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Dressing the Dead (Reprise)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 10, 2012

I’m taking the suggestion of one of Keepa’s best friends to republish a few early posts that have been particular favorites, and that might be new to Keepa’ninnies who haven’t been readers from the beginning.

Without question, the following is the post that is best remembered and most often privately requested when it is needed. It was first posted at Times and Seasons almost six years ago; the comments from that original posting are worth reading, and can be found here.

-oOo-

From the day she learned it was part of her Relief Society calling, my mother lived in dread that she would need to prepare the body of a ward member for burial. The phone call eventually came; her face was gray, her feet dragged as if held fast by mud, as she left the house for the mortuary.

She returned home with a light step and a serene expression. Yes, it had been difficult, she said, but also one of the most awe-filled hours of her life. And so it remained in her memory, as she occasionally told me of her experience.

Sister P. was a late-middle-aged sister who had died of cancer. Her very elderly mother, Sister W., was not up to the heavy physical work of dressing her daughter. She sat on a chair in the corner, clearly wanting to help but too frail for the lifting and rocking necessary. Near the end, Mom had one of those flashes of inspiration that shine in my memories of her. Holding Sister P.’s slippers, Mom turned to Sister W. and said, “You put on her first shoes – would you put on her last?” Sister W. did so, reverently grateful for this last act of service to her child.

-oOo-

Most of us are so sheltered from death that our only experience is the sight of elderly relatives already dressed and coffined by the undertaker. It may never occur to us to give that service ourselves – yet in the case of a parent or child, or someone else to whom we are extremely close, we miss a profound opportunity if we do not at least consider dressing the dead. Based on my admittedly limited experience, this is what you might expect:

Undertakers in the U.S. are not used to family members tending to their own dead. You need to speak up if you want to do this – when the undertaker asks about burial clothes is a good time.

You will go to the mortuary to dress your loved one, whose body will be placed on a table or gurney in a private room. The body will be covered by a sheet when you enter the room, buffering the first shock of seeing the body.

It will be a shock, no matter how you brace yourself. Don’t be embarrassed by your reaction. You can do this despite the tears, despite the trembling, even if you need to take breaks to nerve yourself again. Rest your hand on your loved one’s arm for a few moments, to get accustomed to the feeling.

The mortician will have placed flesh-colored bandages over any wounds, even over needle marks from IVs. If there has been trauma due to automobile accident or gunshot, the wounds will be covered, sometimes by a plastic shell or by cotton pads. Don’t remove these protective wraps. Makeup may also have been applied, to cover discolorations. Otherwise, there is absolutely nothing gruesome or gory. (However, in extraordinary circumstances, if the undertaker cautions you that a family member should not assist in a given case, take his advice, or at least have him carefully describe what you face.)

You will need help, either from other family members, or someone in the ward, or the undertaker. Adult bodies, even those wasted by illness, are unbelievably heavy (the colloquialism “dead weight” means something); joints do not bend; and of course you’ll have to do all the work – it isn’t like holding a coat for someone to slip her arm into the sleeve.

Rocking the body from side to side helps you get the clothing into place.

Mormons who have been through the temple are buried in their temple clothing. While unendowed family members may be present, an endowed member must be there to be certain clothing is correctly arranged. If you need their help, it is the Relief Society’s privilege to help you, or to identify a male member to help in the case of brethren.

If nonmembers question the use of temple clothing, it may be helpful to read Ephesians 6:14-15 (“Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace”) and explain simply that the clothing is symbolic of how your loved one wished to face eternity.

The Relief Society will assist with burial clothes, if needed. You can use your own clothing, or the Relief Society can furnish clothing that is cut up the back from neck to hem, which can lessen the physical labor of dressing a body and which will not be visible to mourners at a viewing.

When you have finished, consider spending a few minutes alone. This will be the last quiet moment where you can say anything that needs to be said, or simply to be there. The funeral, with all the relatives and your own duties as quasi-host/hostess, can interfere with those goodbyes.

If you are burying an endowed woman, decide with your family ahead of time who will lower the veil over your sister’s face just before the casket is closed, and make sure the undertaker knows that you want to do that yourself (otherwise, he may do it himself without asking). Generally, the oldest daughter, or other nearest female relative, claims that privilege.

-oOo-

Despite having heard my mother tell of her experience with Sister P., it had never occurred to me that I would dress my mother. I will always be grateful to my brother, who made the arrangements with the undertaker and told them (and me) that I would be dressing her. I am also grateful to my two sisters-in-law who assisted. One of them had helped to dress her own oldest child less than four months earlier, and offered suggestions from her experience without imposing any decisions on me.

I cannot say that I felt my mother’s presence there, but the experience was still “other worldly.” It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, bar none, yet I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

At the end, as I finished putting on the stockings, one sister-in-law reached for my mother’s slippers. The other, who had heard Mom tell about dressing Sister P., put her hand quietly over the other’s, and said, “Ardis wants to do that.”

I did.



17 Comments »

  1. This was very beautiful. I imagine this essay would be extremely comforting to someone facing this situation, but it is also comforting …

    you know, I really don’t have the right words to respond to this because you are reaching out to those places beyond words.

    Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Mina — August 10, 2012 @ 8:33 am

  2. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Matt — August 10, 2012 @ 9:00 am

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post. I’ve had the privilege of helping with two brothers, one a close relative, the other not. Of the many thoughts and feelings I had, the one that seemed to stick with me was an appreciation for the gift of a body of flesh and bones that we’ve been given. Just as child birth is seen as a miracle, so is the old body, even though it is spiritless. A creative wonder.

