The first time I learned about the ritual of caring for a loved one's body after death was from my friend Elsa. She told me about how she and her relatives had cared for her grandmother's body, washing her, changing her clothes, fixing her hair, preparing her for the funeral, after Grandma's passing.
Elsa is part of a large, Hispanic family from Eastern Washington, and they had a very strong bond among them. I was privileged to get to spend some weekends with them, in the house where the six children and their parents had lived, sharing 3 bedrooms and one bathroom. By this time, the kids were grown, married, and many of them were parents themselves. It was a joy to be part of the family traditions and celebrations, such as filling a pinata and watching the small children whack it with a broomstick, and to share in preparing food for those gatherings. We would sleep on the living room floor, and I felt totally welcomed. It was a gift to me to be able to observe, and be embraced by, a large, loving extended family that had a strong culture, and a different one from my heritage.
One time when I was visiting, we went to Grandma's grave and I watched, transfixed, as Elsa washed the headstone and clipped the grass, freshened the flowers and tidied the area. I have never even been to visit my grandparents' graves. I don't know exactly where they are.
Years after this, I read in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (the Von Trapps of "The Sound of Music" fame) about how they cared for their father's body after his passing. He died of cancer, at home, and they laid him out in the house, in a place of honor, and held vigil beside his body. It was amazing to me; I had never heard of such a thing, especially in such detail.
When Katie passed away at home, in her bed, it seemed right and natural to me to want to wash her and care for her myself, before she left for the funeral home. I was a little bit tentative about it, since I had never seen or touched a dead person before, but Amy, our wonderful Hospice nurse, helped me to know what to do. It was just what you would think, for a bed-bath. I filled a tub with warm water, and put in a quantity of Katie's favorite soap, which was lime-scented. It smelled like limeade, and made a nice lather. Amy removed Katie's NG tube while I filled the basin. We removed the clothes that Katie had been wearing, and then we washed her body together, gently moving her arms and legs, cleaning her as I had when she was a baby. We dried her off, and then I massaged lotion into her skin, again choosing one of her favorite scents. It was good to be able to touch her, gently going over all of her skin with love. It was bittersweet to see the places where she had endured so much: the bruises that discolored her skin (from months of injections); the little spots that weren't healing well; the long scar that ran the length of her abdomen, from the base of her throat down past her belly button, and from side to side, like a large cross. It was my privilege and my duty as her mother to care for this precious body from her birth to her death. It was a sacred privilege to wash her one last time.
Then I chose the outfit that she would wear when she left home. I decided on things that I felt she would have chosen herself: a pair of brown "gaucho" pants (she had been one of the first to introduce this style to her elementary school, and still liked it) and a camouflage tank top, with a skull and crossbones on the front, made out of rhinestones. I hesitated over the skull-and-crossbones top, wondering if it might scandalize the funeral director, but I knew it was one of Katie's favorites, and it had an element of the dark humor that she had begun to wield so freely.
I cut a lock of her hair, apologizing to her as I did so, since she had been trying to grow it, after chemo made it fall out. Silly; she would not have minded now.
When we were finished dressing her, I felt that she looked peaceful and beautiful. Bev came over to the house, and we sat in Katie's window seat, with Katie lying on her bed. We talked about many things; I think I was in shock. As we were talking, the wind was blowing gently but steadily from the south to the north, over the water beside our house; you could see the clouds moving northward through the windows that faced the water. That is why it was very strange when a strong breeze blew into Katie's room through the open, north-facing window; a breeze coming directly from the NORTH to the SOUTH, the opposite of the wind's direction. Bev and I both noticed that it happened at least a half-dozen times. It was odd. Gregg came into the room, and he saw it happen, too. After the breeze began to rustle all of the posters and things hanging on Katie's bedroom walls, and went around the room like a small whirlwind, we stopped talking, and said to her, "We see you, Sweetie; we hear you!" Then it subsided.
On the morning of her passing, I came into Katie's room early and noticed that it was cool. I started to close her window, intending to leave it open part of the way for a bit of fresh air, but to prevent it from being chilly in her room. She stopped me, saying quietly but very strongly, "I need that open." Of course, I opened it right back up. I have been told since, that, in the old days when hospitals had windows that could be opened, the nurses used to open them when a person was dying, in order to make a way for the spirit to leave the room easily. I have also read that the spirit can go through walls and material barriers, but it was interesting to me that this happened in a way that was tangible and visible to several of us at once. I believe that we don't know much about the next stages of existence, but Katie gave us a couple of beautiful signs that were comforting, and this is one of them.