Until just weeks ago, the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of the bereavement industry, or death trade as it’s sometimes called, wasn’t even listed as an essential service. Despite this recent shift in designation, I suspect there’s little or no applause or acknowledgement for the essential workers like the ones named by our provincial government: coroners and workers performing mortuary services, including: funeral homes, crematoriums, cemeteries and workers supporting the appropriate handling, identification, storage, transportation, and certification of human remains.
When we know those we love well, we can honour their essence in life and in death. This honouring of another at the time of their death, I believe, plays a key role in our own healing journey.
One of the most powerful memories I have from my days of funeral directing is arranging for Louise* to spend time with her dead brother, David.* David’s death was unexpected and jarring news to his mother and sister who both lived in a nearby city, a few hours from where he lived and died. While David was not a young man, he did not, to anyone’s knowledge, have a life-threatening illness.
I was asked by David’s mom, his next-of-kin, to register his death and arrange for his cremation. She wanted her son’s ashes (or cremated remains) returned to her. Her plan was to mark her son’s death with a church service and Celebration of Life a few months down the road in her home community.
His sister Louise however felt it was essential to see David and spend time with him before he was cremated. Her mom respected her daughter’s wishes and I arranged for Louise and David to have time together. In funeral speak this is typically called a viewing.
Honouring the essence of our dead is critical to our healing journey.
Louise was knew her brother well and used this ‘knowing’ to pour her love for David into the details of preparing for his viewing.
She and her mom went to David’s home and picked out some of his favourite clothes for him to wear including his ever-present sunglasses and a baseball hat. Louise also gathered some small stuffed animals she knew provided her brother with comfort over the years. She copied photos of family pets and happy pictures of her brother living and loving life and being with family. Louise purchased an array of natural fabrics, envisioning them as cozy bedding—some to be placed under him and some to cover him when it was time to say her final goodbye.
David loved to be in nature and in particular cherished the beauty of the cedar trees in the backyard of his sister’s house. To honour what she considered the essence of her brother, Louise brought in a collection of cedar boughs from her property and asked that they be placed under David. The stuffies, photos, fabrics and cedar boughs were to surround his body, enveloping him in love and comfort.
There are a bounty of ways to honour someone and your love for them after they die.
Finally, Louise asked that I pay special attention to David’s feet when bathing him. Would it be possible, she wondered, for me to rub her brother’s feet with essential oils. Louise cried when I told her I could use cedar wood essential oil. It’s my sense that her tears were an expression of relief; she was seen and heard by me. She was being supported to express her knowing of and love for her brother.
Satisfied that her love and care for David were expressed, Louise could now turn her attention to being with the full scope of her emotions. She could visit with her dead brother and be with both what was in front of her and within in her.
* names have been changed
What about you?
How do want to be cared for after you die?
How has preparing someone for their final resting place, aided your healing process?