After all the last times in the lives of a loved one comes the long line of final traditions and rituals. Dad took his last breath on the evening before New Years’ Eve. Mom was sitting by his side holding him in a last embrace. A first and a last, the medical examiner was called due to a fall in the hospital prior to his death, and we awaited the approval to allow the funeral home to take away his body.
How many times have I participated in this last ritual as nurse? Cleaning the body. Not preparing it for burial, but preparing it for a journey of a place of healing and hope to a place one step closer to finality. Every time is a little bit different, though always reverent and thought provoking. Preparing the body. An intimate last goodbye. We wash the face, try to caress the lids shut, but rarely do they stay. Clear the mouth and the tongue, but usually the mouth won’t stay closed. Style the hair, wash the body. Attempt to position the limbs in a natural, sleeping position. Dress the body. Keeping the corpse warm in outside air that always seems to chill. I have dressed bodies in pajamas, in t shirts, in nice clothes and dresses. I have helped scooch heavy bodies onto funeral home gurneys and gingerly swooped up old women who seemed to have the weight of a paper doll. I have escorted parents holding their small bundles of joy to the awaiting hearse. Lovingly saying their last goodbyes and watching the black limousine disappear into the night with their hearts outside their bodies. But this time was different. Mom helped the nurse dress dad. I am not sure if anyone washed his body at that point. Two old men, hunched over and grey came to escort him onto the stretcher. I helped them wrap him in a white sheet after folding his arms over his body. We hoisted him onto the stretcher, seatbelted him in. Covered him with a tattered, red velvet blanket. I said goodbye. I said a prayer. I wanted to open the window, but the windows in the hospital don’t open. And he was carted away to the funeral home.
I try not to think of what happened to him after that. The laying in the cold all alone. The embalming process. The draining out of all the blood and replacing it with strange chemicals. The blood down the drain. It doesn’t even need to go in any sort of biohazardous waste bin, it just trickles down the drain like water.
Funerals are another last ritual. Planning the funeral was stressful to say the least. Family discord became family drama. Again, thank God for mom, who was stronger than any of us every thought possible. The viewing was so strange. So many people came. We all stood in a line. Endless hugs and mandatory handshakes. Forced socialization. “You look great.” “Thank you” “I’m sorry” “Let me know what I can do” I don’t even know. It seemed so odd. Meaningless hugs and touching people you haven’t seen in years or ever.
The funeral at the church celebrating a faith that he maybe sorta believed in. The flowers. The real flowers that are not far behind in death. The burial. The lowering the body into dirt. Full of artificial blood and artificial everything. Dad had a cut on his hand from falling. It was rather superficial. They filled it in with silly putty and paint. It was a rather terrible recreation of living skin.
The food. I guess we have finally come full circle. We comfort the dying by force feeding and comfort those they have left behind by the same. Maslow’s hierarchy. Physiologic and most basic needs – air, water, food. What we all need and want the most. It fills the hole when the holes are empty.
The lasts. The last memories, the last actions, the last thoughts. The last rituals, the last things we do for the dead are the first things we do in our new lives without them. And there it is, the circle of life.