Friday, March 5, 2010

Hands On

Off to the Missouri mid lands for my sister Martha's funeral.

My dear friend Penelope helped me put together a little pamphlet for the memorial service.

There were two services going on at the funeral home that day, the old fashioned mid American send off and the hands-on, heart felt family tribute. We were the latter party.

The funeral director that we dealt with was very helpful and caring. He seemed curious about our alternative approach to honoring our dead sister and genuinely touched by our simple memorial service lead by a few words from our oldest brother and then followed by memories and thoughts from the family and friends who had gathered to honor Martha.

A friend in The Scrambled Eggs, my wonderful writing group back in CA, sent out this picture as a prompt which brought up the following piece from me about the funeral.


The soul is still in the body until it is laid in the ground. Unless we wash and oil and wrap the body, the soul will be trapped, will not leave, will not rest, my sister says. I am skeptical: her dead body is an empty vessel. How can it matter now?

We five women, sisters and friends, gather in the salon just behind the funeral chapel where the memorial service will take place. The others begin tenderly washing the body of my sister, now two weeks dead, as I stand to the side, still a little in shock at my first sight of the body. Her left hand is blue with frozen blood; her vacant eyes, lids stained purple rose and thankfully closed.

Her wavy red hair, streaked with silver, is clean and shiny. I touch the tips of the fine, soft strands streaming out above her head on the gurney where she lays, a waxen mound of clay, unmoving under the cold, wet cloth wiping her shoulder, her arm, her leg.

We anoint the body with rose oil, on the forehead, the eyes, the lips, hands and feet, over her heart. We help the two nurses among us roll and gently lift her onto a draw sheet so that we can more easily move her over on top of the pure white muslin shroud laid out on a parallel table. We remove her worn, blue hospital gown, keeping her center covered with white towels.

We slide her across in one go. Then lift her head and slip it through the neck opening in the plain chemise. We wrap layers of the thin cloth around her, which just meet, at the center of her large, rounded stomach. We tie the layers in place with strips of muslin at her ankles and waist. My sister tucks her hair into a white kerchief. I slip the pack of Skip-Bo cards that we used to play our last game behind the lopsided bow at her middle.

Once she is securely swaddled, her face seems to relax, her body to lighten. Our group of women stands around her head, our clasped hands surrounding the stilled face of my youngest sister, encircling her one last time.

After our family memorial service, as we walk with the simple blue coffin through the cemetery to the gravesite, I feel the bloodless hands of unquiet souls reaching out toward us, longing for a last loving touch.

Hugs from CA.


Bethany said...

goosebumps and tears.
what an amazing, brave last gift for your sister.

swallowtail said...

big sigh.
beautiful post, N2. just simply amazing.
and I didn't realize that the written piece was a prose poem, until today. I'd heard it, at the table, as lineated.
blessings. blessing Martha Ruth. blessings to all the siblings, and family. blessing all that love.
blessing you.

Ms. Moon said...

That was just incredibly beautiful and the washing and annointing of your sister is something I wish we would all do, could all have done for us. We used to do that. We used to have our babies at home and we used to die and be prepared for burial at home. And then we let the "experts" take over.
The professionals.
As if that could ever replace what we lost when we gave up our own touch, our own hearts, our own joy in doing for our sisters, fathers, mothers, loved ones.

Anonymous said...

Nancy, this simple beautiful. g.

N2 said...

B - Thanks so much for always leaving such kind comments.

LC - Your friendship real and virtual is a treasure.

Ms Moon - We are so on the same page with this. I think wakes with the body at home in a room where people can come say goodbye and share stories about the departed should be re-instituted.

Gail - Thanks for being so solidly there.

Love to you Ladies!


Kathleen Scott said...

Thank you for sharing this. I'd never thought of preparing a body as a family rite, or a gift. But it's both.

Tears came as I read your story. I'm glad you were with the family and brought each other peace.

N2 said...

Dear Kathleen,
Thanks once again for your kind words.
x0 N2

ayesha_weinberg said...

Hi Nan,
This was so beautiful! Really.
It was so deeply connecting to share this experience with you, Cindy,Susan and Sophia?. We do believe the soul remains with the body until the attending people walk seven steps away from the grave. Then the angels come to ask questions. These beautiful beings of light come to us.
They say, "Wake up!" We sit up. In our burials we actually leave space for the person to sit up.
The person is laid directly on the
ground. A plank is put at the
head and the foot. A cover is
put above at ground level. The
dirt is shoveled onto that by the
people attending the funeral.
They ask "Who is your Lord? And
the story of our life is known
to us and them. These beings of
light who are ever watchful,ever
helpful, always in a state of light and praise having no physical form or weight of the world come to take us onto the
next stage according to the way
we have lived. This is the
explanation given by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen(ral.,my guide.
We did feel that lightening and
that softening together and I
am truly grateful for that.
Much love,
Kay, Ayesha

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