Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflection on Dying Part 3 of 3

March 7, 2013

By Jeanne Denney

One surprise of being with my father’s body after death was discovering how the body itself transformed in the five days before burial, and that its process mysteriously helped me through these days.  I knew something of the value of being with a body after death from reading Tibetan Buddhists and deep experiences at the home funerals of Anthroposophists.  Still,  I had never experienced it so directly.  Since I was curious, I spent some time each day  witnessing these changes.  Dad’s body seemed to relax and unfold like a flower releasing a message.  By the forth day it seemed to fold inward again ready for burial like as if withering and preparing to drop its seed.   As I loved, honored and released this body, my grief moved with it.  Death midwives such as these and documentaries such as this one (A Family Undertaking)  point to the fact that this might be true for others as well.  

The courage to touch and be present with the body of a dead one is unfortunately so rare that these subtle processes usually go unnoticed in refrigeration units. Perhaps only morticians observe them. At wakes, we seldom touch the dead or track the body’s subtle changes through time, distracted as we are by conversation, grief, shock, formalities or the eternal question of “What do I say to the family?”.  My family seemed puzzled by my time with Dad’s body after death. Finding closure with the dead through the body may disturb you too, or maybe it will exhilarate you. Whatever response you have, you will probably have one.

The rites of burial and memorial service were also important for closure, but in more traditional ways.  I was surprised to step into an active role in leading burial rites and to publicly reflect on his life at the memorial.  These small acts of being with, of care, ritual work around burial and public witness were tiring, yet each brought essential gifts to closure and healing. I share notes from journals below.  Please see Previous posts for Part 1 and Part 2, which concern our last visit and my spiritual experiences with Dad after death respectively.

This series is offered in service.  Thanks for being here, reading it and passing it on.  I welcome your feedback and experiences here on the blog and hope that you will continue to follow.

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In peace.

November 7 – Planning a Funeral

Here for the second day working intently on the hard tasks of death: services, burials, caskets, clothes, pictures, items from his life, flowers, emotions, family. Mary, Beth and I doing funeral arrangements, a bit slapstick, matter of fact, perfunctory, jovial, then weeping in strange moments:  opening the garage refrigerator to the smell of apples, finding his watch on the nightstand or a torn envelope with notes written in his exotic script. The recliner where Dad sat for the past few years is empty. No one wants to sit in it.  Beth puts a rose, a candle and the picture of him in his dapper brown hat next to it.

When we approach the funeral home, we find a grand Prarie-style house from the 20’s, with massive steps, giant doors, high ceilings, wide staircases and large oil paintings of ships on stormy nights. Its deadly quiet as if no one ever really goes here. In fact they don’t. Apparently westerners never go to a wakes or see bodies. They do memorial services. Even Dad’s widow, Betty (from Montana) at 80 has never been to a “visitation” and was considering not going to this one because she has a cold.

The funeral director meets us at the door.  He is a sweet man named Dan, shy, decorous, skilled at framing sensitive questions that seem ponderous or funny to us. For example, his serious explanation of why we won’t be able to run stoplights on the way to the cemetery. Dan wears the ubiquitous black suit, nods a lot and seems to have to be cautious about smiling. We go over the desired services and “family wishes”, the flow from here to burial to memorial, timing, staffing, death certificates, obituaries, notifications, printing of cards, movement of flowers, cost, payment methods. In sum: the mechanics and finances of taking a body from death to earth. Our matter-of-factness and humor seem disarming to Dan, but welcome. Smiling and laughing breaks some morticians’ rule.

Asking for the Moon

Near the end of planning, I surprise myself by asking “Would it be ok if I come and help you dress Dad tomorrow after the embalming?” Dan seems taken aback and clears his throat, “Ah, well… we have never…I don’t know, no one has ever really asked this before.” He seems to run a quick defensive checklist (liability, hassle factor, my mental health, will he disclose secrets, will I be hysterical?).  I propose to cross a sacred line. The dressing, done for centuries by family members, is now in the hands of specialists. “But, ah…I don’t see why you couldn’t do that. We do try to accommodate the wishes of families.” Dan seems as surprised at his answer as my question. They agree to call me after the embalming tomorrow.

