Preparation for death: stories

Read about how these people from different cultures prepare the bodies of their dead.

Hussein Ali Al-Hashimy

 © Australian Museum

Hussein Ali Al-Hashimy

Out of respect, we must prepare the deceased as soon as possible after death. The body is cleaned, then it is washed three times. First in water, then in water scented with kafoor (camphor), then water infused with Sedr - wood from a precious tree which grows in South Iraq and South Iran only.

The mouth and anus are plugged up with cotton. Kafoor is put on their forehead, chest, mouth, genitals, hands and feet. They are then wrapped in the shroud. It has three main pieces for a man, and two extra pieces for a woman to cover her head and breasts.

The person is buried dressed in this shroud only, with their face turned towards Mecca, and their cheek resting on the dirt. We came from earth and will return to the earth.

Hussein Ali Al-Hashimy, Iraqi poet and writer, Sydney.

Alex Zilich

The Chevra Kadisha (holy society) is a funeral director service for Jews. The body is brought to the facility immediately after death. A Jewish person must remain with the body until burial. The people carrying out the Tahara (ritual washing and preparing of the deceased) must be the same sex as the deceased.

The body is washed with warm water and detergent and the nails cleaned. The deceased is either immersed in a mikveh (ritual bath) or the body is elevated and a quantity of water is poured on the head in a continuous motion to flow over the whole body.

The shroud is made out of pure white cotton - seven pieces for a man, and ten for a woman. There must be no knots, because knots hold the soul back at the time of the resurrection. Soil from Israel is placed on the eyes, heart and hands. Finally a narrow piece of fabric, a sash, is tied around the waist with a knot forming three letters (a shin) representing God's name.

Alex Zilich, Manager, Sydney Chevra Kadisha

Sean McPeake

My family is from the parish of Lavey in Northern Ireland. My father died at home about six years ago, surrounded by close family. Before he died, rosary beads and a 'blessed candle' were placed in his hands. Another candle was by his bedside. After he died, everyone in the house gathered in the room and said a rosary and paid their respects.

The responsibility for organising the funeral falls on the oldest son. The local undertaker arrived within an hour and took the body away. Dad was dressed in his best suit, a charcoal single-breasted suit with a fine pinstripe. The coffin was returned within a couple of hours and was installed in the front room by an open window, ready for the wake. The body was never left alone - this would be disrespectful. The wake generally lasts for two nights, and the body is buried on the third day after death.

Sean McPeake. Architect, Sydney.

Valerie Bichard

Indigenous Fijians mix traditional and Christian customs in their ceremonies for the dead. It's a solemn occasion. When my m'Bubu (Grandmother) passed away last year, her body was washed and prepared by her surviving children. My mother and aunties dressed her in normal clothes. Masi (bark cloth) was placed inside and on top of the coffin. Then they brought the body home. During the night relatives sung hymns. Many women cried out loudly, while some touched and spoke to my m'Bubu. As a sign of respect, people performed the traditional yaqona (kava) ceremony and exchanged items of cultural value like mats, masi and tabua (whale's tooth). Meanwhile, other relatives helped to prepare food for the lovo (earth oven) and flowers for the next day. In the morning my m'Bubu was taken to the church for a service before she was buried in a local cemetery.

Valerie Bichard. Documentary Filmmaker, Sydney.

Elli Manikaki Ziros

On the Greek island I come from, Ayios Efstratios, pain and sorrow is a very private family matter. When someone in the family dies you must stay with them for 24 hours. Everybody sits around and tells stories or reads from the Bible. The body must face the east, towards the sun. To prepare the body you first wash it with wine. Take three metres of white material, cut a hole in the middle and slide it over the body. Then you dress them in normal clothes, tie the jaw shut, cross their hands and tie them together, and fasten the feet with a white handkerchief. Finally, an icon and flowers are placed on top of the body in the coffin. When people come to pay their respects they give money to light a candle. They say 'God forgive, bless your soul' then they ask the deceased to pass on messages to their dead loved ones. Before they are buried the deceased's hands, feet and jaw are untied so they are free to go to their new life.

Elli Manikaki Ziros, Sydney

David Hodgson

I conduct post-mortems and help to prepare bodies for identification by their families. The morgue used to be a clinical, unfriendly environment. The whole area was refurbished in 2002, and we got a custom-made viewing sheet, which we use now instead of the stark white hospital sheets. Now it is much more peaceful, comfortable and familiar.

We also had one of these viewing sheets at the John Hunter Hospital. When someone dies in hospital, we close their eyes, clean their face and make their hair neat. If possible we leave one arm out of the sheet so the family can hold onto it. They should look like they are peacefully sleeping.

It's really important for people to feel comfortable in a hospital or morgue. They're dealing with the hardest thing possible, and so it's good to do anything you can to help them through.

David Hodgson. forensic assistant, Department of Forensic Medicine, Newcastle, NSW
 

Dorin Hart

Read about Dorin Hart's experience of a home funeral.

 


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