Thursday, February 07, 2013

Do It Yourself

         “Do it yourself” is an apt banner for much of our lives. It’s the way I grew up; where my dad had a workbench and tool shelf in the basement. If something broke, the first course of action was to try and fix it ourselves. Oh how we loved it when duct tape was invented!
         But “Do it yourself” has morphed into more and more parts of our culture, where we have rejected (or marginalized) the experts and have chosen to do it ourselves. The internet has democratized information, so we do not need experts to sift and filter information. We freshly reinvent any occasion to suit our mood. We are able to draw from an infinite store of resources to plan a wedding, a birthday party, an anniversary, holiday, or just about anything.
         At a recent meeting of a group of End Of Life Providers, a palliative care nurse talked about how increasingly awkward patient death had become because “there was a lack of knowing what to do” when a person died. Families sat vigil and hung around a room of a deceased loved one, not really knowing what to do.
         This nurse and hospital are pioneering an honoring ceremony for patients who die, to which family members are invited. The nurses take the lead on gently washing the body in preparation for the funeral home personnel. They cover the body with a sheet, maintaining dignified modesty the whole time, and remove the hospital gown and old sheet by slipping it off underneath the covering sheet. Then they carefully sponge bathe the entire body starting with the head and ending at the feet.
         In this process, they invite family members to participate in washing the head/face, hands and feet. When it’s over, then the nursing staff anoints 10 parts of the body with lavender oil, and stopping to reflect on each body part: hair, brow, eyes, mouth, ears, shoulders, heart, hands, legs and feet. For the hair they reflect on all the wind that blew through it. For the brow, they meditated on the thoughts the loved one thought. For the eyes, on what he/she saw, and ears for the sounds heard and mouth for the words spoken. The heart was where they reflect on the love given and received. The shoulders were the occasion to think about the burdens borne. The hands were a great place to speak of thinks made and touches given. The legs were for strength and the feet for the various places she/he went.
         When the meeting was over, I was deeply moved. It was a ritual applicable to any religion or culture. And the response after 60+ washings is profound. They are being asked to present soon at Johns Hopkins!
         50 years ago, this would not be the case. People would know what to do: call their pastor, priest or rabbi. Funeral homes knew what to do: work with the church in which the funeral would be held. Pastors knew what to do by using their denominationally published and endorsed books of worship that were planned over many years by the larger church.
         I think that’s the draw back to the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox communions: they know what to do. They are not inventing rituals on the spot and in the moment. I like the spontaneous and in the moment event….sometimes. But I need the deeper tradition, the richer language, the deliberate and thought-out acts.


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