Dan leads us upstairs to the casket room by the elevator. The three irreverent sisters find the commercialism of the scene funny. The lid inserts, the Lord’s Supper, “Mom” with roses, golf clubs, sunsets, aphorisms, gardening tools. What Dad most wanted for his death was a lengthy obit with a picture of himself in the Oregonian. This, it turns out, costs a very pretty penny. He wanted a burial, but happily we know he was indifferent about caskets.  We pause just a moment at the lovely carved cherrywood ones (for 7-8,000$), but unanimously elect the second cheapest model, still over 2000$. (FYI You can get a perfectly good casket from BJ’s or Costco for under a 1000$, and if you are ok with a wood box, for 400$).   Who was going to Costco.

First Sight of Death

Tasks finished, Mary and I ask to go to  see the body. We, the two children absent for his death, needed it. They were expecting us.  As we came in the room there was an ever so small, inner and inaudible gasp.  An oh my.  To be in the presence of.

Our father.  About 40 hours post death he lay on the gurney cold, unembalmed, looking strangely and completely like himself. The expression on his face is one of wisdom and fighting, a severity, a twinkle. There is love and knowing, a sorrow that he actually rarely showed in ordinary life, but here it came out unearthed, expressing directly and without manipulation, a final koan. A slight crassness, a depth. The drawn thin line of his lips slightly drooping. His set jaw, terse like his Republicanism. His body is still familiar. We wept silently and held his hands. I stroked his cold, bald head, the one I always leaned over to kiss while he sat in his recliner.

In the last weeks before death, two gorgeous-hearted caregivers from Tonga alighted to care for Dad and Betty. Godsends, cooking, soothing, helping.  After his death these near mythical women washed and dressed him ceremonially in his bedroom.  The description was as a scene from the Japanese movie Departures (Tongan style).  Sweet comfort.  Mary and I found him still in these clothes: white shirt, white pants, white socks, red tie.  I put my hand for a long time on his quiet heart as if my heart had to register this stillness. Safe from the planning machine in the presence of the body, my usually not so emotive sister and I hugged and cried.  The body took us there.  Our Dad was dead. All of the ways we had silently leaned on this heart came forward:  creditors with open hands wanting tears.

And when we were done, we were done.

November 8  – Dressing Dad

Morticians who work behind closed doors had company today.    I wore purple latex gloves and chatted with Dan and his son as we dressed Dad in his final burial suit. I lifted the legs to pull up his pants, put on his socks, put his arms in his sleeves, buttoned his shirt for eternity, tied his maroon paisley tie. His grey suit, the one that he wore to church over and over, the one that he wore out to lunch after church with his friends. Their weird pride in sharing their art honored with an outsider, my inner bow to them. This is how we cut the back of the shirt. This is how we pull the arm through the sleeve.

When I lift the sheet, his thin hairless legs look short in his underwear. He looks so small. I register that this body that was part of my father is now a corpse. I hold the word corpse in my mouth like a marble while the tie is firmed up and the buttons buttoned, the body lifted into the casket by three men and straightened. These are the hands of my father. I hold them….all of the memories of taking them. The knowledge of his love is still strangely in this tissue. How did it get there? I take comfort in this holding of them, in kissing his bald head. This was the body of my father, the one he has left, is leaving. Something of him is still here, but less than yesterday, less still after being placed in the casket. Today he is more severe and distant.

Dan shows me how they replace the color in the face with a jar full of red paste and a thick brush, he strokes Dad’s face lightly giving him a pinkness back. He removes the incrustations from his eyes, the ones that looked to me like tears, with a pincher and gauze, sprays him with powder and brushes again. Voila. Complete. Fini. QED.

