When a loved one takes their last breath, the village sometimes forgets to exhale.
After days, weeks, months or even years of caregiving, organizing, and planning; still, after the last breath, no one exhales.
They continue to do. Call the hospice, call the funeral home, call the extended family, make dinner, care for grandma, the list continues. They tend to move forward without much room to breathe as the waves of grief begin.
At the moment their loved one dies, they’re desperate to slow down. They yearn to be present and reverent with what just happened but are unsure of how to go about it.
An after death ritual and ceremony can offer this gift. A pause to exhale.
Ritual comes in many different forms depending on belief systems, religious backgrounds, or cultural traditions. The rituals I have shared with families below have been ceremonial gifts to slow families down and re-center them into presence, regardless of belief system.
Body Washing and Preparation Ceremony
After the last breath, a simple washing ceremony offers the family an opportunity to clean and prepare their loved one one last time. The tactile nature of holding and washing each body part offers family members a sensory experience of change; the change in their loved one’s body temperature, change in weight, change in color. It allows their own bodies to sense perceive that the loved one who was here in this body, is no longer. Families have expressed an unexpected catharsis in participating in this ritual. There is also something quite special about caring for a loved one for a final time- dressing them in fresh clothes, putting their favorite scent on them, preparing them to go out with dignity. It’s an act of love and a blessing for their journey onwards. It’s an invitation for all to exhale.
A home funeral is a tradition that feels very old but very right. It exists in many forms across most cultures; a simple gathering of community after someone dies. After washing and preparing the loved one after their last breath, they are kept at home, preserved on dry ice in their natural state, so the community can take time to visit, pray, feel, accept, reflect, and honor their loved one. Oftentimes, home funerals last between 1-3 days offering ample time for community to unearth their own expressions of love and mourning. I have seen people share stories, cook for each other, meditate together, sit quietly in disbelief, cry laugh and hold each other; whatever expressions of love want to arise. It’s a gift to offer these expressions time and space to come up to the surface when they are ready. Family members of all ages can partake in home funerals. From children to elders alike, as a community, this tradition offers an acceptance that death is a natural part of life. We honor the person that has transitioned and we acknowledge our love and sadness. Then, when the community says they’re ready to say goodbye to their loved one’s physical body, they can choose that moment themselves and exhale together.
I find after death rituals one of the most healing parts of this work. If you’d like more information on how to conduct an after death ritual and ceremony for you or your loved one, please email me at [email protected] and I’d be happy to guide you.
Below is an informative video by Caitlin Doughty, offering her thoughts on “Why you should spend time with a dead body.”