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Caring for Your Dead
Your stories of performing the final work of mercy
I’m grateful for the reflections you shared on how you’ve cared for people you love after death, and the plans you’re making for your loved ones to care for you. Next week, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of age and the euphemism treadmill. This week’s round up was assembled while I listened to Anonymous 4’s album of Civil War songs. I’ve also prayed for the souls of any of the dead you mentioned by name.
Catherine generously shared the story of how she took care of her partner, Marge, after her death from ovarian cancer. I’m sharing an excerpt, but her story is worth reading in full:
I called the hospice, and the nurse on duty said she'd drive up from the city. After she examined Marge and pronounced the time of death (into the next date, by the time she arrived), she said she'd phone the funeral home to come pick up the body. My daughter and I said "No, absolutely not! We want to keep her here till we're ready for the funeral home to take her."
The nurse insisted that legally that was not permitted, but of course I stood her down because I knew it was indeed, permitted. It turned out that the nurse had only dealt with deaths in the hospital, not in the home.
I talked with the mortuary we had prearranged long before, through our state's branch of the Memorial Society that limits costs and last-minute decisions. (https://memorialsocietyofgeorgia.org/) Of course it was fine; they'd wait for me to call before they came to get the body. I've often wondered, since that night, how many people are bullied into letting the body of a loved one be taken away because an "expert" said it had to be that way.
Our Episcopal priest brought us hugs and prayers, and holy water and sprigs of evergreen with which she sprinkled and blessed Marge's body. All day long, people came to say goodbye and to place something on Marge's body that symbolized their appreciation for her. Eventually her face and heart and hands were completely covered.
I love how Catherine stood up for Marge, and the time she deserved. It’s so odd to rush family to relinquish a body or cut short their care—the dead are not in a hurry! They do not have any more earthly appointments to keep. Catherine let there be space for goodbyes.
Analisa analogized Catherine’s story of care in death to the range of ways to give birth.
I don't want death to be this mysterious, unspoken-of, far-away, scary thing. I want to know about it, be part of it. To not cast away the dead to be someone else's "problem." I love Catherine's story above as it reflects this understanding. It actually reminds me of my ideal birth, which it took me four babies to get—I didn't want anyone telling me when to push or counting in my face while I did. My body knew when to push. I didn't even have to consciously choose it. Two pushes was all it took to deliver him this way. I like the parallels here between lower-intervention birth and lower-intervention death.
I appreciate this connection—birth and death should both not be over-professionalized. There should always be room for the intimate care offered by the mourner or the laboring mother.
The professionals are there to help, not to take total ownership. I was grateful for my midwives, who helped me to labor, helped direct my pushing (it turns out I didn’t know what to do undirected), and who ultimately told me my baby needed a c-section to make it safely out. Because they made space for me, I was able to trust them when they gave me that warning.
Ivan is working on offering support to Orthodox Christians in the D.C. area:
One of my “reach projects” before the pandemic was to start a pan-Orthodox burial society for our area, since some parishes had lots of vigorous young people, others had lots of well-off lawyers (helpful for navigating regulations in a place with so many different legal jurisdictions), and still others had, well, plenty of people who should be preparing for their own funerals. Dn. Mark Barna’s book “A Christian Ending” (https://store.ancientfaith.com/a-christian-ending) is a guide for communities to organize these kinds of efforts — including how to opt out of embalming, minimize the environmental impact of burial containers, and ritually care for the body before burial. (One anecdote Dn. Mark tells: workers at one morgue observed that his was the first Christian group to come to wash and pray over the body, after seeing many groups of Jews, Muslims, and others.)
If you’ve been part of a similar society, please let me know. When I visited the largest Catholic parish in America, I was somewhat put off by the scale, but their bereavement ministry was the greatest blessing of their size. With so many parishioners, funerals were frequent, and their bereavement ministry grew to match:
The ministry pairs families with volunteers, who help the family make all the liturgical choices required for the funeral Mass. If the family is having a funeral reception at the church, the bereavement ministry will set up tables, make all the food needed and clean up afterwards, all for free. Afterwards, a volunteer reaches out at least once a month for a year following the death.
Finally, I want to share an excerpt from a feature I wrote on the coffin ministry of the Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey. The monks sell coffins to support their community, but they give them away for free to parents who lose a child. (The article includes several stories of miscarriage and stillbirth). All their work is marked by tenderness.
When the monks build the floor of a coffin, nearly all of the planks can be cut with a jig to a set size, but the last few always need to be trimmed to fit. The bases (which will be covered by cloth) are often made of ash-beetle scarred wood that would be rejected for more decorative purposes. The wood is heat-treated to make sure any lurking beetles or eggs are dead.
But even though the beetle is dead, wood is still living—a little breathing room is left between bottom planks for when humidity makes them swell. Otherwise, they’d force the top or foot panel out of true. The wood must be accommodated in its particularity, before it can receive a body. Each person laid to rest is similarly individual, even as they fill these standardized spaces.