When my dad was ten years old he came home from school one day to find his four year old brother laid out dead on the kitchen table. Relatives sat in chairs, handkerchiefs in hand, and pies and cakes starting arriving soon after at the front door. There was no Heimlich maneuver back then, and his brother had choked to death on a piece of candy.
There was no rush to keep people from seeing â€œthe bodyâ€, there was no funeral director backing up the hearse to quietly remove â€œthe deceased.â€ It was his dead brother, everyone was heart sick over it, and they were taking their damn sweet time grieving the loss and having their wake.
I imagine my grandmother dipping a comb in some hair gel in order to smooth down a four year old cowlick before all the relatives arrived. A warm wash cloth washed up his face and hands and Iâ€™m sure they put his nicest clothes on him quickly before he got too cold. My grandfather, not a man of emotion, may have been sitting in the corner shining a tiny pair of church shoes for the boy.
Those were the days when children died of strep, or scarlet fever, or pneumonia for lack of antibiotics. Iâ€™m sure the loss was no less painful, but the ritual was more open than we allow in our current American culture.
When my mother died twenty years ago it was not a surprise. She was sixty two and looked eighty. Smoking and drinking and years of undiagnosed bipolar disorder had taken the best years of her life, and when it came down to the last few months she was a tattered little soul, both physically and emotionally.
I slept in a chair next to her hospital bed the night before she died, and her breathing was so painfully fluid filled she sounded like she was under water. When she died the next day we gathered around her bed for a long time. Then, as is the custom, the funeral home came and took her away.
That night my three sisters and I were talking about how awful it is when morticians put make up on people, and they look like someone else. We all decided right then that we would call the funeral home and tell them that we wanted to come and do her hair, makeup and nails ourselves. We felt protective of our mother, who only broke out the eye shadow for special occasions and drew her eyebrows on with a pencil.
The funeral director was surprised and hesitated at our request, then relented. We arrived the following morning with our makeup, brushes and nail polish.
We were escorted down the basement to a private room. Mom was lying on a metal table, her head held up by a wooden block and a sheet covering her body to her neck. None of us had ever seen a dead body close up, and it was both shocking, and beautiful.
She looked peaceful, but the sight of her on the metal table smacked of an episode of C.S.I. We all silently approached her and then decided who would do what. I went to pat some foundation on her cheek and recoiled, it felt like hard rubber and I was surprised and freaked out. My sister saw it and quietly handed me a makeup sponge, a small act of kindness.
We chatted about mom, reminisced about funny things she did or said. We didnâ€™t realize it at the time, but what we were doing was a ceremony. A ceremony of goodbye, of letting go, of honoring her one last time in an intimate setting, of having our own memories expressed as we anointed her body as so many cultures do.
When we were finished, her hair was teased, her nails pink and her eyebrows were drawn on just a bit, she looked properly Margaret, and we were pleased with our work. We held hands and said a little prayer when we were done, and told her one more time how much we loved her.
Death is something that we have somehow outsourced in our culture. We donâ€™t talk about it much, if we do itâ€™s in hushed tones. The good news is that Hospice has made it more possible for people to die at home, or in home-like settings.
The more we allow ourselves to get up close and see the faces of those who are dying, the more we will see the truth: that that being present with someone who is dying is just as intimate as being in the birthing room when a baby is born. One is hello, the other goodbye, but both are rites of passage that deserve to be honored.