From the day she learned it was part of her Relief Society calling, my mother lived in dread that she would need to prepare the body of a ward member for burial. The phone call eventually came; her face was gray, her feet dragging as if held fast by mud, as she left the house for the mortuary.
She returned home with a light step and a serene expression. Yes, it had been difficult, she said, but also one of the most awe-filled hours of her life. And so it remained in her memory, as she occasionally told me of her experience.
Sister P. was a late-middle-aged sister who had died of cancer. Her very elderly mother, Sister W., was not up to the heavy physical work of dressing her daughter. She sat on a chair in the corner, clearly wanting to help but too frail for the lifting and rocking necessary. Near the end, Mom had one of those flashes of inspiration that shine in my memories of her. Holding Sister P.â€™s slippers, Mom turned to Sister W. and said, â€œYou put on her first shoes â€“ would you put on her last?â€ Sister W. did so, reverently grateful for this last act of service to her child.
I have no apology for addressing what might seem a macabre, un-holiday-like subject. Chalk it up to the nostalgic last few days of a dying year.
Most of us are so sheltered from death that our only experience is the sight of elderly relatives already dressed and coffined by the undertaker. It may never occur to us to give that service ourselves â€“ yet in the case of a parent or child, or someone else to whom we are extremely close, we miss a profound opportunity if we do not at least consider dressing the dead. Based on my admittedly limited experience, this is what you might expect:
Undertakers in the U.S. are not used to family members tending to their own dead. You need to speak up if you want to do this â€“ when the undertaker asks about burial clothes is a good time.
You will go to the mortuary to dress your loved one, whose body will be placed on a table or gurney in a private room. The body will be covered by a sheet when you enter the room, buffering the first shock of seeing the body.
It will be a shock, no matter how you brace yourself. Donâ€™t be embarrassed by your reaction. You can do this despite the tears, despite the trembling, even if you need to take breaks to nerve yourself again. Rest your hand on your loved oneâ€™s arm for a few moments, to get accustomed to the feeling.
The mortician will have placed flesh-colored bandages over any wounds, even over needle marks from IVs. If there has been trauma due to automobile accident or gunshot, the wounds will be covered, sometimes by a plastic shell or by cotton pads. Donâ€™t remove these protective wraps. Makeup may also have been applied, to cover discolorations. Otherwise, there is absolutely nothing gruesome or gory. (However, in extraordinary circumstances, if the undertaker cautions you that a family member should not assist in a given case, take his advice, or at least have him carefully describe what you face.)
You will need help, either from other family members, or someone from the ward, or the undertaker. Adult bodies, even those wasted by illness, are unbelievably heavy (there is reason for the colloquialism â€œdead weightâ€); joints do not bend; and of course youâ€™ll have to do all the work â€“ it isnâ€™t like holding a coat for someone to slip her own arm into the sleeve.
Rocking the body from side to side helps you get the clothing into place.
Mormons who have been through the temple are buried in their temple clothing. While unendowed family members may be present, an endowed member must be there to be certain clothing is correctly arranged. If you need their help, it is the Relief Societyâ€™s privilege to help you, or to identify a male member who will help in the case of brethren.
If nonmembers question the use of temple clothing, it may be helpful to read Ephesians 6:14-15 (â€œStand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peaceâ€) and explain simply that the clothing is symbolic of how your loved one wished to face eternity.
The Relief Society will assist with burial clothes, if needed. You can use your own clothing, or the Relief Society can furnish clothing that is cut up the back from neck to lower edge, which can lessen the physical labor of dressing a body.
When you have finished, consider spending a few minutes alone. This will be the last quiet moment where you can say anything that needs to be said, or simply to be there. The funeral, with all the relatives and your own duties as quasi-host/hostess, can interfere with those goodbyes.
If you are burying an endowed woman, decide with your family ahead of time who will lower the veil over your sisterâ€™s face just before the casket is closed, and make sure the undertaker knows that you want to do that yourself (otherwise, he may do it himself without asking). Generally, the oldest daughter, or other nearest female relative, claims that privilege.
Despite having heard my mother tell of her experience with Sister P., it had never occurred to me that I would dress my mother. I will always be grateful to my brother, who made the arrangements with the undertaker and told them (and me) that I would be dressing her. I am also grateful to my two sisters-in-law who assisted. One of them had helped to dress her own oldest child less than four months earlier, and offered suggestions from her experience without imposing any decisions on me.
I cannot say that I felt my motherâ€™s presence there, but the experience was still â€œother worldly.â€ It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, bar none, yet I wouldnâ€™t have missed it for anything.
At the end, as I finished putting on the stockings, one sister-in-law reached for my motherâ€™s slippers. The other, who had heard Mom tell about dressing Sister P., put her hand quietly over the otherâ€™s hand, and said, â€œArdis wants to do that.â€