This weekend I’ll be presenting at the first Melbourne Festival of Death and Dying. My topic is Rituals of Laying Out and Vigil. I wonder how you respond to this idea, and if you would come? You might think of laying out as being something that Catholics do, or that nurses do, or that people from other cultures do. You might not think of laying out as something that any family can do.
We have so little practice with death in our culture. A new acquaintance and I were talking over a cup of tea. ‘I’m 53 and I’ve never seen a dead body,’ she said. ‘I know very little about death and when my parents go, who knows what we’ll do?’
When I run workshops for organisations, I know who will be there. But I’m not sure who will come to my workshop on Sunday. I don’t know what experience they might have had. Something will have drawn them to it. We’ll find out about this early in the workshop. If there’s anyone who’s been strongly drawn to the workshop, yet feels very nervous about dead bodies, they can be assured of how normal that is. And that it’s a love project, a final gesture of care towards a loved one.
Time is a crucial dimension of practice. If the time is off, everything is off. Time is off when things happen too quickly, for example. Time is off when the funeral director is called and comes to collect the body before everyone is ready. Time is off when the body is removed and no one has quite come to grips with what has happened. And then everything is off.
Although all the medical issues are over now, there is still a tendency to act as if there’s an emergency. Just when it would be good to take some time.
Laying out a body is a time when close people can be part of a transformative process. If there has been long illness all the struggle can be washed away. If there has been an accident, that reality can be taken in a little more gently. If the person is very old and has been living in the garments of age, they can be dressed beautifully.
‘I had come into the room with a body that had been through so much. She looked beat up, cold, lonely, and pained. Once she was dressed, in her own clothes, she looked so cozy, warm, relaxed, and comfortable. She looked like herself. But it wasn’t her,’ says Nora Menkin on the National Home Funeral Alliance website.
Rituals of laying out and vigil put the person at the centre, looking like him or herself, but it’s not him or not her. The vigil might be in the lounge, perhaps in their room, perhaps in a room that’s been specially set up for the purpose. Having the chance to visit someone who has died is a rare thing in our culture. And it’s a wonderful thing because it puts us in touch with reality. For this person. For ourself. For us. I’ve never spoken to a person who’s been to a well set up vigil who hasn’t described it as having made a difference to their ability to accept what has happened.
In our practice we like things to be practical and attractive. For many I speak to, the first thought is about how to keep a body cool. At the workshop I’ll be demonstrating how. A vigil is a meaningful and beautiful experience. Any family can choose to do one. One thing I’ll say in the workshop is that there are a few things you can think about ahead. This will make it much easier for the family and organisers of these rituals. I’ll also speak of how vigils can happen at home, in a hospital or an aged care facility. Hope to see you there.