Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sitting Up With The Dead

Sitting bedside in death is not unlike sitting bedside in birth. I went last night to sit with my friend Kathy after her husband Lee passed away. There he lay in their bedroom in his lovely pine box coffin that had been lovingly fashioned by a family friend, and packed in dry ice to preserve the body. Their dream of a "green funeral" was in all its glory. The formal memorial service will take place in a few days, but their home has seen much traffic of visitors coming and going. We sat for 3 hours into the night beside his coffin, laughing, crying, telling old stories and new ones alike. While Kathy shared the details of his actual passing, I thought of more ways the dying process is like the birthing process.
Like birth, death is messy- social decorum prevents me from going into detail, but the dying process can be a very messy one.
Like birth, death is noisy- as Kathy described Lee's 'death rattle' she seemed to be struck by how loud it was. The dying person can become quite 'vocal' though not verbal.
A need for orchestrated control- Lee's 'death plan' included all aspects of home death and a green funeral. He planned it all down to the detail, and Kathy carried it out for him.
The weight of the unknown- When will death come? (When will this baby get here?) Will he be in pain? ( Will it hurt?) Will he suffer? (Will I be able to handle the pain?) Will his death be a peaceful one? (Will my baby be healthy?)
Corporate social rituals to mark the occasion- Wakes, Visitations, Funerals vs Baby Showers, Blessingways and Baptisms
The intrusion of medical intervention for a process that basically happens on its own- for a brutal look at how bizarre our death customs really are, read Jessica Mitford's, "The American Way of Death." I believe the dying should be made comfortable with palliative care but not in prolonging the dying process.
The outrageous and unprecedented cost- I was struck by how simple and inexpensive Lee's passage was made. (That's not why they did it the way they did) Lee looked so at peace in his simple pine box without the heavy make up I'm used to seeing on dead people, just simply his dead self without embellishment.
Fancy doodads that add nothing but expense-Think state of the art 'baby warmers', when mamma's belly will do just fine. (Did you know just one those things can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars??) Looking at Lee's tidy pine box reminded me of this whole issue of 'sealed caskets' that's all the rage in the funeral industry (and remember, it is a money making industry). Metal, sealed caskets are absurd. We were meant to be put in the ground to dry rot- and the vermin facilitate that process (sorry there is no nicer way to describe it). Sealed caskets turn the body to mush and dramatically increase decomposition time, instead of the natural process that's supposed to occur.
Artificial Timetables- Medical interventions prolong the dying process while medical interventions work to shorten birth- either way, an artificial socio-medical construct changes the natural process. Most folks have no idea how hard the medical system works to keep dying people alive while conversely, an artificial timeline is placed on birth to speed it up without scientific evidence that either is warranted
Tampered Input- In birth women are denied simple food and water to see them through the arduous journey of birth- they must do the hardest work of their physical lives without calories or adequate hydration (crazy!) In death, the dying are force fed and IV hydrated in defiance of the natural dehydration of death. The unwillingness of the dying to take in food and water is part of the body's shutting down process. When Lee decided to stop eating and drinking, the hospice nurse told Kathy that he could live 2 weeks without food and up to a week without water. It was accepted as a part of the process of dying.
I could go on, but I think I've made my point. I remembered in the olden days folks would display the casket on the dining room table and sitting up with the dead was a common practice. For the last two nights Kathy has pulled a mattress into the bedroom to sleep alongside her husband's casket (the room being emptied of furniture to make room for the coffin and to accommodate visitors). It was such a blessing to sit with her as I did and share in her sorrow (to the extent that one can). Tomorrow when she wakes, it will be to say goodbye to his physical shell for the last time. Her sons will help take the casket to the crematorium.

17 comments:

Mimi said...

I agree, I've often said that you should be born at home, die at home, and do everything you can to stay out of the hospital in between.

I've never been blessed to be at a birth I wasn't the mother at, but I have held the hand of my Grandmother as she died, and I was truly blessed to be there.

May Lee's Memory be Eternal, and may God comfort Kathy during these difficult days.

kristina said...

Thanks for this. It must have been an incredibly hard post to write, but your message will stay with me always. Thoughts and prayers go out to Kathy, Lee and their family.

Mid-life Midwife said...

I had been going to births for about a year when my father-in-law died at home. I watched all the signs of the body slowly going through the dying process (the hospice nurse explain the "stages" it would go through) and I heard the loud death rattle (like moaning, screaming your baby out at the end?)and then the absolute peace that began at the end of that rattle.
As sad as I was, I could not help but feel as blessed to be there, at home with our family during this very normal process (sans machines and interventions), as I am to be at births. In all of it's sadness, the normalcy and peace of it all was very beautiful and serene.
Thanks for posting this all so eloquently. Peace to all of you who are grieving.

kris said...

i was talking to someone about this, about how similar birth and death are, and about end of life midwifes. nice that she had you to share this time w/..

Northwoods Baby said...

POV is showing A Family Undertaking tonight (locally anyway) and it's about just this topic. I'm only a few minutes in but one woman says some people call her a "death midwife" (Jerri Lyons).

I'm so sorry for your losss, but I'm glad that Lee and his family had the chance to make his passage so meaningful.

-NWB

Northwoods Baby said...

PS, http://tinyurl.com/4avf8

mm said...

How beautifully put. I worked in palliative/hospice care during my university years.
I'm struck by how it is that my life went from growing up wanting to be a midwife, to palliative, to parent and doula...
You seem to have completed the circle for me. I never would have looked at it the same way! Despite my desperation for honour and respect in both acts (dying and birth).
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Molly said...

What a beautiful, moving, true post. Death has become a profitable industry that is totally separate from and often actually hinders the real experience and meaning of the process (just like birth in our culture).

I keep meaning to write a living willing that includes a home death and home funeral for myself, but I keep putting it off. I need to give it some serious attention.

Housefairy said...

First of all, my condolences to the family and to you for the loss of your friend, Lee.

I have been thinking more and more about how we institutionalize our very young and our very old, when they are our greatest treasures and resources (schooling, nursing homes) and how we birth and die in the hospitals...shudder.

I was touched by the profound imagery of the simple pine box.

Thank you for writing this.

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