U.S. News

02.05.13

Inside a Home Funeral

Preparing a body for burial is a ritual that is both ageless and tribal. Here’s what it’s like.

This is the first time I am so close. There is a body bag on the table, waiting to be opened. Our best friends’ 22-year-old son’s body is inside. His mother and father are across from me, brothers beside, with several women gathered to form the circle around the table. These women will become my sisters in the next five hours, as we prepare the body together. They are Heather, the home-funeral advocate who had helped the family arrange for the body to come home instead of the funeral parlor; Betty, a Rolfer and powerful healer and longtime caregiver of the family; Julie, a yoga teacher, friend of the mother and Joan, a lifelong family friend who had also lovingly assisted at this boy’s birth. It was Jane, the boy’s mother, who had gotten the call in the middle of the night that their son Wes had been in a bad car accident. She and her husband John had rushed to the hospital to be greeted with the words, “Your son is deceased.”

Heather asks me to help because I work for hospice. I am a writer and administrator there, not a clinical person. When she asks, I just say “Of course,” because death is something I talk and write about every day. I am terrified, but know I should do it, just step up to the plate and look it straight in the eye. And because I love Jane and John so much, I know I can do this for them. Others come and go all afternoon, but we are the core that keeps the process going.

First, the unzipping.

Never has that sound been so mournful. Heather raises her hand to stop for a moment. “Now, we don’t know what condition he’s really in. Are you ready? We don’t have to rush.” We all inhale deeply, nodding. Heather, Julie, and Betty open the bag on their side and look in. There is whispering. Heather’s head bends sideways, pointing to various aspects, Betty agrees. “Help us roll him a bit, so we can look at the underside.” I put my hand on his shoulder to roll him toward them. The coldness of his body through the bag jolts me like an icicle through my heart.

“OK, that’s good.” Heather’s voice is soft and calming. “Oh, baby Wes, we will take such good care of you.” Wes’ mother is sobbing, yet somehow she is also shining, luminous with purpose. We gently remove the bag from around him, revealing his bruised but surprisingly intact body. Heather keeps his face and privates covered while we inspect the skin for breaks and tears.

He is covered with red welts across his chest where he had hit the steering wheel. The marks bloom like roses against his creamy white skin. A pattern that would be beautiful on a bedspread fabric, but here tells a story of loss so heartbreaking we can barely look. There is a fine grit of shattered glass, dirt and stray leaves embedded everywhere.  Our task is to clean him completely, scrub every possible inch of skin, every orifice and fold, so that bacteria have no place to hide. We want him to lie in state smelling sweetly here in this unheated room for the next couple of days before the burial.

Heather lifts the covering from his face and we all gasp. Here is our Wes, golden child with his long curls spilling down the pillow, inexorably beautiful in death. There is a gash across his forehead, a cut on his lip, small bruises on his cheek and ear, but they are all surface. His perfect nose is unscarred. His cheeks are smooth, albeit pale yellow. His chest and arms are strong and muscular, his hands folded together as if in prayer.

We set to our task with a deliberate gentleness, dabbing with cloths, cotton, swabs. There is a steady flow of bowls of warm water, soapy and clear, delivered by a stream of helpers. All perceptions of time and space shift to alter my consciousness beyond customary definition. I have no idea how long it is taking to do any of these tasks. I know that many others are coming and going throughout the process—grieving family members and friends, some sobbing openly, some silent and grim, but my sisters and I stay present and focused as we brush the tiny glass shards away from the body, change the bedding to be constantly fresh and clean, wash and rinse his hair three times, dress his wounds, apply alcohol to the surface abrasions. Now my hands love touching him, find the cold of his flesh refreshing and awakening. He had been a martial arts master, great dancer, landscaper, swimmer, incredibly active and powerful young man in the prime of his life. A body cannot be more fit and beautiful than this.

Inside a Home Funeral
A family photograph of Wes in 2012. ()

I keep having visions of this body as a baby too. The little Wes in diapers who often stayed at our house with his brothers and sister and our kids, who loved to snuggle and play, always the shining golden curls, the loopy smile and readiness to laugh. The little Wes his mother would care for with homeopathic remedies, the freshest home baked cookies, garden vegetables, herbal teas. I recall the young Wes, who tagged along with his siblings and all their friends, whose daredevil antics and bright humor succeeded in entertaining them all, earning him a choice place as everyone’s favorite little brother. And he grew to become a strong and supple young man who worked with his father maintaining the estates they care for: mowing, pruning, hauling, cutting, digging—side by side as one of the crew—always willing to help.

