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Building relationships through dressing the dead

Funeral directors deal with many different religions, backgrounds and cultures. For some families, dressing the deceased is a common practice (Muslims and Mormons are some examples). There are families who don’t know they have the option to be more hands on. The simple act of dressing someone who has passed is incredibly sacred. We do it every day and to us, a stranger to the deceased, it may not have meaning, but to a family who has cared for that person while living, preparing the deceased for viewing and the service can change the grieving process.

Giving families the option the dress the deceased themselves in the funeral home, hospital or at the house allows for one final gesture at a time when people don’t know what to do. Common lectures at funeral symposiums are about how to help people realize the value we provide in funeral service. A better discussion would be about how can we provide better value to families who are going through this process.

People in North America have to use a funeral home due to legislation. The death must be registered through vital statistics in order to bury or cremate. People want to use a funeral home because they are looking for direction. We can agree that this can only happen if they are educated and involved with the death process.

Throughout history and across the world, people have cared for their deceased family members. Since I started in funeral service, I have been taught and have believed that dressing, cosmetising and doing hair of the deceased has been an act of great service for grieving families. It provides a healthier looking, peaceful image for the last time they see that person. Almost always, the family will come to us after the viewing and say, “Thank you for the wonderful work you do” validating our work. It’s rewarding to know we have made a great presentation. By doing it ourselves without asking if the family wants to participate, are they missing out one of the important rites of passage?

When someone passes away, families call us, we arrive to transfer the body and family is often present. Sometimes they have been with the deceased for hours prior calling us. They usually say one last goodbye and wait outside the room for us to transfer the body on to the stretcher. Sometimes this is the last time they will ever see that person. As someone who has been in this situation, the goodbye seems insufficient. There is no action or custom which has been performed to accompany the feelings or the words.

When my grandmother passed away in another city, all I was able to do was say goodbye. I know what I missed out on, because as a funeral director I have the privilege of knowing I am able to physically care for the deceased, we do it regularly. We want to care for our friends and family members and be a big part of their service. We might feel hurt or frustrated if one of our co-workers came and did the hair and makeup on our parent without asking us if we wanted them to.

Most of us prefer to be the ones to wash, dress and cosmetise, our friend or family member when they die. It is considered an honor. Someone who doesn’t work in funeral service may not know how important it is. Unless they come from a religious background where it is customary.

The families who don’t know that they are able to be a part of this process probably aren’t offended. They may be ignorant of the process, but giving them the opportunity could help shed light on our industry and their journey through grief. By informing them that they can either participate or even watch, we provide insight around death care and give the opportunity for more than just a verbal goodbye. This can be vital for some people’s grieving process.

You might be thinking that this isn’t applicable with an immediate cremation. When someone passes away, they are usually unclothed or in a hospital gown. It’s meaningful for those closest to that person to have the option to partake in dressing the deceased, because this custom can provide closure and a way to perform that one last gesture of kindness.

How would a family who chooses cremation feel if we gave them the option to dress the deceased before we took them on the journey to the funeral home? Many people, (not everyone), would want to partake if they knew it was an option. Most don’t know how to dress a deceased person. That is why we are here. Assistance and guidance is why people hire funeral directors.

Perhaps families are not mentally prepared, or don’t have clothing right then. If this is the case, we should be asking them if they would like to come to the funeral home and partake there, whether they have chosen burial or cremation.

If a family tells us they are having a casket burial, it is customary to ask them to bring clothes to the arrangement. In the instance of cremation, I have seldom asked for clothes. It's just not something I was taught. In fact I was taught the opposite like many funeral directors. Funeral directors generally prefer not dress unembalmed bodies. They’re harder to maneuver and there is the unlikely, but possible risk of purge. This is an easy conversation to have and mention of it to families to prepare them takes a matter of seconds.

So many times I have heard other directors say “we need to help people understand the value that the funeral home provides,” or “people need to become less removed from death in western culture.” I agree with both these statements. We are perpetuating the distance people feel from death by not asking if they want to participate in these sacred rituals.

It takes 15 minutes or less to dress a body when we know how and have help. Those 15 minutes change how that family perceives us. Some funeral homes would consider this act going over and above. Yet these options should be standard with the majority of our calls.

In the past I’ve rushed transfers before and I have not asked families if they want to participate. I just didn’t think of it. There is a lot of preliminary work to set up the deceased on a table in the viewing room at the funeral home and it takes longer than just doing it ourselves. However, most part time staff know how to dress a body and there is no reason someone can’t be there to guide families. It is acts like this which create compassion and value in our client’s minds. The brief introduction when we arrive at the home or hospital isn’t enough to build a relationship with our families. Let's change that.

If you’re not a funeral director, you have the option and the right to choose. You just need to ask. You have the option to dress, do the hair and casket your family member and I want to encourage you to do so, because sometimes words don’t feel like they’re enough. These small acts can bring families together during difficult times and help to heal you during the grief process. Funeral directors often have more than one family they’re serving and may not have considered the importance. We are here to serve you .

For more information on how you can be more informed and involved subscribe to my YouTube channel with a new DIY episode every 2 weeks.

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