I went to see a new born baby last week – a little girl, dressed in a warm, pink, knitted jacket and matching hat. She looked adorable, with really tiny fingers and eyes tight shut, beneath a wrinkled, frowny brow, all snuggled up under a soft pink blanket. But this baby wasn't asleep in her cot, she was in her coffin.
She had been born at 30 weeks and, six hours before she was delivered,
her anguished parents were told that their daughter had died. The first cuddles with their much-wanted baby weren't full of joy, they were aching with the pain of loss. The evening before, her kicks in the womb had been as strong and powerful as ever. Then, inexplicably, they stopped…the start of the most traumatic of events.
I had been asked to take the baby's burial service and went to see her
parents to talk about what they wanted. At the end of our meeting, they asked when I was going to see the baby and this really threw me. No-one had ever asked me this before and, in almost six years of working as a funeral celebrant, I had never viewed a single deceased person. It had never come up. Yet it was clear from this conversation that the couple really wanted me to see their infant, and to describe her in the funeral service from my personal experience.
I hesitated, I demurred, and then I decided I would do it. If it would give them even the smallest crumb of comfort, then it would be the right thing to do. And, although it was so sad to see this tiny baby, whose eyes had never opened, lying in a small white casket in a vast chapel of rest, it was also a privilege to have been asked to share this most intimate of times.
I asked some celebrant colleagues if they had ever been asked to view the body of a person whose service they were about to take. It is not as unusual as I thought. A friend in London was asked to go with the mum of a five-year-old boy who had died. They spent time with him, and the celebrant read him a bedtime story, something which his mum had never been able to do as he'd been brought up by foster parents. It was an incredibly bonding experience, the celebrant told me, and it really helped his mum to trust my friend to take his service.
In Ireland, where the church is still the main provider of funeral services, having the deceased home before the funeral is absolutely the norm and friends and family visit, usually over a three-day period leading up to the service, to comfort the bereaved and have a farewell drink with their dead pal. This seems to happen pretty often in Liverpool, too, where a fellow celebrant is often asked to pop into the next room and see the person whose service she is to conduct and, she admits, she finds this comforting. But this takes place in the family home, not in a funeral parlour.
In the Britain of my 50s and 60s childhood, it was common for this ritual to be observed. The deceased would come back home one final time and the opportunity to spend time in their presence – with the coffin open – would be a perfectly natural event. But death, like health, has become significantly more medicalised and takes place at arm's length, with someone else – a professional funeral director – given the responsibility for taking care of the deceased in the period before their funeral. But does dealing with death remotely make the acceptance of the loss more difficult to bear?
I'm not sure. When my parents died I made a conscious decision not to see them in their coffins. I knew they were gone and I didn't want my lasting image, whenever I thought of them, to be of a corpse. I wanted to remember my ebullient dad, with his broad smile and his mischievous eyes, as large as life as he had always been. My infinitely less ebullient mum, too, I wanted to picture as she was the last time I saw her – with her permanently worried expression. I didn't want to encounter a blank, bland face created by the cosmetic art of an embalmer.
My cousin thought my decision was terrible. She had seen her deceased
parents and believed I should have done so too. It seemed to me, though, that she brandished this act as some kind of badge of honour – she had braved the trauma of seeing death close-up and I was clearly too much of a fearty to do so.
I had seen a lot of death close-up when I was much younger. When I was
18, during my final summer holiday between leaving school and going into further education, I had a job as a ward orderly in the local general hospital. I was assigned to a ward looking after elderly patients and it was so short-staffed that although I was supposed to perform only non-clinical duties, such as refreshing patients' water jugs and cleaning their lockers, I had to do so much more, including helping nurses to lay out the newly dead. On an elderly care ward there are lots of newly dead and although I was initially worried about what my reaction to seeing a dead person for the first time
would be, I certainly wasn't remotely traumatised by the experience. I
particularly liked the way the nurses talked to their patients, even after they had expired, and always thought they treated them with the utmost care and respect.
Rituals associated with death around the world can be rich and varied. Some, to us, may also seem quite bizarre, such as the custom in some parts of eastern Indonesia, where a family has to save up for a lavish funeral, expected to last for days, or even weeks. During this long period between death and funeral, the deceased person is referred to as 'one who is sick' or 'asleep', is put in a special room and symbolically fed and cared for – and even taken out.
The gap between this community-wide involvement in death and our rather buttoned-up approach of handing the whole process over to a stranger is, perhaps, too great to bridge. But perhaps we ought to try to make some attempts to reconnect with the more involved ways in which previous generations dealt with death. 'Many of us have come to understand that when we get up close and cosy with death, the experience can show us much about the priorities in a full life,' writes Anne O'Connor, member of Threshold Care Circle, a Wisconsin-based project integrating after-death care with family and community life. 'This is something that hospice workers and those who work with the dying have known forever.'
'Someone will wash the body. Someone will dress the body. Someone will
close the eyes for a final time. Someone will. At the critical moment of death someone will perform these tasks for the person we have loved and cared for all our lives. Why would we give these meaningful rituals away to a stranger? Why do we give away the best stuff?'