim; hadn't thought about the prospect of washing and dressing a body before that day. My parents were both in reasonably good health at that point, so the reality of it seemed pretty distant.

I wondered when and why our western culture had become so squeamish about death and dying. It used to be that bodies were "laid out" at home and visitors came there to pay respects and offer condolences. After a couple of days, the body was buried in a wooden coffin in a family plot or churchyard. The family was apparently not spooked by having a body in the house. Maybe they even took comfort in the nearness of the loved one who would soon be buried. Maybe it felt normal because that is what other families did. Maybe there were no other options. But at some point that all changed. Why?

My research indicates that burial customs started changing during the Civil War. Arterial embalming - the injection of a preservative solution into the arteries of the deceased - had been developed around 1830, primarily to preserve cadavers for scientific use. During the Civil War, some northern families had the bodies of slain kin quickly and crudely embalmed so that they could be shipped home from southern battlefields for viewing and burial.

American opinion was very unfavorable about the private use of this process, but that changed significantly with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the funeral procession of his body around the country. It was the first opportunity for most Americans to see an embalmed body. Interest increased, although the custom of the undertaker coming to the home of the deceased, preparing the body and measuring for the casket still prevailed, perhaps due to the relative scarcity of embalmers. Undertakers up to this time were typically cabinetmakers who built coffins and took care of the dead as a side business, although often midwives also prepared bodies for burial.

At the onset of the twentieth century, germ theory was beginning to be widely accepted and the notion that a dead body may be unsanitary gained favor. Mortuary Science became a course of study that included licensure and certification. Embalming required equipment and a space away from the distraught family in which it could be performed.  As more people died in hospitals they had to be moved immediately after death anyway. Once it became necessary to have the body moved to the funeral home for embalming, there was reluctance to have it brought back to the home following that process. Enter the family funeral home or "parlor".

The early and mid-twentieth century saw the rise of the funeral industry, with the mass production of ever more elaborate metal caskets and the increase in goods and services offered. Unethical practices which involved preying upon grieving families for the sake of profits became widespread and were then exposed in the media. As the public became fearful of being taken advantage of, cremation rates climbed. During the 1970's through the 1990's there was a tremendous consolidation of family funeral homes. Where there had once been funeral homes dedicated to particular ethnic groups, located in their neighborhoods, there became fewer, larger facilities, often retaining the names of the entities they had "swallowed".

Anecdotally, it seems that the increasing use of hospice services may result in more deaths at home once again and more cremations may result in less embalming. It will take time for these trends to play out, but it seems our funeral customs are continually evolving. I wonder if we will, as a culture, take back some of the care of our beloveds that we have relinquished to outsiders?

Even though practices may evolve with technology and social mores, the desire to "do right" by a deceased loved one will never change. We still want to respect their wishes. We still want them treated with dignity and even love, whether by us or by someone else.

My family was lucky because we did not have to guess at our parents' wishes. They were courageous enough to accept the inevitable and to provide their children with guidance - possibly their final acts of parenting us. We were brave enough to listen, accept and remember.

They wanted to be cremated and then interred at the church they helped found in South Carolina and they wanted a party - a "celebration of life"- to include family and their dear friends.

At the time of their funerals, immediately after each of them died, the funeral director offered us the use of a "loaner" receptacle for their remains during the calling hours and Masses, until we could decide what we would use long-term.  My brothers, both skilled woodworkers (learned at Dad's side), examined the box.

"I could make that," James said.

"I think I will. I'd like to make one for them, for their ashes, if that's okay with everybody."

"Okay"? It wasn't okay, it was perfect.

No member of my family is particularly emotional; it's just not our style, but my brother James is the most laid-back of all of us. And yet I can't imagine what it must have been like for him, cutting the wood, piecing it together, sanding it, finishing it, and then placing Mom's and Dad's ashes inside.

He carried it into the church for the memorial service, then outside afterward and out to the "peace garden" where the columbarium sits. As Hurricane Sandy blew and spit rain, he gently slid it into their niche.

He did all these things in his typical, non-dramatic, matter-of-fact way. I suspect it was rewarding to him to have done it and probably therapeutic, too, but it cannot have been easy.

Such a generous, heartfelt gift to them and to all of us: that they should rest, together, in a beautiful casket made for them with love. I will always be grateful to him for his willingness to take it on and to do it so beautifully and with such grace.


  1. I love that your brother did this. So beautiful. I hope the celebration of their lives was healing for all involved.

  2. Thanks for sharing about burial customs. It's incredibly interesting. I've always wondered about it.

    What a difficult, but probably therapeutic, thing for James to do. His love for your parents truly shines through in the painstaking job he did. So beautiful and touching.

  3. What he made is gorgeous. So is the entire process behind it.

    What you note about embalming and American squeamishness with the dead is so true; I'm adding it to my list of What's Wrong with America.

    In fact, my mother-in-law washed her mother's body a couple years ago, partaking in the act with her daughter and it was a group of women caretaking another woman one last time, and if that's not powerful, I can't think what is.

  4. i just fell in love with james

    and i am still in love with you :-)
    and yeah..i am alive...feels good to be back