The clock says 3:45 AM but my body says it’s almost 5 AM and time to get up. Well, I did fall asleep in my chair very early last evening. When I realized I was nodding off, I glanced at the clock and thought I saw 9:15, a decent time to go to bed. After sleepily getting into my p.m., I again looked at the clock and it said 7:25. Since I was ready for bed I climbed in and went to sleep. I live my life on the premise that if I am sleepy, I need to sleep. The telephone could ring at any time and I will have to go to work. That has been my life for nearly 20 years.
My life does not have a schedule because death does not have a schedule. I have been asked, “Why, if someone dies in the middle of the night, do we get called? The person is dead. Can’t they just wait till morning?” The answer is simple. We go when the family needs and wants us, whatever time of day or night that might be.
We used to have a hospital in our village. Mary McClellan Hospital was built in 1919 and served our community and surrounding area for over 90 years. Like many small regional hospitals it closed its doors in 2002. The effects of its closing were felt by everyone and every business in our community. You can only imagine what the loss of 400 jobs meant to a small agricultural based economy.
Putting the economics aside, what I miss most about not having the hospital here is the dynamics of interaction with families and the actual care of the dead body. The hospital was five minutes from both the funeral home and our home (we do not live at the funeral home as many funeral home owners do. My husband owned our house long before we bought the funeral home). When the call came we were there in less than thirty minutes. The family waited for us. They were present, and often helped us, as we took their loved one away. Many of the families we knew. For the ones that we did not know, it was the first opportunity to establish the bonds of trust that are so important in our profession. Families give us something precious, the body of a person that they love. As I will say over and over, no matter what our beliefs are about the spirit or soul no longer being present in the body, we, as human beings are attached to bodies and those bodies, dead or alive, are important. We, the undertakers, are given the honor and privilege of caring for dead bodies, at least that is how I see it.
Without Mary McClellan and her adjoining nursing home on top of the hill, much has changed. The nearest hospital is 25 miles away; the nearest nursing home 15 miles. Some folks are blessed to die in their own homes with the help of Hospice and when they do, we get the opportunity to be there for the family to personally hand their love one off to; to make that first, so important, bond of trust. But most of the calls are made by hospital or nursing home staff AFTER a family has left the bedside of their loved one. They are often tired, having spent hours keeping the death vigil, and just don’t have the energy to wait another hour or more for our arrival. If it is a nursing home, we still go, day or night, as they do not have holding facilities and prefer dead bodies to be moved promptly. Most hospitals move the bodies to a morgue where it is refrigerated until we arrive-at our convenience. Yes, this is much easier but it is just not the same. There is something very special about the direct transfer of a loved one from the loving arms of family to our caring hands. I miss it.
I think this is just another step in the way that death care has changed. A century or so ago, most people died at home, cared for by their loved ones. Those same loved ones cared for the corpse, washing, dressing and laying the body in a coffin often built by another family member. The wake was held in the parlor with everyone, old and young alike, being comfortable with a dead human body present. After a service the coffin was carried to the grave and buried. The circle of life was complete and everyone understood and were part of it.
In our modern world, birth, the care of the sick, and death have been given over to “professionals”. I feel very privileged and very special to have the job of caring for the dead but even my role has been compromised. There are times that I feel more like a disposal agent than a caregiver.
Midwives are helping to bring birthing back to the mother. There is a movement to give us more control of our own health care decisions (check out Knocking on Heavens Door by Katy Butler) and I think that families should participate more in the care of their dead loved ones! (Oh dear, my colleagues will not be happy with me.) I am not saying that there is no need for the “undertaker”. We will still be there to guide and help in every way that we do. I just wish families would take the time to wait for me so that we could at least regain that personal one-on-one touch. I don’t really like going out in the middle of the night, but if I am needed that’s what I do.