October 11, 2014
After living a number of years on a farm a friend noted that before coming to the farm he had no idea how well versed his children would become in death. The line between death and life on a farm is not a thick one—nor should it be, for death should be as natural as life whether on a farm or in the city. Whether one plants crops or raises animals, a balance exists between planting and birth, harvest and death. For animal raisers, the butcher date arrives eventually. For crop folk, harvest leads to spring plowing where all sorts of life—gophers, rabbits, voles, and bugs are lost. Done well, farm life is a harmonious interplay between life and death.
I’ve another friend who is spending some of his time writing essays dealing with death and death rituals. His What happens to village death rituals when people move to town? has me pondering a common local death ritual that today is uncommon in most of our communities -The Dressing.
Though uncommon today, the 1984 movie Places in the Heart has a scene that tells how normal the ritual of dressing once was. Sheriff Royce Spalding, who lives at the edge of town, is called away from his meal. While away he is accidently shot and dies. Four local men bring the body back home. As they enter the home, one quickly takes a lone plate off the dining table and lays it on the sideboard. The others then gently lay the sheriffs body on the table. A while later we see, Edna, the sheriff’s wife, washing the body. She touches a scar on her husband’s stomach and says to her sister, “We would have been married fifteen years this October…We had two children and I never knew ‘til just now that Royce had a scar here…”
Hard to say how many funerals I’ve attended since that first some fifty-odd-years ago. I can say it wasn’t fifteen years ago I first experienced the ritual of washing and dressing. Since then I have come to know the dressing ritual as a normal and meaningful part of life. I’ve learned there is a distinct difference in the wellbeing of grieving folk who dress and those who do not. These experiences lead me to believe the loss of the dressing ritual in our communities have retarded the healing of family and community in times of death.
The dressing allows for an intimacy and a caring that is hard to experience in any other way. Bathing and dressing the body not only honors the dead, it allows the living to enter a mystical time of grieving. A time where one reacquaints themselves with wrinkles or lack of, sturdiness or lack of limb and body, shape of hand, flow of foot, and dimple of cheek. This divine time is of fullness of body, loss of spirit, and spirit rebirth.
The reasons why families and communities have given up the dressing are many (e.g., industrialized mortuary system), but one in particular probably tops the list: genitalia. Odd to think folk are as hung up as they are over genitalia. One would think that as much as the body is exposed on public beaches and television, the washing of the genitalia of a loved one would be doable. However, the idea of bathing and dressing the body of a husband, a wife, a child, or a mother or a father is unimaginable for most folk. In The Confession: A Novel John Grisham tells a scene of where a mother bathing her adult son’s body is as natural as birth.
The boxer shorts were white and oversized. She snipped away like a seamstress and removed them. The pile was complete. He was naked, leaving the world the same way he had entered it. She poured liquid soap into the sink, splashed the water, adjusted the temperature, then turned off the faucet. She dipped a cloth and began bathing her son. She rubbed his legs, then dried them quickly with a small towel. She washed his genitals, and wondered how many grandchildren he would have fathered. He loved the girls, and they loved him. She gently washed his chest and arms, neck and face, drying him as she went.
To lose the richness that comes with the washing and dressing of a loved one because of genital fear is sad.
The death of a loved one is not an easy time to navigate, and reclaiming the ritual of dressing does not and should not dispel the grief of loss. However, in bathing and dressing folk can reclaim memory, know the movement of spirit, and find solace in a time of sorrow.