In 1995, when my first husband Paul was dying in the hospital, we knew we wanted to have the privilege of taking care of his body, and having a home vigil. We didn’t know if we could do it, and we didn’t know how to do it. While I was at the hospital 24 hrs. a day with Paul after his cardiac arrest, a dear friend starting calling, and found that the Cremation Society could help us. They would be the agency in charge of his body after death (which is the easiest legal procedure) and would help us transport his body from the hospital. It has to be released to an official body, unless you have the necessary paperwork. Paul died one day later, and so we were ready with our contract with the Cremation Society. Their personnel transported Paul’s body to their site, where a close circle of friends bathed and prepared his body with their help. We bought an inexpensive wooden casket, and then he was transported to our home, where we had a three day vigil. This vigil was not publicly announced, but done by word of mouth to close family and friends. We kept his body cool with dry ice, and friends sat with the body night and day for the three days. Then the Cremation Society came back, and took the body to the crematorium. We had a memorial service for Paul the next day.
In this case we did not have much time to prepare, but we knew what we wanted to do, felt there was a way to do it, and searched for some mortuary who would help us. Many people who attended the three day vigil were changed by that event, finding it wholesome, simple and beautiful way to say goodbye to a loved one. Many people as a result went home to put in writing their request that this happen for them, or to discuss it with other members of their family. For me as his wife, it was so meaningful that I could be with him throughout this process. That he was not taken away. I could also rest when I needed to, and be with him whenever it was right. It was an important part of the grief and healing process for me, and I am so grateful we were able to do it in that way. It was also very healing for my daughter Kirsten, 16, as well as close family and friends.
Longer version with more details that might be helpful Paul’s Bergh’s story 1995
It was 1995. A hot summer. Paul had some trouble breathing at night, but the heat explained it.
I was at work at the clinic, and got a call. Paul was in the hospital. I went immediately. He was having great difficulty breahingl the doctors said his lungs had filled with fluid, and they were working to empty them. He could not even look at me, he was working so hard. I took his hand. He squeezed it so hard. He knew I was with him. O found out he had been there for two hours, trying to give them numbers. Somehow his wallet and briefcase ahd not made it to the hospital with him, and they didn’t know how to find me. I’m wondering now if the hospital didn’t call Kirsten, and she gave them my work number. I left briefly to call Kirsten, and figure out how we could get her to the hospital. She said Diana would bring her right away. I heard a loud alarm go off, an emergency within the hospital. It was Paul. He had had a cardiac arrest.
He had waited to say goodbye. How hard to stay alive. But now he still looked alive. And yet in those few short moments of the cardiac arrest, the oxygen stopped to his brain, and we lost the Paul we knew. He went into terrible spasms, and they gave him a shot to stop them. So now he was in a coma and on life support, and it would be three days, at 4:30 Aug. 2, that we would have to make the next decision – do we keep him on life support, or let him go.
I knew that night. I knew we needed to let him go. I sat with him in the night in that ICU room at University Hospital, and knew he had let go, now we had to let go. I don’t remember when Kirsten came, or Diana, and Patrick and Molly. Or Carol and Larry. I only know they came, and that they thought that somehow he was going to come back to us. I had squeezed goodby, I was moving on to how to care for him now.
Those days are a blur. Here are a few things I remember. At the same time that we were in total shock, and dealing with Paul’s death, we had to plan ahead. If he died and we had not made plans, he would be released to a funeral home. But I had specific wishes. I wanted to be able to bring Paul home when he died. We didn’t know if it was days or months. But we couldn’t leave the hospital without a plan. So Patrick took it on to find a place who would work with us. And he found one. The cremation society said that we could have his body in our home for 72 hours without embalming. They would transport the body. So arrangements were made that when Paul died, we would contact them, and they would do all the necessary paperwork, and the body would be released from the hospital into their care. It was comforting to know that we could meet our wishes at that time of his death. Perhaps it allowed us to be more present to him.
While Patrick was searching out, and making these arrangements, Diana and Molly were with Kirsten and I in the ICU waiting room. This is perhaps the most vivid memory I have. We had just heard from the doctor that there is no chance of Paul’s recovery. That as a result of the cardiac arrest, his brain cannot function.
Kirsten has been trying to make a deal with the universe, willing to do anything to bring her papa back. Now the stark reality strikes us all full force.
The four of us have the privacy of an 8 X 8 ICU waiting room. We close the door. And we keen. What other word is there for the deep screaming sound of loss. Sounds came so ancient they felt like they didn’t belong to us. Like we were women from ancient Greece dressed in black. We screamed, and cried, and sobbed, and held each other.
And then we knew that we had to go to Paul, and let him know that we could let him go and help him die.
We went into his room and later three of us left, but Kirsten stayed, and sang to him, every song that he had song her every night.
Somewhere in there, we returned to his room, and there was a smile on his face.
One of us was with him throughout the night. The next afternoon, his blood pressure started to drop, and a half an hour before we would have had to make a decision to keep him on life support – he died.
There were 12 of us around the bed. From the time his blood pressure started to drop, we had begun to sing to him. We sang him out, with hands held, and hearts open, we sang him over.
