The moment a loved one dies there seems to be a thousand chores that need doing: calling the relatives, the doctor, the mortician, dealing with a kitchen overflowing with donated food, writing an obituary and planning a funeral service. The lens of grief magnifies the challenge of these tasks and can be all-consuming. In the avalanche of events following the moment of death it can be easy to forget to take the time to simply be with the body of our loved one, to say our goodbyes with the peace and space that we really need.
In other cultures, and historically in ours, the families of the deceased actively participate in the rituals that follow a death. Through bathing and clothing the body, digging a grave or building a funeral pyre, our bodies and minds are given a chance to accept the reality of death. Current convention passes the work of handling the dead to professionals. While morticians provide a convenient and useful service, I cannot help but wonder what we are losing by foregoing direct involvement in caring for the bodies of our loved ones.
At my grandfather's funeral I helped carry his casket from the hearse to graveside. A stranger had already dug the grave. The pile of dirt was nowhere to be seen. A blanket of Astroturf covered the hole. We said a few partings words and then left my grandpa perched on a stand above his grave. Later, some mysterious person lowered the casket and retrieved the dirt. When we returned the following day we found a manicured mound of earth. I still regret that I did not have the chance to help in the digging, to feel the weight of grandpa's body tug on the ropes as we lowered him to his resting place, to smell and feel the texture of the earth that now holds him.
We can, if we choose, be more involved. Here in Alaska it is legal to bury people on private land. A little advance planning will help, as you need to ask the state coroner for a permit to transfer the body (this is to create a paper trail to provide an explanation for the body in the back of the truck should you get pulled over for a speeding ticket). You will need to demonstrate to the coroner that you have the ability to build a casket and dig a grave (if the ground is frozen you may need access to a backhoe). A casket can be as simple or ornate as you choose. The casket is only required for transferring the body, it does not need to accompany the body into the grave. A treasured corner of the garden, beneath a favorite tree, or any other special place will make a memorable gravesite.
We can spend meaningful time with the deceased and still take advantage of the services of a professional mortician. Several years ago, a friend died at home after a prolonged illness. He died in the evening. Since it was an expected death there was no need to call 911. We called a hospice nurse who quietly assured us she would handle all the details of getting the death certificate signed.
A group of friends and family gathered around Jim's bed and sang and shared stories through the night. Jim's two young boys helped bathe their father's body and dress him in clean clothes. They even made a papier-mch mask of their father's face. It was not until the following afternoon that the mortician came to take Steve's body to the crematorium. That night and morning quietly spent with Jim's body was a profoundly important time for saying goodbye. There was an immediacy and intimacy to those hours that was lost in the larger social setting of the funeral service.
There is, of course, no "right way" to say goodbye. Religious traditions and personal preferences have created a seemingly endless array of rituals. It is important to remember that convention may not meet our personal needs. With a little forethought we can create the rituals that best follow the needs of our hearts.
Hospice volunteer Hank Lentfer is a writer who lives - and gardens - in Gustavus.