When we are done and after the door closes I sit alone with the body that was my father’s. Just sit with it. Later I talk, to what I don’t know. To the body and to what is no longer the body. I speak my peace and say my apologies. I say my Amen, then leave alone by the giant front door of an empty old house into twilight air and city.

Later the family sitting around the dinner table talking. The stark domination of my brother’s voice. The widow’s exhaustion in Betty.  I sit without speaking, wondering. What is it exactly that I know that I didn’t know before?

November 9 – The Visitation

The kids arrive with Nick from New York in the morning. A scramble for suits and ties. Later I arrange things I find in the basement in the visitation room. Rummaging through back closets.   Dad’s 4H journals that include maps of his farm and notes about drainage, a pile of blue ribbons from county fairs, a leather cigarette holder from Africa, pictures of him waving his straw hat in cornfields, standing by a prize cow as an adolescent, the dashing picture of him in his Navy dress blues, both just after enlisting and as a Chief Pharmacist Mate at the end. Cocky and dapper. Ready to meet his life. A cast iron apple peeler from his farm in Iowa, wedding picture, a picture of him in the apple orchards where he was testing new varieties. A picture of him with my brother as a child. I arrange these throughout the room so people can be surprised by something. Even though I have been warned that no one will come, I can’t deny this small curation.

Visitation is from 4 – 7 p.m. No one shows for a long time. I sit alone and notice the body has changed dramatically in three days, his face now harder, more frozen. When I touch his arm there is no content. Yet while he does not seem very close, he feels familiar. The first person to come was a guy no one knew. He walked in, stood a moment in front of the casket, turned, shook our hands as if surprised that we were there and split in under 2 minutes. It reminded me of the drive-through bank a guy in the south turned into a funeral home, starting a whole new movement of drive by respects. Hit and run. How deep the fear.  But there is something about seeing the dead.  Even animals need to do it.

Later a few others filter in. Family, Nursery people. They pass, look a moment befuddled, sober or confused, laugh, pat or speak a word, then turn toward the living for conversation and laughter.  The grandchildren are comforted by time with each other and the stories.  During these hours, Dad’s body gradually feels more like an object to me, a prop in the room.  Empty now.  Nick and I sneak out for a walk and stop at a bar to raise a glass of beer to the Dad that he loved too. For a moment he finds me beautiful in the sunlight.  Though I feel old and exhausted, I allow it to be true.  All of these years. It is like in the old days as engineers together, just like when plans went out at project’s end.  Joined in grief.  Comrades.  Friends regardless.  To life.

November 11 – The Burial

It happened yesterday.  We buried him. The family gathered early and reflected together. When the casket was closed there was nothing I could sense of Dad in the body.  He was gone. The young Korean minister had a youth group event the morning of the burial.  So the zany new age, deathphilic healer/therapist (me) led spiritually defiant near atheists, and the traditional right-leaning Christians of my family at the graveside.  Swallowing hard, praying openly, singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot, lighting candles, spreading ashes and rose petals, managing embarrassment and their silent discomfort.  Meanwhile the  sense that the new convert to spirit (Dad) was enthusiastically cheering me on like a father of a child at the plate in her first ball game. Later, taking a turn a with my sisters speaking in front of the church about my Dad’s “other church”(the garden) and read Rumi’s “What have I ever lost by dying?”.    That evening I hold my Dad’s only great grandchild in my arms through a dinner party.  Astounded.  Exhaustion finally reaching me then.

We all look tired now.  But today, all day, the Dad within me was strangely exuberant,  Wanting me to know things, like that he got it.  That he was proud.  All of the things I waited for.  Maybe I just made that up. But that is how I saw and felt him. Excited like a kid.

December

After Mom died I realized that you don’t know your parents life until their story has an end.  Then you see them as a whole, a work complete, their wisdom settles deeper within your bones.  Her crazy wisdom came by degrees in the months and years after, in moments at the sink or in the garden.

