My father passed over on January 12. I have been immersed in family and funeral since then. I’m sure I will be writing about some of that in the weeks ahead, but the first thing I want to share is about the washing of his body after death.
I drove 650 miles, stopping only to gas my car, on the day he was leaving. The hospice staff thought he had a few more days, but I sensed that I needed to be there sooner. By the time I arrived, his presence was already gone. My brother and I waited at his bedside for his body to cease. He went gently two hours later. We sat with him afterwards, waiting several more hours for home hospice to come and certify death. During that time, we washed his body.
Washing the body is a very old death ritual, typically done in earlier times by the family or community. In modern times, it is often done by a funeral home. I felt that washing his body was something I needed to do, even though I’d never done anything like that and didn’t really know how. I decided to begin and let the process inform me as I went along.
I filled a basin with warm water. As the water as running, it occurred to me that the temperature really didn’t matter, since he would not feel it. I made the water warm anyway, for my own comfort. The use of soap felt harsh. I looked in the kitchen and found rose petal tea bags to steep in the bath. I washed him with a soft cloth, starting with his head and working my way down to his feet. Expressing gratitude for each body part as I went, I spoke out loud. “Thank you, mouth, for all the wonderful flavors you have experienced, thank you for taking millions of breaths, thank you for helping dad’s voice come through”. Because we were at home, we had no interruptions and unlimited time. The process was loving and intentional. By the time we were done, all medical trappings had been removed and he was cradled in clean sheets.
By the end, I realized that this washing had served several purposes simultaneously. It was an expression of deep gratitude for life in general, it was an honoring of my father’s lifetime, and it was also a positive bridge to letting go. Very beautiful.