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Reviving an after-death ritual


When my phone rang after 11 one recent night, a woman’s voice asked for Patty. Then I heard my friend Barbara. She was crying.

“My mom just died. I don’t know what to do,” she said.

“Where are you?”

“At the nursing home.”

“Do you want to wash her body? Do you want me to come?”

She gave the phone to the nurse who gave me directions. I told the nurse we would wash Barbara’s mom’s body and I would be there soon. A friend who is a nurse once told me to tell the nurse what you plan to do. Otherwise a nursing assistant would wash the body.

I put a stubby candle, candleholder and matches into a cloth grocery bag. I found the tube of fragrant cream we used when my daughter and I washed my mother’s body three years ago. I must have told Barbara about that.

“I need a crucifix,” I thought. I chose a blue crystal rosary with a nice gold-colored crucifix.

Years ago I first encountered the practice of friends or relatives washing the body of a dear one when a friend, a special education teacher, died young of leukemia. Margie had a large circle of friends who took turns staying with her from the time of her diagnosis and hospitalization through her death. Several gathered to wash her body and rub her with oil. The practice was common in the days when people died at home.

It gave me something to do for my mom when there seemed to be nothing left to do, expressed something words couldn’t convey.

At the nursing home, my dear teary Barbara led me down the hall to her mother’s room. She said, “I called my aunt. She said we couldn’t do what we’re going to do.”

The bed near the door was empty and the covers turned down. The woman who shared the room must have gone elsewhere for a while. The body was in the bed near the window. I was surprised at how much Barbara’s mother resembled my own mother in death -- the slender nose, white hair fanned out on the pillow, mouth open in the same oval.

Pat Marrin, a coworker on the NCR Company staff, recently told me about seeing his father’s dead body. Pat said, “His mouth was open in what seemed a final great cry of praise.”

I had never met the recently departed Marie, who made her transition to a new life at age 83. I touched her cheek and was surprised it was still warm. “Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord … ” I prayed. I asked Barbara if she would like to sing. She shook her head. “Last time I sang to her she moaned. But you can sing.” I sang as many of the words of “Gentle Woman” as I could remember.

Barbara asked the nurses if we could light the candle. That was OK. They brought us a basin, some washcloths and towels. I gave Barbara the rosary. “Should I put it on?” she asked. “Catholics usually hold rosaries,” I said. “If I hold it, I won’t be able to use my hands,” she said. She wore it like a necklace.

I filled the basin, set it on the bedside table, dampened a washcloth and handed it to Barbara. She lovingly washed her mom’s face and lips. “You won’t need this body anymore, Mom,” she said. “It’s all worn out.” She washed her mother’s hands and arms. We removed the hospital gown. “Poor woman has only one breast,” Barbara said. She washed her mom’s shoulders and torso. I freshened the water and removed the padded booties that protected feet that had walked so many miles.

Barbara washed Marie’s thighs, legs and feet and applied the fragrant cream. “Her legs are stiffening,” Barbara said. She smoothed the covers across her mother’s torso and legs.

“How can we leave?” she asked. We sat and talked about her mother’s life. Marie was a descendent of pioneer people who lived in Kansas before there was a Kansas. She taught school for many years. Barbara wondered about a good day for the funeral and how to handle the obituary. She wondered if her brother who lives in Paris and had visited last fall would come again so soon.

“You’re having quite a year,” I said. Barbara is going through a painful divorce. Her 10-year-old son was spending the night with a neighbor. Her husband had plans for the weekend.

“We can ask the nurses for plastic bags and take your mom’s stuff, save you a trip tomorrow,” I said. We packed several pictures and cards. Barbara left a few pieces of clothing to be passed on to whomever might need them.

She thanked the nurses and aides for their good care. I waited in the hall while she said goodbye to her mom. As we walked to our cars, Barbara said, “I’m glad we did that.” I, too, was glad.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor. Her e-mail address is pmccarty@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002