You walk into a house full of fresh grief. It’s fresh because the death just occurred. Your best friend’s husband went out to the bar last night, drowned his hard day in hard drink and he never made it back home. Fresh. Because both you and your friend have never experienced death this close.
You open the door like you have so many times before, but this time the familiarity of the house is unexpected different, dark and lonely. What once housed parties, life and love now houses something you’ve never known before. Like a river, everything is in the same place it was when you last saw it, but this home has changed.
You see your friend’s children sitting on the sofa, staring into space.
You ask them, “Where’s your mom?”
And as you reach to hug them, they snap back to reality and whisper, “Upstairs.”
Each step brings you closer to what you know is only an apparition of your friend. The nerves build. Fear begins to build. You repress it as you ready yourself to meet your closest friend who has all of a sudden become someone you may no longer know.
“Can I come in?” you ask. No response.
You push open the cracked bedroom door and see the body of your friend collapsed on her bed, with used tissues surrounding her like a moat.
You tip-toe into the room, slowly sit down on the bed, and not sure if she’s awake or asleep, you reach for your friends shoulder and begin rubbing her back. Her blood shot eyes open, look at you and then, they slowly look through you.
You fill the weird silence with an “It’s going to be alright”.
“It’s not”, she whispers. “I’m alone with two kids and no job.” Her voice suddenly raises as anger courses through her body, “Why the f*** would he do this to me?”
The curse word chides you into recognizing that you’ve not only misspoken, but you’ve spoken too soon, so you decide to wait in silence. She starts to cry. You respond to her tears with your own. Even though you want to respond with words, you know this isn’t the time for words. There’s no perfection words here. There’s no perfect anything here. And so you wait.
You stay. Listen. Silence. You take her pain into your soul. Hours pass. She rises out of bed and makes the children dinner.
You’ve spoken, not with words or advice; not by trying to solve the problem; nor by placing a limit on your time. You’ve taken the uncomfortable silence, allow the grace for tears, for brokenness; you’ve allowed yourself to sit in the unrest without trying to fix it.
With your presence. With your love. In your honest acknowledgement of real loss, you’ve spoken the language of grief.
Although the language of grief is usually spoken in love, presence and time, sometimes it’s spoken in words. And when it is, here are five practical “do”s and “don’ts”
1. At least she lived a long life, many people die young
2. He is in a better place
3. She brought this on herself
4. There is a reason for everything
5. Aren’t you over him yet, he has been dead for awhile now
1. I am so sorry for your loss.
2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in anyway I can.
4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…
WARNING: This post contains photos of the embalming process. If you are sensitive to photos of deceased persons and bodily fluids, please do not continue reading.
All of these photos have been sourced from the YouTube video “Modern Embalming Practice” by Thomas Müller.
If you are interested in the tools we use in embalming, you can read this post: 10 Things We Use When Embalming.
“Hello. Is Bud there?”
My grandfather’s real name is Thaddeus, but most people call him “Bud” for good reason. Since almost every caller asks for Bud, I don’t even know why I answer the phone. I’m just a middleman.
“Yes. May I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Bob Johnson, from Brandywine Retirement Community. The doctors are giving me two days to live, and I want to see your grand pop before I die.”
I was a little taken back. “How is a man two days away from his death talking this coherently?” was might first thought. I paused as the thought sunk in and eventually spit out, “Just a minute, let me get him for you.”
I walked to the back room where I found my grandfather asleep on “his” chair. He always looks dead when he sleeps. I’m all too afraid that one day when I walk back there, I will find him unresponsive. Not this time. He woke up. I gave him a few minutes to gather himself, explained who was on the phone and why he was calling, and handed my grandfather the portable.
Mr. Johnson is just like most of the people my Pop-pop knows – a random acquaintance that my grandfather magically turned into a friend. I shouldn’t say “magically” because it’s an art really … an art that “Bud” has mastered. Wherever he goes, he makes friends. Mr. Johnson was no exception. They met at the Brandywine Retirement Community when my grandfather was visiting his widowed great aunt. She lived in the suite across the hall from Mr. Johnson about five years ago. Pop-pop’s great aunt has since moved to the intensive care building, but Mr. Johnson never forgot “Bud.”
The next day my grandfather fulfilled Mr. Johnson’s last dying wish. When he got back, I asked, “How was that?”
“He looks good. Should last at least to New Years.”
Pop-Pop was wrong. Two days later, at about 1 PM, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Mr. Johnson died.
The family called at 1 PM and they told us to wait because the hospice nurse was on her way to pronounce. We waited and waited until at 4 PM we called again to ask if they were ready for us to come pick him up. Pop-Pop was anxious.
This time they said, “Oh, one of our family members is coming an hour away from Norristown. We want to wait for him.”
But Pop-pop didn’t want to wait at the funeral home, so we loaded the removal wagon and off we drove to Brandywine Retirement. When we arrived, we found that the staff had draped black linen across the doorway of the residential suite located on the third floor. A sign scribed in shaky handwriting hung underneath the black linen: “Dad died. Come on in if you want to view him.”
Word must have spread fast around the other suites because it seemed like everybody was there. The family just decided to have an impromptu viewing (Mr. Johnson was getting cremated).