Then it was quiet. The nurses removed all the tubes. And fixed him up. And about that time, his father and mother and sister arrived. They had traveled from Northern Minnesota. So they now could say goodbye.
Then the body was released to the Cremation Society, and I asked if I could ride with him to the Crematorium. It was fine. I wanted to be with him.
I don’t remember doing the paperwork, although we must have. We must have picked out a casket. We must have told them that we didn’t want to embalm Paul, and that we wanted to wash his body, and take him home. Two friends were with me; Diana and Dennis. Patrick must have taken Molly and Kirsten home. I only remember being in a large basement room with no windows. We asked a young man in a white shirt to help us wash Paul’s body. He got us water and cloths, and left us alone as we said goodbye one last time. It meant so much to me to be able to touch him no, with no tubes. To try to take in that he was gone from this body that I had loved so much. We took our time. Then somehow, we dressed him. I don’t know how we got the clothes. Then the young man helped us place him in the coffin, and they transported his body to my home. Again they let me ride with him.
Paul had built a small meditation house in our backyard. It was 8 X 10 We decided that that was where Paul should lay in state and say his last goodbyes, nestled under the cedars. There was only one catch. He had made a very narrow door, and we couldn’t get the casket in. We had to turn it on its side, and then it just squeaked in. Paul had made us laugh.
Now we had to figure out how to keep the body cool. The Cremation society could not help us with that. So Dennis went looking for dry ice at a fish store on the outskirts of town. When he bought the dry ice, they said he must have some big fish. The dry ice was put all around the perimeter of the coffin, and we changed it when it melted, being sure to use gloves. I don’t know how we knew what to do. None of us had never known anyone who had cared for a body at home, and we didn’t have anyone to call for advice. We just knew that it was what we wanted to do.
So the “Little House” as we called it, became a sacred place, a sanctuary, where one by one, or in small groups, people could say goodbye to Paul. It was not a public gathering; it was by word of mouth. If it had been publicized, he would have had to be embalmed. We could call close friends, and the obituary would tell of public memorial service that would be held the day after he was cremated. A friend who had lost her mother as a teenager was very alert to all our needs, and arranged for there to be someone sitting with Paul’s body all through the nights and days. Some people wanted to come in the quiet of the night, and would sit quietly, or read something they loved, or knew Paul loved. During the day there were many children and families there. I remember a young harpist, playing in the yard during the day. There was food and conversation in the house. Friends showed up to help with the food and the kitchen.
Kirsten and I could be home, and do what was right for us. I remember waking at 6 AM and walking outside. A friend was coming up the walk; it was her chosen time to be with Paul. She had lost her father when she was 16, but she had been abroad and never able to say goodbye, not even told till after he was buried, thinking it best not to disturb her studies. So she could heal that now, being here. At first Kirsten did not want to see her father, but then she picked a bouquet of flowers in the summer garden, and brought them in to him. And on the last day she asked if she could sit with him with her friends during the last night. She could take her time, take it in step by step that her dad was gone. Be supported by her friends in an environment that was at least known and safe, with no pressure about what she should do. And I could be there at quiet times, as well as being present for all the other people and family coming to say goodbye, and to bring me their condolences.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the three days was the repeated experience people told me about. People were coming out of respect for Paul and I, honoring his life with their presence. They didn’t really relish going into the space with a dead body. But over and over, individually, people would come to me and say that they had experienced a peacefulness inside the room that was palpable. It changed them. They let go of their fear of death, and felt moved. And many of them decided that this is what they wanted when they died. They thanked me for the experience and feeling they took with them…………….
At the end of the three days, the 72 hours, the Cremation Society returned with the hearse to take him to the Crematorium. I wanted to be with Paul on the final leg of his journey. In many countries in the world, this would not be strange. And I am grateful that I was surrounded with friends who supported my decision. And a number of them wanted to go with me for this final goodbye to his body. We took drums with us. About 12 of us went. They had never had anyone go before, and said it was just an industrial room with an oven. We said that was ok. So we were there quietly drumming and singing when his body was placed inside.
And we stayed. Then at a certain point, I felt that something had changed, and began to sing Peace I ask of thee O River. We had all felt it. One cannot say what happens at these moments, but to respect and honor them as sacred. We all felt a peace inside of us…. And it was time to go home.
Kirsten had chose not to go; so I had asked her to make picture for the memorial service program while we were gone. When I got home I saw her drawing – a man with a dove flying above his head….. the experience we had all just had at the crematorium
I have told the details of this story because I think it normalizes them. In the abstract, they seem strange. One hundred years ago, all families took care of their own, had a parlor for the body to be honored, washed and dressed the body themselves as a normal part of life. So, it is really the re-claiming of practices that were normal. We do not have to be separated from birth and death. For me, it allowed a part of grieving in those days that was cut off with both of my parents.
I am very grateful that somehow I knew enough about these practices to explore the possibility. And I am so grateful to the Cremation Society for their respect of my wishes, their flexibility in caring for Paul’s body, and their quiet clarity about what the legal limitations were. And it not only changed my life and my grief, but that of my daughter and her friends, my family and friends, and the wider community that was able to experience another pathway.