Let's talk about Dying: Embrace the rituals that help us to let go

2013-08-14 10:00

My late husband, Joe Slovo, lived with cancer for three years and six months. The first year was rough.

The chemotherapy was doing its job. The last six months were deeply painful, but there were upsides, like loving and living intensely in the present.

There was time to think about how the very end might be. Joe wanted to die at home. He broke his shoulder on December 6 1994 and died a month later.

One month feels like infinity when you’re watching someone die.

All of us did well: the family, his close friends, his GP, his reflexologist. There was much quiet conversation, gentle music, soothing massages, champagne and fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I was proud of our sendoff, but I discovered too late that I’d never thought properly about what would come next.

Once Joe took his last breath at 3am, the phone calls started. With the dawn came people – Madiba being the first to arrive.

Some moments from that day are sharply in focus; some memory film footage is blurred. In sharp focus are the men from Doves funeral parlour suddenly in our bedroom with a gurney. My husband’s body was wrapped in a bag and wheeled out of the room. And yet I wasn’t ready for him to go.

My young daughters had not slept at home that night. When they returned at breakfast time, my 10-year-old wanted to see Joe.

I explained he was already at the mortuary in Braamfontein, and we could go and see him there. She said she’d wanted to say her goodbyes at home.

I failed my daughter and others by not having thought enough about their needs. Later that day, more people came to give condolences and expected to find Joe’s body still at home.

Later I talked to people who did things differently. One wife I know created a quiet leave-taking for herself.

Only after she was ready did she set in motion all the logistics. My friend’s father called the doctor, got the death certificate, but kept his wife’s body at home until all six children arrived from different cities.

I now know that when someone dies at home, you still need a death certificate, but if the death is natural you can take your time with moving the body. Apparently we now eat so much salt and sugar that our bodies don’t decay as quickly as they used to.

I’ve read beautiful descriptions from other cultures and other religions where family or designated people undertake the after-death body rituals.

The Japanese film Departures is about an unemployed cellist who thinks he’s going for a job interview for a travel agency.

He discovers his future clients will indeed be travelling, but his role will be to wash and ceremonially dress the deceased and organise the family leave-taking ceremony.

The film stirred not only my heart, but raised my respect for undertakers.

The older I become, the more I acknowledge the power and benefit of ritual. I feel we too easily outsource ritual instead of choosing to exercise agency. I’ve promised my mum that when she dies I’ll prepare her body.

My daughters and I never went to Doves. We last saw Joe at Avalon Cemetery when his coffin was unloaded from the hearse and the casket was opened. He didn’t look like himself any more.

For years, I’ve thought of strangers handling Joe’s body, washing his skin, dressing him in the clothes I bundled together. This week I called Doves in Braamfontein and arranged to visit.

Kutie Thondlana, Brian Gamede and Joe Morake were impeccable hosts. They are attentive listeners and I never sensed falsehood or salesmanship.

On the upper floor there are two chapels and in-house flower arrangers. Coffins on display range in price from a couple of thousand rand to the luxurious glossy metallic casket with the fold-back half-lid at R45?000.

The deceased occupy the basement. There are no aromatherapy smells here. It’s all practical with 2?litre bottles of soap, disinfectant and embalming fluid, and sloped metal tables that lead to a drain for the fluids.

The “holding room” has racks of cling-wrapped bodies awaiting ceremony. It’s chilly, so take a cardigan. My husband told me that when he touched his father at the funeral parlour, he was shocked by the cold skin.

Most importantly, I discovered that Doves has a special room for when a family wants to be with, and wash and dress the body themselves. I wish I’d known this when Joe died.

I read about a funeral parlour in Germany with family rooms for being together, and you can choose unvarnished coffins that come with pots of paint and brushes to let you decorate the wood yourself.

Over the top? Perhaps, but death is so hard on those who live on that anything that eases the sadness is to be welcomed.


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