By Nancy Manahan, Ph.D., and Becky Bohan. M.A. —
In our last Open to Hope posting, the extraordinary final moments of Diane’s death in Nancy’s arms were described. Here, Nancy recounts what happened immediately after Diane died, most importantly, the washing of Diane’s body. This ancient ritual is being reclaimed by many families as an opportunity to honor their loved ones, to grieve, and to perform a final sacred service for them.
Diane’s closest friends, Bev and Laura, arrived at the house moments after she died. I was still holding her when they entered the bedroom. They knelt beside the bed and burst into tears.
Diane’s sister and brother-in-law had been driving from their campground and were about ten blocks from the house when their cell phone rang: Diane was dead. As soon as they turned into the driveway, Patt told us later, she leapt from their truck and raced up the stairs, as if time could make a difference. When she saw Diane, resting against my chest in her cotton pajamas with little rose buds, she wailed and almost collapsed. Bill and Diane’s youngest son put his arms around Patt to support her.
Soon, Bill and Diane’s oldest son Mike arrived. Everyone was gathered around the bed or sitting on it. Bach continued to play softly in the background. At one point, someone suggested that we put on “Annie’s Song,” by John Denver. When the notes of the poignant ballad filled the air, many of us joined in singing one of Bill and Diane’s favorite love songs. Diane did indeed “fill up” our senses. We were in a heightened state of awareness, our hearts overflowing with the mystery, beauty, and sacredness of her death.
After the tears subsided, we began discussing how we should proceed. Remembering that Diane had told Bill to do what made sense at the time of her death, he suggested holding the visitation that day since so many family members and friends were already in town. He didn’t want to have Diane embalmed, nor did he want to cool her body with dry ice for a public viewing a day or two later.
We would keep Diane at the house for the afternoon and take her body to the crematorium later that day. A wake could be held in two days, on Monday, giving out-of-towners a chance to get to Mankato, and her Life Celebration could take place on Tuesday. Although we regretted that people living out of state would not arrive in time to view Diane, we agreed to this plan. The four sons went downstairs to telephone other family members and friends with the news.
Bill knew that there was a finite window in which Diane’s body could be prepared for a private viewing. Blood would be pooling as her body cooled, and rigor mortis would fix the joints in place. The information from Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death suggested catheterizing the bladder to prevent a natural voiding when the muscles released. Bill thought it was time to do this and to wash Diane’s body.
He invited those women close to Diane to perform the ritual. (Diane had asked that women and Bill, but not her sons, care for her body.) Others were asked to leave the room. I saw Becky considering what to do and watched her reluctantly leave.
I shifted my position from behind Diane so we could lay her flat on the bed. Her three daughters-in-law, Kate, Katy, and Jill, stayed, as well as her granddaughter Tessa, Patt, Bev, Laura, and Bill. Bev knelt down beside Tessa and told her that they were about to start a ritual that women had performed for thousands of years for people who had died. They were going to wash Grandma Di’s body and dress her in beautiful clothes.
Gently we removed Diane’s pajamas. Bill placed a thick towel under her hips and inserted a catheter to drain off the urine into a sealed bag. It was surrealistic, watching him calmly and competently perform this necessary medical procedure. An unusual mixture of practical science and sacred mystery was happening before my eyes, and I found it wonderful that Diane’s beloved husband, Bill, and not a mortician, was the one touching Diane’s body.
As Bill tucked the still-attached catheter bag out of sight under the towel, Kate brought a large ceramic bowl made by Diane’s friend, potter John Glick, filled it with warm water and stirred in lavender oil, a fragrance used for millennia in bathwater.
The nine of us had never done this before, but we seemed to fall into our roles effortlessly, positioning ourselves around Diane. I knelt by her leg.
I had often read novels or seen movies in which women washed the body of a family member, but I had never envisioned myself doing it. I felt a little tentative but still in an altered state of consciousness in which everything flowed easily.
Kate dipped a washcloth in the scented water, wrung it out, and handed it to Bill, who was kneeling at Diane’s head. She handed a second cloth to Patt, by Diane’s shoulder. When Bill finished cleaning Diane’s face, he gave the cloth back to Kate, who rinsed it out, gave it to the next person, and so on. Each person wiped a different part of Diane’s body, including four-year-old Tessa, who washed her grandmother’s stomach. Laura washed Diane’s ankles and feet in memory of all the walking and hiking they had done together. I washed her right thigh, which felt muscular and supple.
After tipping her from side to side to clean her back, we patted her dry with a towel. Kate invited everyone to say whatever was in our hearts. I have no memory of what I or anyone else said. All I remember is that the room felt like a temple filled with love.
As the ritual ended, we wondered what to do with the water left in the bowl. It didn’t feel right to pour it down the drain. Kate suggested that it nourish Diane’s flower garden. So she and Jill carried the heavy bowl downstairs and out the back door to the children’s garden, where they cast handfuls of water, pungent with lavender, into the air.? It rained down on the flowers and soaked into the earth.
Back upstairs, Laura went to the closet for the outfit Diane had specified: a navy blue skirt, a short-sleeved white blouse, a navy vest, and the blue dress shoes Patt and Diane had bought earlier that year for a wedding Diane had hoped to attend.
While the others dressed Diane, I went downstairs, where Becky was serving curried chicken, Indian rice, and vegetables. I was grateful for the familiar home-cooked food. When my nephews finished eating, they got back on their cell phones.
After eating, I went back upstairs. Diane was dressed, and Laura was putting a pillow under her head. Patt crossed Diane’s legs at the ankle so her feet would not splay, and Kate swirled a white silk shroud over her legs, concealing the catheter bag taped to her thigh. Bev and Laura applied Diane’s usual lipstick and combed her hair. We put away any clinical items, lit candles on the dresser, and opened the window to let in fresh air. Little Tessa performed the sacred ritual of smudging by carrying lit herbal sage slowly around the bedroom, sweeping aromatic smoke into each area and around Diane’s body.
My brother told Becky and me that washing Diane’s body after she died “was the most sacred thing” he had ever done. Bill said that he felt close to Diane, that “her soul was still there.” The experience was so profound that it eased his grief at the loss of his beloved wife and best friend.
I had a similar transcendent experience. My initial uncertainties dissolved in the rightness and sacredness of this ancient ritual. Washing Diane’s body with my brother, family members, and her closest friends not only comforted me but, I believe, helped surround Diane with love and support as she transitioned to the next realm.
This is an excerpt from Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond by Nancy Manahan, Ph.D., and Becky Bohan. M.A. It is the story of Diane Manahan, R.N., a professor of mental health nursing at Minnesota State University, who died of metastatic breast cancer.