It’s true… a friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body.
The email subject line reads “Please join me this Saturday for a Casket Brunch.” My friend Olivia, a death midwife, invites a small group of close friends to her house to teach us how to help her bathe, dress and care for bodies that have passed from this world to the next. She wants to have backup help, just in case, especially for one upcoming client that was to die on the second floor and be transported down and out. The invitation read, join me for waffles, berries, cream, and cremation. Who could pass up that invitation?
It was a few weeks later around 3 pm on a Monday afternoon when I got the call. The 58-year-old woman, Christina, had died just an hour earlier. Olivia wanted to know, was I available…and ready. She was also going to call Julie. And Jay was coming to film the whole thing for the documentary.
Adrenalin rushes through my veins as I gather my things, run out of the house and head to Olivia’s to meet for the 45-minute ride deep in the valley. This will be my second time around a dead body and I’m freaking out a little, wondering how was I going to interact with the family, would I feel her soul hanging around, would I be nervous or calm? Olivia is just sliding the already made cremation casket into the back of her Toyota when I get there. We jump into her white SUV and take off, stopping at Smart & Final to stock up on dry ice.
Julie meets us there and the three of us walk in together— Olivia’s angels— complete with a camera man. Christina’s sister had graciously allowed her to die in her house, albeit on the second floor — because she didn’t want an ugly hospital bed in the middle of the living room. And she was too freaked out at the thought of a dead body lying in her house for any period of time, so we were to bathe and dress her, then carry Christina down the steps, and around the railing, to the first floor then out to Olivia’s Highlander.
Easy, right? Here’s a newsflash, dead bodies don’t bend. And when they talk about dead weight, not kidding. It seems when the soul leaves it takes all the body’s lightness with it. Jay’s getting the whole thing on film while we’re trying to maneuver the body board around the sharp turn, without dropping her or slipping ourselves. It was rather comical. We finally get her to the bottom, gently place her in the casket waiting in foyer then roll her out to our faux hearse.
On the way to the small church we joked about getting stop by the police and explaining what was in the box. Just then flashing lights went on behind us and our hearts sunk. The car shot around us. We arrive uneventfully and lay her out in the small back room for her final days on earth. She would be laid out for 3 days, being read to by friends and volunteers, following her Buddhist practice.
After meeting Christina dead, I was blessed to meet her alive in a video. It was taped a week or so before her death. She talked about being ready, and grateful. There’s something about being privy to a person selecting what clothes they want to be cremated in that cannot be relayed in words, you can only feel it yourself. Bathing, dressing, and preparing a corpse is both mundane and profound. It’s truly an honor. We should bring back the custom.