Now it is even more clear. If you are open to looking and working the long ending, perhaps it is like finding the strange, unknown package without a tag under the Christmas tree, the gift at the heart of the mystery of birth. Perhaps one you wanted. Perhaps not.  What is bereavement if not the face-off with this gift?

My father, born July 5, burst forward to me like so many fireworks in joy after he died. Brimming joy. His relief to be out of the body and this joy has filled me for weeks.  Enthusiasm for me, my life, passion for the project of being human. Peace. I feel closer to him than I ever have, and more in awe of his gifts and heart. More grateful.  Strangely more whole.

Stories well written can end like this too.

This is just a reminder.

Jeanne Denney is a therapist, hospice worker and death educator in the Greater New York area. Her website is http://www.jeannedenney.com and email is jeannedenney@gmail.com.

photo

Obituary:

Hugh Robert (“Bob”) Denney, of Portland Oregon, formerly of Louisiana, Mo. died at home on November 5, 2012. The son of Homer C. and Myrtle Jefferson Denney, he was born on a farm near Redding, IA, on July 5, 1921. He attended church two weeks later and remained an active Methodist all his life. As a boy, he tilled fields with a horse-drawn cultivator, milked the family cows, and took classes in the same the one-room schoolhouse his father had attended. To complete high school he traveled to Mt. Ayr, IA, and boarded in a private home. He graduated in 1938 and enrolled at Iowa State University in 1940. There he pledged Acacia fraternity, waiting tables at the house to earn room and board. Later he said that he learned as much in the house as in the classroom. In 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and trained as a medical corpsman. He was posted to Boston in time to do ambulance duty the night of the Cocoanut Grove fire. Later, he served ashore in a hospital in Recife, Brazil, and aboard ships that took him to ports as distant as Pearl Harbor and Mers el Kebir. Discharged in 1946, he returned to Iowa State, graduating on June 12, 1948. He married the former Maxine Zihlmann eight days later. On July 1 he began work with the Iowa State extension service, soon becoming a county agent. In 1951, the couple moved to Nashua, IA, where they operated an orchard and began to raise a family. Ten years later they moved to Charles City, IA, where Bob became Vice President of Sherman’s Nurseries. They moved to Louisiana in 1966, when Bob became the head of the commercial sales department of Stark Brothers Nursery, a position from which he retired in 1985. All of Bob’s children are graduates of Louisiana High School, and many of the trees in Louisiana’s parks grew from saplings he planted when he headed the city’s park board. Bob was an active member of the American Association of Nurserymen throughout his career and Chairman of the National Horticultural Standards Committee from 1979-1987. In 1992 he and Maxine relocated to Portland, OR, to be near their son Jon and Portland Nursery, in which Jon and Bob had been partners since 1980. His sister Bernice Webster preceded him in death in 2012. He is survived by his children, Marjorie Hunt, Martha Denney, Jon Denney, and Jeanne Denney, by seven grandchildren, and by his wife Sylva Denney and her children.

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5 Responses to “Dressing Dad: A Daughter’s Post-Mortem Reflection on Dying Part 3 of 3”

  1. laura rudish said

    Beautiful, Jeanne. Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you dear Jeanne for this writing. so beautiful and moving. Walked this path with Mom who passed the end of August. Sending you love. Would love to meet for lunch one day. Thank you again, Lisa

  3. Cindy Schott said

    I just recently saw this in my mailbox and say I am sorry to hear about the passing of your father. I really enjoyed reading “Dressing Dad.” A beautiful piece of art. Although you were not with your Dad physically at his passing, you certainly were spiritually. I am not surprised at all that you would choose to be with your dad to dress him post mortem. You taught me to think outside the box inregards to death and the movie, “Departed” was one of these memorable lessons. Hope you are progressing through your difficult times and finding peace.
    Love,
    Cindy

    • Ah Cindy, so good to hear from you here. Thank you for reading and responding. It is good to hear from you students. I miss teaching. Hope all good things have happened to you this year.

      Jeanne

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