I stroke his muscles with a soapy washcloth, picking out the embedded flecks of glass with my fingernails. Heather keeps talking to him as if he is our baby. “Oh, Wes, you are so beautiful. We are taking such good care of you.” As I lift his arm so Betty can get in to the fold to clean it, Heather remarks how much more relaxed he seems. We all look up from our work to his face and are surprised at the shift. Heather has been doing his face, managing to get his eyes to close, butterflying the gash so it is now just a seam, scrubbing his teeth with swabs, cleaning in and around his ears, massaging his jaw muscles into relaxing, so that now he looks far more peaceful than when he came in.

We trim and then scrub his fingernails and toenails with a toothbrush. His aunt combs and styles his hair, which he’d recently cut in to a mullet, just for the hell of it. We brush away the glass and dirt from the table with a clean paint brush, and change the pads under him so all is spotless. Heather welcomes in some of the men to participate. His father and brother-in-law carefully and gingerly clean him. His old friend Fella from the Caribbean whispers over and over, shaking his head and sucking in his teeth “Jesus, Wes, Jesus Christ, Wes.”

Most of the gathering of grieving men and young folk are in the garage directly on the other side of this door, drinking, playing music, crying, telling stories, and finishing the coffin that his father, brothers, and friends have made. Some drift in at times, friends of Wes’s, stand in the corner to watch for a few moments, sob, and leave. Others stay for a long time and just watch silently. No question we are in a holy space here. Heather exudes sheer, unconditional love to all. We are outside all time and space. We are moving as one. She directs us with complete confidence and gentleness. Everything we need seems to appear magically—an extra carton of Chux pads, endless piles of facecloths, more ice packs, and pillow cases. There are a few skin tears that bleed a little. Betty’s husband comes with a box of Band Aids from their house that must have been there for years—yellowed, curled, dried out of their coverings. But there are just enough to do exactly what is needed, little round ones for the two pin pricks at the groin and chest, several flesh colored butterflies for the forehead.

When he is finally clean, we carefully anoint him with lavender oil so that every inch of him becomes sweet and soft, smelling like a summer field. After some back and forth, his brother picks out a wardrobe from Wes’ old bedroom on the other side of the wall—rejecting the church suit jacket for a wild jean vest Wes himself had altered with red pirate pennants at the sleeves and pocket, and the words “Woods Hole” emblazoned across the back. The chest pocket has three neatly wrapped condoms hidden inside, testament to the very vital young man who placed them there. It’s hard moving his stiff limbs to fit them into the arm holes, and I find myself shocked to remember that he is actually dead, that this body I have been ministering to so lovingly cannot return to life and help us get the clothes on himself.

But we do manage to dress him, inserting fresh ice packs under his shirt to keep him from warming up too much over the next couple of days. His mother is so happy to see him looking so well put together, she strokes his soft beard and laughs with joy. I am amazed at how much joy is possible to intertwine with so much pain and loss. Finally, we invite in Leanne, Wes’s fiancée, who has been hunkered in a room waiting for this moment. She comes in supported by friends at each elbow, hesitant, reaching out, then recoiling, finally collapsing over him, chanting softly, “You said you would come right back, you said you would come right back…” Then she stands up, surveys our work, and thanks us. She pulls up a chair, takes a seat and touches every part of him, head to toe, marveling at how peaceful he looks. We know this part of our work is done.

During the next couple of days, friends, family and well-wishers file in to this room to pay their respects. Wes acquires a hat, ring, heart stones, flowers, his baby blanket, a cloth angel, photographs. In the garage next door, the beautiful homemade wooden casket waits—decorated with heart-shaped cedar medallions and strung with sea-worthy white rope for carrying. Upstairs, photographs are being scanned for a slide show, then affixed to boards for display at the reception. Food, cards, and flowers arrive by the boatload—casseroles, lasagnas, hams, soups, salads, homemade breads, cookies and cakes of every description.  Stories flow like wine—memories of Wes at every stage of his brief but rich life, and we all find ourselves amazed to learn more than we ever suspected about this wild, creative, loving young man.

On the last night, a laptop is brought in and placed on Wes’s knees, while we gather around to watch a video he wrote, directed, filmed, and starred in when he was 14. It’s a smartly scripted, gory Ninja fantasy, with his older brother playing a hard-boiled detective and Wes indulging in martial-arts slaughter, cracking jokes the whole time. Everyone is laughing. The fact that we are watching this now literally over his dead body is so disparate a reality I cannot hold my awareness in its usual container. I feel split open, beyond all limits, beyond all definitions of how life is supposed to happen. As I look around at the faces of Jane, Julie, Heather, Betty, and Joan, I see they are all paying attention to how we are each reacting, making sure we are OK. There is so much love in this room right now, I know that everything is going to be all right, as all right as can be in these circumstances. I realize that I have learned that we can embrace the paradox of loving and losing. We can be present to both pain and joy—that they’re deeply interconnected. We have woven a web of connection from this life to this death through our hands and hearts coming together to minister to this body. And we have done so in a ritual that is ageless and tribal from time immemorial.

This is the way it should be done.