Ceremony after Death: Preparing the Body
In the Presence of Death: Using ceremony to explore mindfulness in the journey of dying, death, and the years following, in this 9-part series
A devotional, mindful attendance to the body in death.
The person you love has died, and you are in the room with her body. Maybe it’s a hospital room, a room at home after hospice has left, or even in a funeral home.
Did you know that you may ask to tend to the body? This can be a small act, or a full-on preparation of the body. Caring for your own after death is a natural, intimate time for caretakers to work together in collective love.
Unless there is some extreme contagion factor, dead bodies are safe to gently handle. It’s OK to touch and talk to the dead; it’s how human beings have honored bodies for all the ages.
This is a devotional, mindful attendance in a ‘time out of time,’ a liminal space where you are privileged to care for a body that is shortly going to be gone from you forever.
Remember to bring laughter and forgiveness into your work, as you care for your loved one together, to help support one another.
First, set your intentions:
- To acknowledge the work you will do together
- To allow permission for errors
- To help one another feel supported
- And to address the deceased after death
One of the most significant ways to bring ceremony into the space is by anointing the body, after it has been washed (even only with water). This can be the full body, or even just the hands and feet.
Use any oil or fragrance you think appropriate. Donna Belk, my co-author of Home Funeral Ceremonies: a primer to honor the dying, and the dead with reverence, light-heartedness and grace, has created her own oil, based on that found in the Bible. (Her recipe is in the book.)
First, bless the oil. Pour it into the hands of the people doing the anointing and ask them to hold their hands in front or near to their hearts. Ask for a clear and gracious invitation for the presence of Divine Spirit, or Love, to be made manifest in the oil, and in the work of the hands.
Ask that the oil be blessed with love, nurturing, and understanding.
Ask that as you anoint the body, that any remnants of this earthly life, and any vestiges are dissolved and her spirit be made wholly free. In this way, she is released from this world and set on her way to the journey to what lies next.
Here is a blessing you can read as you touch parts of her body. Change it as befits your situation.
May your eyes be blessed. We honor and remember the way your eyes looked up o with love.
May your nose be blessed. We honor and remember the vigor with which you breathed in life and encouraged us to do the same.
May your mouth be blessed. We remember and honor your words and wisdom that you spoke to us.
May your heart be blessed. We remember and honor your heartfelt actions, and the love you expressed so fully.
May your hands be blessed. We remember and honor the work of your hands.
May your feet be blessed. We remember the path you walked.
There are no rules for this work or blessings. What matters is to use words that mean something to you and the people in the room. Be mindful. It’s a solemn time, and yet there is a place for laughter and grace, if that fits the people there.
There are resources to help guide you. Undertaken With Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Families and Community Care Groups has instructions on how to bathe and dress a body. Open-minded funeral directors may help to assist. But this is a task you are capable of taking on, which brings softness and attention to the work of letting go.
Find ‘Preparing the Body’ readings, poetry, and prayers on the InspiredFuneral.com, a resource co-edited by Funeral Director Amy Cunningham and Funeral Celebrant Kateyanne Unullisi.