Your most precious thing

My grandfather would tell stories of growing up in Ironton, LA in the early part of the last century. Papa spoke of the crypts, the above ground graves that are common down that way. Something I didn’t realize about how they worked, at least in the ’20s, was that crypts were finite space. If one was needed, one was emptied. He talked about how as a kid, a relative’s crypt was opened to make room for his grandmother. Someone pulled out the bones and broke them up with a hoe to mix them into the ground, and Papa fainted.

The deeper we get into death doula training blows my head and heart even more to smithereens. When we started, there was a guided meditation Alua lead us through. In it, she called our bodies our first, our most intimate, and our last companion.

It’s true.

In later units, we’ve gone over things like the actual process of dying, and how to handle bodies for home funerals. Things like how to wash and dress the body, how to lead the loved ones through doing it.

I sat with the idea of a “good death” vs a “bad death,” and while there’s WAY more to it than that, I settled early on that a dying person being turned into an object was a “bad death.” We watched a documentary where a terminally ill palliative care physician made his wishes explicitly clear, and laid out everything that he wanted to happen, but at the end, his wishes were ignored, and he basically became a prop, an object his wife poured her hopes into.

Not unlike people do with their things.

But when we shifted to the unit on how to handle a body after death has happened, and we started observing reactions of both ourselves and the people grieving, I started noticing strains of the same behavior around objects. The bathing of a body can be done for several reasons, could be hygienic, could be to mitigate a traumatic appearance (make it look less distressing), could be ritualistic, could be to confirm for oneself that the person is indeed dead. Someone bathing the body of their spouse may see that as caring for their most precious object. But the twist in this situation is that the object can not be kept or maintained in it’s state forever. Embalming won’t stop decomposition. And while you absolutely can maintain a body for a while without embalming (big ups to modern refrigeration technologies), it will decay. It will change. It will need to be allowed to go.

Not unlike people letting go of their things.

It’s a beautiful twist, in my eyes, that the most precious thing you care for, your body, your first, most intimate, and last companion, is a thing that can not be maintained forever. That if anyone wants to hold on to your body after you’ve left the stage, it has to change. You have to let it go.

There’s a lesson in there. Several, honestly. But the one I’m sitting with for now is the immensity and inevitability of change.

Life. Is not. A static state. (neither is death.)