Hands on Death

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 33, Pentecost 2005
Kathryn Campbell

My father, Patrick O’Connell, died on 11th March 2005 at his home in Palmerston North. He was, as some would describe ‘a long time dying’. Over the past two years Dad was very ill with weakening heart and lungs, unstable insulin dependent diabetes, numerous serious infections, to name a few ailments. Last October he was admitted to the hospital where he remained very ill for the following six months. Being a family of nurses, we provided much of his care and had a roster to spread out the family visits. The last two weeks of his life we nursed him around the clock.

At the end we decided as a family that we would take Dad home to die. Mum was grateful. Once the decision was made and accepted we all swung into action. My sister Irene organised oxygen and resources from the hospice, the hospital doctor wrote up the prescription, Mum went and set up the house with another sister Annette, and I traveled home with Dad in the ambulance. As soon as we got home we placed him onto the single bed that he so often used to lie on for his afternoon nap, overlooking their magnificent garden.

Family filed in and out of the house for the rest of the day. There were occasions of healing with divorced partners of some of the family members, as they returned to bid farewell to Dad. There was so much healing. Dad was beautiful. Although semi conscious he continued to indicate his awareness by moving his eyes and some facial expression. He gradually drifted into a state of unconsciousness and his breathing changed. He remained calm, holding his rosary beads, his body relaxed. He died at 0315 the next morning. Mum and his daughters were all present. To have had him home on his final day and for him to die peacefully was a gift for which we truly thank God.

When Dad died, my sadness was immense. Although he had been so sick, his death was still a shock. For Mum and the family to weep, to grieve, to touch Dad and support each other at home was also a gift in a loving and safe environment. We couldn’t have hoped for anything more. This was for us the ultimate.

And so the Wake began. My sisters and I washed his body, renewed all dressings, and massaged lavender oil into the skin and onto the dressings. We dressed him in his golf gear which Mum kept in his top drawer. His rosary went back into his hands. He looked beautiful and remained so until his burial. We kept a fan going when the air temperature rose each day. We washed Dad’s body each morning and frequently applied oils to help keep him clean and cool. We replaced his dressings a couple of times. He remained on his bed. We took advice from a funeral director who, when he saw him, said they couldn’t have done any better with embalming. Mum and Dad lived in a community-housing type complex with a magnificent garden on display. The rosary was said in the garden outside his room. With the sun setting and highlighting the many colours, all the neighbours were able to witness the faith of those who had gathered to sing and pray.

The grandchildren and great grandchildren, along with family, friends and neighbours spent much time with Dad over the three days he lay at home. It was great. My dear brother John couldn’t bring himself to build the coffin so we bought a simple one to which he attached Dad’s crucifix. We placed Dad in it and we were surprised that his body remained so soft as though he was just asleep. Apparently rigor mortis doesn’t necessarily occur for all. We also eventually used the hearse instead of Annette’s station wagon or truck, which had been an option earlier. Irene picked up the death certificate from the doctor and we filled out the hospital, RSA and government registration documents. Because of Mum and Dad’s love of their garden, two baskets of dirt were sifted from their own garden to sprinkle on Dad at the graveside.

Just over two years ago I had casually asked both my parents what readings would they like at their funerals. The ensuing conversation led to us organising a get together with Mum, Dad, and my family to discuss funeral arrangements. The outcome was fantastic. The discussion was so good and often so funny, yet appropriately reverent and serious. It took an hour or so of tea drinking, looking up readings and hymns to finalise things. We all learnt a lot about Mum and Dad in our sharing, which was a real bonus. Both had always said they wanted the family to do as much as possible at their funerals. Both came from the perspective that funeral directors would play a minimal part, if any. They wanted a hands-on alternative family funeral. We made very good use of the wonderful booklet Funeral Choice which answered all our questions. We were all surprised when both were adamant that they not be embalmed. That came as quite a shock. Both wanted to remain at home and have a home rosary, then requiem Mass at their parish church.

The funeral Mass was such a powerful celebration. Nearly 30 family members had a job to do within the Mass. Three generations of family – my brother John, his wife, children and six great grandchildren – formed the offertory process and took up the gifts, which included drawings and farewell letters from the wee ones. My brother Michael delivered the eulogy. At the cemetery we laid him to rest and about 40 of us filled in his grave. This was a most satisfying moment for each of us – a final act of acceptance of his life and love. A final act of service for him.

The experience of the earlier discussion and planning of his funeral with family created an atmosphere of true celebration of Dad’s life. Ultimately the family had to make the final choices. But it was wonderful knowing what each of my parents wanted. I would encourage others to sit down and discuss their funeral preferences with family and friends. It helps to speak freely about death in a natural way. It’s a great comfort for those left behind and an opportunity for family and community to be fully involved in a truly prayerful celebration. From a practical point, the costs are minimal and the grieving with a proper Wake is so healing. For parish communities to take up this challenge and help each other in this preparation would be a truly creative ministry. I am in no doubt that we all become stronger when we face the inevitability of death – and help each other prepare for its ritual.

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