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An old fashioned death

September 7, 2015

most of the rituals and ceremonies associated with death have largely been eroded or superseded by the medical and the clinical. Death has been sanitised, taken away from families, elders and loved ones and thrust into the gloves of the professionals. Not so long ago most people died at home, giving friends and family the opportunity to visit, to talk and listen, to begin the process of mourning. After death the village women would wash and dress the dead, leaving them in their home for the living to visit. This kept the dead with the living, it allowed people to start’ their journey of grieving, to understand and touch, to bare witness to life’s erosion.

Nowadays most people die in hospital beds, surrounded by strangers, by uniforms, by professionals. On reaching the end of their lives, the dead is ushered away, taken to a dimly lit nowhere land of process and practicality. They are made clean by strangers, by chemicals and science. This not only makes death dirty, but it takes the loved one away from their family, and denies them the opportunity to do what people have done forever – to come to terms, talk and celebrate the life of the deceased.

My mum died nine years ago. She had brain cancer. She refused to go to a hospice or hospital, which is good, because we wouldn’t have let her go! the day of her dyeing was a difficult day. But, in some ways we were fortunate and blessed, as it was, in many ways an old fashioned death, redolent of ancestors and the past.

After her last round of radiotherapy she felt abnormally tired. “When can I sleep?” she asked me and my sister. “Very soon.” we replied, helping her lie on the sofa. A few hours later, my sister and dad holding her hand, me stroking her hair, she passed away.

We didn’t call the undertaker for some time. Instead we called those who loved her most. Her close family. Within an hour the room was filled with kisses and tears, tales and sorrow as, one by one, those who loved her, told her so, kissed her cheek and stroked her head.

She stayed there, stayed with us for hours as if asleep, until eventually the terrible sound of the body bag caused fresh trauma to blossom in my breaking heart.

This was by far the best death we could have hoped for. No hospitals, smells of chemical and dread. No machines or clinicians, but us, her family. It was in many ways, an old fashioned death. My sister even did my mum’s make-up in preparation for the “viewing.” We were lucky, but our hearts still ached.

From → Culture, Death, Society

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