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Preparation Of The Body

Immediately After Death

The body should not be disturbed or touched immediately after death.  Many believe that it takes awhile for the soul to completely separate itself from the physical body.  If the body must be touched, do so very gently.  If the eyes are open, you may close them and tape them shut if needed.  If the mouth is open, you can close it by propping the head up on a pillow. 

Keep the atmosphere around the deceased simple and peaceful.  If appropriate for your tradition, this is the time for the deceased's soul friend to finalize the  helping of the soul to the realms beyond life.  Rituals or readings from the deceased's tradition can be preformed.  This is the proper time for the bereaved family to gather and hold vigil. 

If death takes place at a hospital or similar location, routine often requires the body to be moved in a short time.  Talk with the hospital staff and get permission for the body to remain longer.  I have attended vigils at hospitals where family and close friends were given several hours to be with the deceased before removal.  

Keep the temperature in the room as cool as possible.  Air conditioning is best, but even a fan or open window will help.  This will not halt the decomposition process, but it will be slowed a little.  The body should not be covered with blankets, a thin sheet will suffice.  Depending on the physical condition of the deceased,  expect rigor mortis to set in somewhere between three and eight hours.  It will usually disappear within another thirty-six hours or so.  You should consider this and plan to limit the vigil length so that you can begin the preparation of the body while it is still limber. 

There may be long causes of delay in the burial, such as waiting for family members to arrive from out of state.  In such cases refrigeration or dry ice can be used to keep the body.  Because of the transportation systems in place today, most burials can be held within two or three days after death.  If the death was expected, then most of the preparation of the gravesite and other arrangements can be made beforehand.  In this case, burial can take place no later than the day following the death. 

Preparation Of The Body

The washing of the deceased should be carried out by those of the same sex.  An exception would be a spouse, or if the deceased is a small child.  I have also known young children to help the father or mother to prepare their parent.  The decision to include a child should be made carefully, but it can help the child deal with the death of someone they loved and depended on.  Any such decision should include a discussion with the child.   While the preparation of the body can be done by family members or friends as a last act of intimacy and respect, some religious organizations or traditions may have persons that do this.  

The deceased's body should be washed in a clean, secluded, and private place.  It's best if some type of table is used, but a hard mattress will suffice if the preparation is in the bedroom.  If it is on a bed, then plastic or rubber sheeting may help liquids from soaking into the bedding or mattress.  Clean water and soap is necessary.  Gloves and pieces of cloth are needed.  Some aromatic herbs, camphor, or perfume should be on hand for the final wash, if desired.

There is no right or wrong way to wash a body.  The following are simple suggestions to help you.

First, the deceased's clothes should be removed, and the body coved with a sheet from navel to the knees.  If the deceased is a female, you may also wish to place a strip of cloth across the breasts. In case the deceased is a female in her menstrual period or having childbirth bleeding, padding should be used to prevent blood from leaving the body.  Cotton and a condom can be used in the private areas so that wastes do not leak from the body.  The teeth and mouth can be cleaned, but do not remove dentures or you may not be able to put them back in. 

Slightly elevate the body to insure that the washing water, along with exudations from the body, flows down and does not run back onto the body.

With a piece of cloth wrapped around your hand, clean away any impurities from the body using water.  After this is done, wrap another cloth around your hand and press lightly on the stomach of the deceased to expel, if possible, any remnants from it. Then wash the body a second time.  The body can be washed as many times as needed, using a clean cloth and new soap and water for each washing.  Rubber gloves can also be worn, if you prefer. 

You may find it easier to start from the head (hair and face), then upper right side of the body then the left side.  After that, the lower right side then the lower left side.  If the deceased is a female, her hair should be loosened, washed, and combed. In the final wash, you may use an aromatic mix of herbs, camphor, or some perfume with the water. After the last washing, the body should be dried with a clean towel and covered with a thin white sheet.  The next step would be to prepare for the shrouding.

It is recommended that those who have participated in the washing take a shower afterwards.  This provides both a spiritual and physical cleansing.  Materials used during the procedure can be burned.  If burning is impractical because of where you live, you may wish to contact a hospital, clinic, or funeral home that is willing to do this for you.  If none of these options are available, the double wrapping in strong plastic bags and sealing them for disposal may be the best course of action.  A disinfectant can be added in the bag before sealing.  You should check your local laws and regulations that pertain to bio-hazardous materials.