The room stunk of cancer. That humid, thick grainy stench of cancer death. Mr. Johnson’s wife was sitting in the kitchen getting her hair done (she had dementia, though we didn’t know it at the time). The woman cutting Mrs. Johnson’s hair looked at us and asked bluntly, “Who are you?”
My grandfather answered. “We’re the Wilde Boys.”
“Oh,” she replied. “I don’t know you but had some of you in my time.”
“How’s that spelled?” she asked.
I asked her if she knew of Oscar Wilde, which she did. I told her we spell our name like that.
“Well, are you related to Oscar?”
I shrugged, making a mental note that I should probably find out.
For the next two hours we watched this makeshift viewing. My grandfather kept everybody entertained, hugging those he knew and those he didn’t know, acting the way he always does in planned funerals. Even though today was an unplanned funeral, he comforted the grieving. He was unpaid, it was unplanned, and yet nobody went unloved.
Community is essential. It’s not an optional feature to the human setup. Community is ingrained in the core of who you are. And we find this nowhere more apparent than during death. My Grandfather’s own nature combined with his nearly 70 years of death exposure have made him into a special person, a person who has a knack for turning strangers into family. A person I’m privileged to call “Pop-Pop”.
The CDC has already issued directions for morticians in the US regarding deceased cases with Ebola. It’s a “better safe than sorry” admonition that reads, “Do not perform embalming. The risks of occupational exposure to Ebola virus while embalming outweighs its advantages; therefore, bodies infected with Ebola virus should not be embalmed.” And farther, “Remains should be cremated or buried promptly in a hermetically sealed casket” (Via CDC).
Unlike most pathogens, the Ebola virus lives for an unknown period of time after a victim’s death (Via Scientific American). Unfortunately, the assumption that the virus dies along with the deceased has been a major cause of its spread in parts of Africa where touching and handling the body is a common practice for the deceased’s living family members. Some have claimed that ‘Up to 50% of victims catch Ebola at funerals’ (Via RT.com).
One case in point is that of the former Miss Liberia beauty queen, Shurina Weah. Shurina’s sister died and even though her sister’s death certificate ruled out Ebola, shortly after the funeral was held numerous family and friends contracted the virus, many become sick and some – including the beauty queen Shurina herself – died (although the family continues to claim that Shurina died of malaria).
And this is the problem that’s being presented in Liberia: Not all deaths are able to be investigated. Some could be due to malaria and some could be due to Ebola. Since no one knows for sure, all deaths are being treated as potential Ebola cases. And as of August, the Liberian government has declared that all deceased persons should be cremated (there are a few exceptions).
Now before you fall into the Ebola hysteria, remember that if you’re a US citizen you’re more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine than from Ebola. More people in the US have supposedly died from spontaneous combustion than from Ebola. And there’s less US citizens who have died of Ebola than have been married to Kim Kardashian.
For the Liberians, it’s a different story. Not only are people dying, but their very death culture is being circumvented by government decreed cremation. Traditionally, Liberian mourners bathe the body of the deceased, they clothe it and many even kiss the deceased as a token of farewell. Per TIME:
The government directive, while logical from an epidemiological aspect, has taken a toll on a society already traumatized by Ebola’s sweep. It denies communities a final farewell, and has led to standoffs with the Dead Body Management teams who must pick up the dead even as the living insist that the cause of death was measles, or stroke, or malaria — anything but Ebola. “We take every body, and burn it,” says Nelson Sayon, who works on one of the teams. Dealing with the living is one of the most difficult aspects of his job, he says, because he knows how important grieving can be. “No one gets their body back, not even the ashes, so there is nothing physical left to mourn.”
Monrovia’s mass cremations, which take place in a rural area far on the outskirts of town, happen at night, to minimize the impact on neighboring communities. For a while the bodies were simply burned in a pile; now they are placed in incinerators donated by an international NGO. There are so many that it can sometimes take all night, says Sayon. )
For many people groups, death rites are foundational for the community’s ethos … for the community’s soul. And when those death rites are denied, the community struggles for life. And while the US will probably never have a Liberian experience with Ebola, I can’t help but think how mandated cremation (and/or direct burial) would affect our death culture here in the states.
Actually, I’m not sure our death culture would change all that much. Because I’m not sure we have a death culture. Here in the U.S. and the West, we view death (per Philippe Ariès) as “invisible death”, where dying is handled by institutions and the dead are handled by “funeral professionals” who make it as clean as possible.
Unless we’re a part of a traditional religious community, I’m not sure many of us have death rites. And I know that few of us touch the dead like other cultures do. Few of us are involved in ritual washing and dressing of the body. Few of us see meaning in embracing the dead with a kiss … in fact, some probably see it as creepy. In the US, we already treat our dead as if they have Ebola.
Luckily for us in the Western world, our death culture doesn’t have a “soul”, so we don’t have to worry about Ebola taking it. If fact, government mandated cremation and direct burial might suit our death culture very nicely.
The North American leap from a culture of healthy death acceptance to a culture of death denial has been no leap at all. It’s been a journey of small steps. And this journey has, in part, been enabled by both the professionalization of death and the funeral industry. In this talk, I explore options that help us pursue death acceptance by taking back death care responsibilities.
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