The human race spent approximately 10,000 years being present with their dead and, as recently as 100 years ago, it was not unusual for granny to be laid out in the parlour, nor would it be unwelcome for neighbours to bring their children over to visit and have a cup of tea whilst paying their respects. Death, although unquestionably sad, was not a disease; it was a natural and accepted continuation of life.
In the 1920s, a billion-pound funeral industry emerged – and took over.
Now death has been outsourced, medicalised, and removed from the business of living, so is no longer celebrated as life’s natural end, but as something separate. Even an expected death is treated as an emergency.
Once death occurs, someone calls the GP or out-of-hours service to verify it, and then contacts the undertaker, who removes the person. The bodies of the people we love are taken away while they wait to be buried or cremated.
We seem to be increasingly concerned with having a ‘good death’ and alternative funerals are becoming understandably more popular, but little is mentioned about the liminal time between the person’s death and their funeral.
However, the days just after a death are a critical period. This is the transition period, as that person moves from being a visible to an invisible part of our lives. The important role they played may not have changed, but what has changed is that we must now accept we will not see them again.
If the last time you saw someone they were alive, and you were not present when they died, it is not always easy to reconcile yourself to the knowledge that they are no longer living – unless you tangibly experience the fact.
If the death occurred in the home, there is no hurry for the person to be removed - a practice we observed for thousands of years. If the room is cool, they may remain at home for 3-5 days – if necessary, with the use of fans and dry ice.
This may be a very important time for friends and family to come and sit, together or alone, and spend time with the person. This time allows people space to experience their feelings, and begin the journey of grief.
They may wish to sit quietly and remember the time they spent with the person, or to write a letter and tuck it into the person’s coffin or pocket. Everyone finds their own way to say goodbye.
Of course, there is no pressure to spend time with the person who has died – it is not something you have to do. Most people have never seen the body of a dead person, and it can be something that fills them with fear. Although for a short period after someone dies they may still resemble the person you always knew, (depending on the circumstances of the death), the more time that passes, the more their body will naturally alter.
Some religions have a ritual that is performed on the person’s body but, even if there is no set ritual, there is nothing to prevent you from having your own: this could include washing the person’s body and dressing them, brushing their hair, painting their nails, or oiling their hands and feet.
In the case of some religions, the burial takes place within 24 hours of death, so there is only a small window in which family or friends can spend time with the person who has died.
If the person dies in hospital, you may not be able to have a private room in which to say your goodbyes – perhaps it will only be a curtained-off cubicle where your words might be overheard. If the person goes with the undertaker, there is nothing to stop you going to visit (on appointment, of course) and spending time with the person who has died.
If the person dies in a nursing or residential home, the staff will usually allow you some time to spend with the person in their own room, and you then have the opportunity to bring the person home.
In both the above cases, they can come home unless the coroner is involved or the person died from an infectious disease. During the pandemic, it is very unlikely people will be taken home prior to their funeral if they tested positive, or died without being tested for Covid-19.
Spending time with someone you cared about after their death offers a unique opportunity to begin the very difficult and painful process of acceptance, which is a pivotal part of the grieving process.
You no longer need to care for the dying – you have done all you can. This is the time for you to care for the living, to care for yourself.
All the things you couldn’t or didn’t say, or did say and want to say again. Now is the time. A unique time.
Use it well.
Needless to say the services that funeral directors offer vary, and most are supportive of viewing and spending time with the person. https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk is a not-for-profit independent information resource which is worth checking out.
Below is the link for your legal rights and responsibilities concerning the person who has died.