No, I will not get rid of you.

by , ,

My first and last encounter with Mrs. X was in the cooler.

Mrs. X was a widow who died in hospital with her devoted son and daughter-in-law at her side. From her hospital room she was taken to the hospital morgue. With her son’s permission, she was then transferred from the morgue to the refrigeration unit operated by the funeral company. Since Mrs. X was not being viewed nor was she going to be present at a good-bye ceremony, this was her last stop before being cremated.

I carefully moved her in her white body-bag from the refrigeration unit to the table where she would be dressed before being placed in her cremation tray and then taken to the crematorium. We opened her body-bag and there she was – naked, mouth open, white disinfectant cream on her face. (The cream was placed by the transfer staff to protect her skin from the cold and to keep it hydrated in case she was going to be seen again.)

I wanted to wail. And I did, in bed later that night.

We wiped her face clean, put on the clothes provided by her family, put the cardboard lid over her and brought her to the crematorium to wait her turn. The end.

Why was I so distraught by what happened with Mrs. X? At first I thought it was her nakedness that disturbed me. We don’t know why she was naked, usually people are in a hospital gown or at least underwear. Or maybe it was the normal reaction for my first encounter with caring for a dead person at this stage of the process.

But the more I wrestled with it, I came to see that it pained me to know that I, a total stranger to Mrs. X, was to be one of the last people on earth to see her face, hold her hand, say thank you and good-bye. I mourned the fact that many of our communities in the Western world have evolved to this place where instead of caring for our own, we’ve professionalized and outsourced the care of our dead. There is now somewhere away from us they ‘go’ rather than a place they stay with us so we can be with them, say a long good-bye and get a little bit used to this new reality.

I think about my mom, who now lives in a care home with severe dementia, unable to feed or toilet herself. But still able to hold my hand in a vice grip and occasionally say “Yes, darling”.

In earlier days when we talked about her inevitable death, she was dismissive and would say, “What do I care? I’m dead. Just get rid of me.” Maybe you’ve had a similar conversation. Maybe you even feel this way yourself.  “Throw me in the trash,” my Mom would laugh.

No. I will not. I will not get rid of you.

I will not hand you over to strangers to see and touch your dead body. The body in which I was conceived and nourished. The body that devoted so much of its life to me.

But I would have. When the time came, I would have handed my Mom over to strangers without a second thought as to where she was going or who was taking care of her. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And that’s what scares me.

Change is afoot. There is a growing movement of people across our lands who are seeking options to reclaim family and community-led care for our dead. I know that more and more of us have a sense that it’s possible, potentially even transformative, to be with our dead (and our own mortality) in a way that is enriching and meaningful. Count me in.

It’s possible and even transformative, to be with our dead and our own mortality in a way that is enriching and meaningful.

And what about you?  We’d love to hear your reaction to this post.

How has your experience of being with a dying or dead person enriched your life?
How do you hope to be cared for when you die?

Please add your thoughts below.


Apprentice Tales shares insights and learnings gleaned from Michelle’s days as an apprentice funeral director. Michelle spent 2+ years working at a funeral home owned by a large publicly traded corporation. She left before finishing her required hours. She’s back now, completing her funeral director apprenticeship with a small, grassroots, locally owned and operated funeral provider.

Tags: , , , ,

3 Comments

  • Hi Michelle. Thanks for this great reflection on how we care for our dead. I thought I’d share one of my experiences since you asked. My mom died in hospital in Penticton BC, in the hospice ward in 1992. She was just 58, I was 32. Our whole family was with her through her dying days and when she died.

    We wanted to take her home for a few days and this was almost unheard of back then. They wanted to transfer her to the hospital morgue but I refused. I said if you take her to the morgue I am going to sit with her there. Instead, we did bring her home. My dad was amazing!! We laid her in their bed and opened the door to the outside to keep her cool. My cousin made her a beautiful cotton robe which we dressed her in, and through the day and night and the following day, we came and went, spending time at her side and spending time together in the living room ~ talking and laughing and crying.

    When the coroner came to transport her body to the crematory in Vancouver, I travelled with him in the vehicle. I travelled with my dead mom 260 miles so that she was never alone on this, her final journey. While my mom and I made that journey I embroidered a pillow slip for her final rest.
    We didn’t stop for coffee along the way.

    She was cremated at the same place her beloved son was cremated 8 years earlier. I am so thankful to have had that experience with my mother and thankful to both my parents for how they and we (his sisters) honoured my brother after his suicide in 1984.
    It set me on a path of death positivity early in my life.
    Thanks for the opportunity to share my story Michelle. And thank you for the work you’re doing. http://www.greenburialbc.ca/

    • Dear Nicola,
      Your sharing brought tears to my eyes. I’m so moved and I’m inspired. I know it will be my turn soon to care for one of my parents after they die. I pray to all the powers that be that I will have it in me to stay centred and clear about my desire to be bring beauty and sacredness to each step. Thank YOU dear one for so much.

      • Thanks for your lovely heartwarming response Michelle. I wish you strength and clarity with your own loved ones passings when the time comes.
        In hindsight (oh dear hindsight) I wish I had known more then ~ especially about what is possible with cremation. If I had it to do over again, I’d have gone all the way to the crematory with my dear ones. I know now that in many crematoriums, it’s possible to be witness to the process. Even when my dear dad was cremated in 2001, I didn’t know that if I had asked, it might have been different. We only asked the time of the cremation ~ my husband and I sat in our vehicle nearby and watched the smoke stack. Now, I would go so far as to request to be there when the remains are taken from the fire, which I know is possible at some crematories. I would request to handle and package the bones and ashes myself. XO

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.