|Rick Fields' Ashes|
The young cellist, Daigo Kobayashi, is reluctant at first to accept this highly questionable vocation. But he learns from his boss to encasket the dead with the elegance and precision of a Japanese tea ceremony. The process is amazing to watch and he is soon drawn into it beyond the lucrative pay that first hooked him. With respect and dignity and various trade tricks deftly concealed behind wraps and cloth, the two men transform the deceased from a thing of horror into beauty before the eyes of the grieving family. Frequently, though not always, their exquisite work opens the family to their grieving.
The film stimulates a lot of thought about how we deal with death and dead bodies in the States. I have already written about our aversion to death as revealed in our obsession with medical technology to stave it off at all costs. After death this aversion continues in our haste to call professionals to remove the body and handle the nasty bits. And what do you think of the undertaker -- that tall slim fellow with gaunt cheeks, solemn face and back silk hat? Mercenary? Insincere? Obsequious? That's how he's depicted by Dickens. But what are your experiences?
When my brother Sandy unexpectedly died, we were able to briefly visit his body at the mortuary. It was not an official viewing, which would have been costly, but rather an "identification." The mortuary was fairly sure it had the right body, but family are permitted to examine and identify their loved one without additional charge. Sandy was laid out on a wheeled table dressed only in a black plastic body bag. He looked asleep, but he was cold to the touch. I must say, there is nothing quite like touching a dead body to comprehend that the former inhabitant is no longer home.
The impulse of my brother's widow was to glance at the body and then leave the room. "Yup, that's him." To be sure she was still in shock from finding his dead body in bed the previous morning. But our culture also supports a hasty retreat. I chose, however, to stay a while, as did my other brother, Skip. We watched and waited to see what might happen, to let memories and feelings emerge, to formulate final words for our brother's unhearing ears. The widow returned, three times, first to berate him for leaving her and finally to kiss him goodbye. I like to think we held the space for her to take her time. But we may only have prolonged her discomfort. Do what you need to do and let others do what they need. It is the best rule at times like these.
I am not sure how I feel about the primping of a dead body. I remember a lot of deprecating comments about how my deceased grandmother looked in her open casket all rouged and lipsticked. She did not look anything like our "gramma." In contrast, my brother Sandy looked very much like himself without any adornment. However, there was something very stark and discomforting about his utilitarian display on the gurney. After my dear friend Marianne died and the hospice orderly had cleaned her up, we dressed her, combed her hair, and applied lipstick to her lips even though her next stop was the crematorium. Doing this felt right and respectful. After our gentle ministrations, her mouth, previously slack-jawed and open, softened into a sweet, contented smile. Was she pleased? Primping seemed the right thing to do in her case. Perhaps the difference lie in the manner of those doing the primping, i.e. with reverence and love. That is why I find the the ritual preparation in Departures is so compelling.
In California, home-based funerals are gaining popularity not only to save money, but also reclaim the ancient and intimate ritual of preparing the body for burial. People trained in the practice of body preparation can be hired to guide a family through the process and paperwork. Or you can read up on it at Final Passages. Keeping the body at home has the added advantage of providing ample time to sit with the deceased, rather than be hastened by the organizational needs of professional facilities.
Although contemplating death and decay may be a time-honored practice among the Buddhists, it is not everyone's cup of tea. Even I, who can wax romantically about the emotional benefits of doing it yourself, pause at the thought of actually preparing the body of my six feet tall, 300+ lbs brother. Distributing his ashes, which nearly filled a tall garbage bag, was task enough.
The chevra kadisha, a team of professional volunteers trained in the burial preparation, offers a middle road approach between the do-it-yourselfers and high-priced professionals at least for those of the Jewish faith. They mix spirituality with practicality as they wash, purify and dress the deceased in a process called taharah. The Jews, apparently, have held on to their time-honored practices of handling death while much of western culture has spent the last 100 years hiding it in the closet. We might learn from them and and from our graceful encasketers in Departures, as we seek our own personal approach to death and the dead. The people in my newest film, The Heart of Grieving, offer some additional possibilities, none of which involve washing dead bodies. When clear cultural instructions are lacking, we do best to follow our hearts.