For a considerable period of time in the United States, death-related practices and rituals were highly personalized. By that it is meant that tasks associated with caring for a loved one who died were undertaken by surviving family members. This included the cleaning of a loved one’s body after death.
History of Caring for a Loved One’s Body After Death
In the past 70 years, there was a considerable movement away from families being directly involved in caring for the body of a loved one after death. Indeed, the movement away from direct family involvement in caring for the remains of a loved one really can be traced to the Civil War.
Prior to the Civil War, embalming was not widely used in the United States. That changed during the Civil War when significant numbers of people were being killed in battle. So many soldiers were dying, keeping up with burials was impossible. Moreover, oftentimes soldiers were killed in battle away from their homes. Some families wanted their loved ones buried at home rather than in some distant location.
Embalming the remains of soldiers proved to be the solution to aid in addressing the persistent lag in time between death in battle and ultimate disposition or burial of the remains. This movement resulted in families being removed from the process of caring for bodies after death. After the Civil War, this trend towards embalming and lack of family involvement in body preparation (cleaning and dressing) became more commonplace with each passing year.
In the past decade, a slowly increasing number of people are taking a greater level of control over what happens when a loved one passes on. This includes a growing number of people who are having home funerals, are bypassing embalming, and are washing and dressing the bodies of deceased loved ones on their own.
Personally Caring for a Loved One’s Body
The process of washing and dressing a loved one’s body is an endeavor that can raise strong emotions among those participating in the process. There has been an uptick in people make pre-death arrangements regarding loved ones being involved in the washing and dressing process after passing. In some cases when a specific directive of this nature is lacking, surviving family members make the decision to personal wash and dress the remains on their own accord.
The act of washing and dressing a deceased loved one is itself intended to honor the family member or friend who has passed on. It is an act of respect as well as intimacy.
Hospitals, hospices, and skilled care centers (or nursing homes) have become more aware of the desire of some families to engage in the washing and dressing of a person who dies. Thus, staffs of these facilities are proving more helpful in facilitating the washing and dressing of a loved one by family members and friends following death.
Steps to Washing a Deceased Loved One
Ideally, the washing occurs before what is known as rigor mortis sets in. Rigor mortis causes the body to become stiff, which can make washing a more challenging process. Rigor mortis typically sets in between four to seven hours after a person dies. (Rigor mortis is not a permanent condition. A body eventually leaves a state of rigor mortis, typically within about a day. At that time, the remains do become more pliable. However, evidence of the decomposition process will shortly begin to appear.) Thus, on some level, time is of the essence when it comes to washing the remains of a loved one who died.
The first step in the process is to wash a person’s face. Before washing the face, close the eyes. This can be accomplished by placing the soft pad of a fingertip on each eyelid. Oftentimes, by holding the eyes in place in this manner, they will stay closed on their own. If not, a soft cloth can be placed over the eyes. The eye lids can be weighted down with a small bag of something like uncooked rice, small beans, or seeds, placed gently on the soft cloth. The face itself is then washed, as if a person tending to this task was tending to his or her own.
Following the face washing, the teeth and mouth need to be cleaned. A toothbrush can be used for this purpose. In the alternative, a cotton swab designed for use in the mouth can be utilized for this purpose.
Once the face is washed and the teeth and mouth cleaned, the mouth should be closed. In some cases, the mouth will naturally stay shut with closing it. In other situations, a rolled rowel or washcloth can be placed under the chin to keep the mouth closed. Failing that, a soft scarf can wrap around the chin to the top of the hear, gently tied to keep the mouth closed. After a few hours, a rolled-up towel or scarf can be removed because the mouth will stay shut on its own.
The body itself is washed next. A facecloth with water and a small amount of suitable soap is used for this process.
The body washing commences with the arms and legs. The process moves to the front and back of the deceased person’s trunk. Dry each part of the body washed before moving to another area.
Fragrant oil or even fresh flower petals can be added to the rinse water. A special oil, fragrance, or lotion can be applied to the skin after washing.
After washing, the body can be dressed. If the remains will go to a funeral home for embalming, family and friends can make arrangements to come to the funeral home to dress the body after the embalming process is complete. Funeral homes are becoming more open to working with families and friends who’ve a desire to be involved in the preparation process, including washing and dressing the body.