    Comment by IDIAT — August 10, 2012 @ 11:15 am

  4. Thanks for re-posting it here. I had never actually read the well-known post until now. This was both beautiful and informative. Many thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — August 10, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  5. I read this post this morning — it’s just as beautiful as it ever was — and the comments from when it was posted earlier — very thoughtful and with some very helpful information.

    It’s been an introspective day as I’ve remembered the various opportunities I’ve had to share a link with different people.

    In one case, a friend was writing a college paper on Mormon death rituals, and where else would you find this kind of information?

    In another case, a friend serving in the Relief Society found herself for the first time helping dress a deceased sister in the ward and she was trying to wrap her mind around the experience.

    I’ve had other opportunities to share this post, but I’m feeling a little too somber today to explain them here. They are touching and deeply emotional experiences, and I was glad to be prepared in some way by having read this post.

    Comment by Amy T — August 10, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

  6. Touching, instructive, and beautiful. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 10, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Ardis.

    How did this tradition begin? The earliest reference I’ve seen to it being an essential practice is 1857.

    I had to think about the process when my mother died. After a person dies, she doesn’t have any control over what clothing she’s buried in. Further, there are good member of the church who are lost at sea, missing in action, blown up, burned up, and never have an opportunity to be buried in temple robes. I’m sure many faithful members of the church have been buried in traditional clothing by their unbelieving family. How could that make any difference on their salvation?
    Within a month of the beginning of my mission my companion and I had to do a funeral for a member of the church we had never met. Since he was a Mason, there were also some Masons there who concluded the service with a very impressive ceremony, with lots of symbols and images that parallel those of the LDS Church. This man was buried in a dark suit and wearing a Masonic apron. He had probably not been through an LDS temple, but I wonder what kind of accommodation is made for LDS Masons. Can they be buried wearing both aprons?

    Comment by SteveR — August 10, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  8. I don’t know that anybody has ever taught that burial in temple clothes is tied to salvation, Steve, except in the broadest possible sense, maybe, of an indication of devotion. Some people do designate these details ahead of time, if being buried in temple clothes or a wedding dress or Masonic paraphernalia is important to them. And as you say, it’s beyond the control of the one most interested, in any case. I don’t know about mixing parts of “uniforms” — I mean, you *could* choose to do anything, and no Church official is going to interfere, if anybody beyond the next-of-kin were even aware of it. But I don’t know whether the official Church has any advice one way or the other.

    Thank you, friends, for your comments. It’s a tender topic, and it has been an honor to hear from so many people over the past few years who found this when they needed it, and to have been of help to them.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 10, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  9. Truely lovely.

    As far as I can tell, burial in temple clothes began immediately after the Nauvoo Temple’s utility. It is clearly documented in Winter Quarters.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 10, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  10. …and the issue of salvation being tied to burial in temple clothes came up when Jean Baptiste was caught having robbed dozens and perhaps hundreds of bodies of their clothing. BY clearly declared that such burial was not essential for salvation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 10, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  11. Sister P. was a late-middle-aged sister who had died of cancer. Her very elderly mother, Sister W., was not up to the heavy physical work of dressing her daughter. She sat on a chair in the corner, clearly wanting to help but too frail for the lifting and rocking necessary. Near the end, Mom had one of those flashes of inspiration that shine in my memories of her. Holding Sister P.’s slippers, Mom turned to Sister W. and said, “You put on her first shoes – would you put on her last?” Sister W. did so, reverently grateful for this last act of service to her child.

    Tears.

    Thank you. On a very physically painful day, I needed this.

    Julia
    poetrysansonions.blogspot.com

    Comment by Julia — August 10, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  12. I do wonder, if someone is being cremated, are they cremated in their temple robes?

    Julia
    poetrysansonions.blogspot.com

    Comment by Julia — August 10, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

  13. @ Julia–12

    Yes

    Comment by Mark B. — August 10, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

  14. The clothes being cut up in the back seems strange to me. I can just imagine feeling my resurrected behind blowing in the wind . . . I’m sorry to treat this matter lightly.

    I think you did an admirable job at putting things in a loving and informational way. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — August 10, 2012 @ 11:42 pm

  15. This is such a tender subject. Such wonderful , practical advice given here so delicately.

    thank you.

    a little too close to home, but still thank you.

    Comment by britt — August 12, 2012 @ 5:15 am

  16. About cut-up-the-back clothing:

    When you dress yourself, you almost certainly put on your garment top and dress over your head, raising your arms high to put them through the sleeves. You can’t do that when dressing someone else; arms and shoulders are just not that flexible then. So you put them on feet first, as if the person were stepping into her clothes. When you get the clothing pulled up as far as the person’s hands (her arms will be lying straight at her sides), you work her hands into the sleeves, then continue pulling the clothes up her arms until they’re in the right position over the shoulders.

    That works just fine for soft, wide-necked articles like garment tops or loosely-fitted dresses that hang from the shoulders. But if the dress is more tailored, with a fitted bodice or a waist band, or if you’re putting on a skirt and a top with a narrow neck and without buttons, there’s no way to get it on feet-first — it won’t fit over the hips. You couldn’t put it on yourself that way in life, and you won’t be able to put it on anyone else. But if it’s open at the back, you can easily slip it on, as if it were a hospital gown, with the back opening completely invisible in the casket.

    Even so, there isn’t any bottom-in-the-breeze indignity, even in imagination. You’ve put on garments or other underclothing, maybe including a slip, and in the case of temple clothes, the robe is also there in back.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 12, 2012 @ 5:23 am

  17. I have never had the experience of dressing the dead. I’m surprised that my sister and never thought of is in the case of mother and our aunt. But, we have fixed the hair of both mom and Aunt Dorothy and corrected the use of bright red lipstick on one of them. Doing their hair was also a reverent experience.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — August 12, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

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