Opinion: The sacred task of caring for the dead should be a normal part of life

Courtesy of TheGuardian.com | By Caitin Doughty | Photograph by Darren Blac | Originally Published 04.13.2015 | Posted 01.19.2018

A home funeral provides precious, personal time in the earliest stages of grief to come to terms with our loss by tending to the body ourselves.

In Cantonese village culture, there is a group of corpse handlers called the ng jong lo. When a death occurs, the ng jong lo come to the family home to wash the corpse and place it in a coffin. The corpse handlers are “living ghosts,”, dirty, unclean – a group who other citizens fear. Doors and windows close when they walk through the village. No one, not even priests, will hand them anything or speak to them directly. Children are kept away from the corpse handlers, who are believed to chew garlic to hide the stench of death and take perverse pleasure in their line of work. According to tradition, many are opium addicts who live together in the back of a coffin shop, the only men willing to take such degrading work.

In my years of working with the dead in the US, no one (to my knowledge) has hidden their children as I walk past. But the fear of the people who handle corpses is not limited to rural villages in faraway lands. The citizens of the modern west are the world champions of death denial; people who work with dead bodies are automatically transgressive. Tim Matson, a writer who travelled around interviewing people in the death profession, admitted he could not imagine a paycheck large enough to entice him into working with the dead. “Even in our politically correct society, where we’re supposed to be tolerant of everyone, this is a prejudice I share with a lot of people.” Undertakers, Matson says, are a group, “we allow ourselves to despise”.

The fear of the people who handle corpses is not limited to rural villages in faraway lands

Though we despise the undertaker, we know why we need them. When your husband dies, your mother dies, your child dies, there are obvious reasons why you must call the funeral parlour instead of taking charge of the body yourself. For one, dead bodies can be dangerous if not handled properly, causing disease and infection. Caring for a body requires specific skills that come from special training. And of course, caring for the dead yourself is not legal, either in the UK or the US.

With certain exceptions, such as embalming (the process of chemically preserving the body), there is little a funeral director does that the layperson could not easily learn. Because the dead pose little risk to the living, caring for the dead yourself, in your own home, is not illegal. This type of care (known as a home funeral) is legal, and I would encourage it as a better way to grieve and to be closer to understanding death.

When Cassandra Yonder, a funeral midwife, arrived at Sue’s home, Sue’s husband, Jeremy, was still warm. His body lay cradled in Sue’s lap. He was pale, but looked anything but macabre. Cassandra didn’t tell Sue that Jeremy was dangerous to touch, that he had to be taken away immediately. She simply created a space for Sue to spend time with Jeremy’s body. Funeral midwives are outside of the funeral industry, harkening back to a time when “layers-out of the dead” were women who came to the family home to prepare the body.

Sue was confused, overwhelmed. As she held Jeremy, she asked him what was going to become of her. There was a farm to worry about, their animals, their garden. Finally, she looked into his face and asked: “Do you know how much I love you?” Yonder, the midwife, noted that she was watching Sue communicate with Jeremy rather than about him.

The home funeral – caring for the dead ourselves – changes our relationship to grieving. If you have been married to someone for 50 years, why would you let someone take them away the moment they die? It gives a sense of control at a time when we feel most out of control. It provides tasks to perform – washing, dressing for a final time – small rituals in a world that is increasingly secular. Perhaps most important: it provides time, whether three hours or three days, to get used to the fact that this person is gone. They grow cold, their skin droops, their hands stiffen. They are no longer here, and the community must come together and move forward.

Corpse handlers are not unclean. They are not perverts. They are humans engaged in sacred tasks, profoundly human tasks, carrying on the traditions of thousands of years. By rethinking our broken relationship to dead bodies, and taking more responsibility for the dead, the caretakers of the dead can, and will, be all of us.


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