Before Mr. B died, he made sure his body would be left lying for twenty-four peaceful hours–at home–before going to the crematorium. How sure? Sure as in he sat down with his lawyer and wrote it into his will sure, making his wish legally binding in Idaho.
His request may sound strange to a lot of people–it certainly does to the average person around here–but the practice is customary among Buddhists who believe that the bond between personality and body takes time to unwind after death. (I’m not Buddhist but I think the following link is a fairly good explanation of Buddhist beliefs about death and dying for those curious to learn more.) Of course, the Buddhist belief is different from the prevalent one held in our culture which says our personality/essence/soul/consciousness/whatever one calls it…our us-ness…separates from the body completely at the moment of death. Even Christians and scientists are aligned on this point–they don’t seem to diverge until the question of what-happens-afterward crops up.
Mr. B’s family was totally on board with his choice and perfectly willing to keep him around. And me? I was all for it, too. I had a personal stake in finding out what effect this choice would have on the loved ones Mr. B was leaving behind. Two years later and I’m still grappling with the distress I felt at abandoning my mother’s body in the hospice house where she died. I looked at this opportunity with Mr. B as my chance…a gift!…to see what it’s like for a willing, loving, respectful family to keep the body of their dead beloved with them for a little longer–to discover if it helps ease their grieving afterwards.
The hubster and I lingered for an hour or two after Mr. B died, drifting along on the tender current of hugs, tears, laughter, phone calls, rehashing, and story-telling that always follow a good death. But finally I needed to head home. I hadn’t gotten much sleep during the night and required a shower and a nap. Just before leaving, I returned to the bed, leaned over, and laid my cheek against Mr. B’s, whispering I sure do love you, sir. Have a safe journey. Knowing you was an honor and a gift. Then, unexpectedly, I started to cry.
Mr. B’s face was still soft and life-like and, for whatever reason, in that moment it felt like like he was still there. Not necessarily inhabiting his body per se, but just present somehow. Around. It seemed like he was smiling and relieved. Like everything was okay. No…better than okay…good. It felt like he’d suddenly gotten a lot bigger, too, in some insubstantial but still oddly tactile kind of way. Hard to describe. (This experience of a sense of presence is actually common among the bereaved, with some studies putting the rate of occurrence at well above 50%.)
That momentary sense of his presence pierced the numbness of fatigue creeping over me and sent me plunging back down into my heart again. The tears felt painful, bewildering, and sweet, all at the same time. It reminded me of the day I discovered the stuffed animals my daughter abandoned the day she left home, still sprawling against the pillows in her bedroom. It was unexpected, walking in and finding them like that–an innocent reminder of her childhood life with us–and I curled up on her bed, gathered them in my arms, and lay there in the ache of remembering for the longest time.
We shared a bond, these toys and I. They’d been left behind, like I’d been left behind. She loved them, like she loved me. And lying there clinging to their soft bodies and fake fur, I was awash in all the nourishing, enduring love she’d left behind for us. I could feel her again, all across the bed, and I realized we’re all born magical like that–with a mysterious ability to place a tangible, lasting kernel of ourselves inside the people we love so that no matter where we go, no matter how big the hole our departure creates, at least we never leave those behind us completely alone.
(This post is turning out to be longer than I originally anticipated so I’m going to spare you all and spread it out over a couple posts. Next time: Their Body: It’s Not Them Anymore But It Still Deserves Our Thanks)
copyright Dia Osborn 2011
Dia, I feel like a broken record. I am simply amazed at how brilliantly you connect one life experience to another (Mr. B leaving – your daughter leaving) These are such poignant connections that they leave me breathless.
My mother was much like Mr. B. Not so much in the immediate disposal of her body, but in the spiritual send off that she DEMANDED. She had notes in her will and scattered throughout the house and she had verbalized her wishes ad naseum. She wanted to be cremated and scattered. And she wanted absolutely NO funeral, NO black garments, NO sad verbage. She instructed my estranged sister and me to open her house up to all of her friends, to spend money on a catered party and to devour all the booze we could find in the house. And these instructions turned out to be the only thing my sister and I have ever agree upon in our entire lives. It was a grand send off.
Quite different, I’m sure, than Mr. B’s. But, last year, to the week, I experienced another passing which demonstrated the very issues that you and Mr. B. raise in this post. That extended “sense of presence” that you describe was given the freedom to be because the wife/woman in charge left “the body” in the room, in the house and untouched by strangers for several hours more than the rest of the family might have anticipated. I admit that I was a bit uncomfortable with this, at first, but as the hours passed, I began to understand what was really happening. And it was magical.
Thanks, Dia, for another magical commentary about death and dying.
So you experienced it too?! It IS amazing, isn’t it? I’m not sure who just died for you, but I’m sorry for the loss.
Your mother sounds like she was such a unique character. Hard to be the daughter-of perhaps, but amazing as a strong, uncompromising woman living in a patriarchal culture and age. How’s that book coming along?
The fiance of a very good friend died on July 8th, last year. We arrived at his home on July 7th. Just in time to…well, it felt like press him homeward. It felt much like birthing in reverse, assuring him that we were all there, that everything was okay, that Yes, we’d miss him, but he could go now…. How about yours???? 😉
I felt honored to be part of that whole process.
The book…tabled once again. Life has gotten in the way…other projects, distractions. Some day, I will come back to that, but not right now.