Over the past century our society has become distant from both death and the tending to our dead. According to Gary Laderman’s book Rest in Peace: a Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Industry in Twentieth-Century America, “The divide was produced by three social factors: changes in demographic patterns, the rise of hospitals as places of dying, and the growth of modern funeral homes” (p 1). Our mental, emotional, spiritual, financial and societal health has been negatively affected directly and indirectly by this disconnect. Because our relationship to death is at the core of what it is to be human, this detachment affects both individual and societal health.
But there is good news! A revolution to reconnect with the final rite of passage has begun. More and more organizations, community events (e.g. Death Cafes, TedTalks) articles, blogs, books, are addressing this issue. The National Home Funeral Alliance reports membership has grown over 200% in the last two years. The time has come for nurses (and others involved in end-of-life care) to take leading roles in assisting communities to reclaim the human and inalienable right to care for their own deceased loved ones.
Nurses are in the unique and profound position to strengthen the power and improve the health of this neglected link. According to Olausson and Ferrell in their 2013 study of nurses’ perspectives on the importance of after-death care, “across all settings, nurses are generally the only professionals whose care extends beyond the time of death” (p. 1). We have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to facilitate care beyond the time of death that is beneficial and empowering to those grieving. Bedside ritual is an example of such care. In Cacciatore’s and Flint’s poignant study of rituals and their “evolutionary benefits” (p 158), ritual can be described as “out of the ordinary activities that act as a bridge, crossing thresholds from one status to another” (p. 159). These acts “can help families make sense of chaos, cope with loss, and facilitate grieving” (Berry and Griffie, 2010, as cited in Olausson and Ferrel’s study, p.1).
As nurses who have journeyed with hundreds of dying people and their families, the cofounders of One Washcloth know how precious and transformative hands-on after-death care can be for those beginning the grieving process. Once given a washcloth, loved ones require little (if any) instruction. The simple act of wiping the brow or hands of a friend or family member who has died is intuitive, can be extremely therapeutic and is a ritual in its own right.
Through the simple gift of a washcloth, we hope for movement toward healing in our society as a whole, as we come to accept death as an important, honored part of life.
One Washcloth would like to hear from you! We hope to build community among those who value the importance of reconnecting our families, friends, clients, and culture with care of our loved ones in death. Our hope is that through sharing our stories, a qualitative research study might be undertaken to demonstrate the healing benefits of involvement in after-death care of loved ones.
(Editor’s note: Nurses have a powerful opportunity to transform end-of-life and peri-mortem care. Take it! The One Washcloth Project is a great way to start. Please share any other ideas you have, regardless of where you are in the healthcare spectrum. -Monica Williams-Murphy, MD)