Wednesday, June 21, 2006


He lay there in the coffin, surrounded by flowers and loved ones, his features supple and natural. I've heard that funeral directors call this a "memory picture"---the last image of a loved one that many people see before a familiar body is cremated or interred. Tonight I understood more clearly the meaning of that euphemism, but also the importance in many cultures of the opportunity to see the body of a loved one without the tubes, tracheostomies and other indignities frequently visited upon a human body ravaged by disease. Everyone remarked how wonderful he looked, and this was the first time I could truly say that the deceased really did look great, and I will actually carry that image of him with me forthwith.

This burgeoning multigenerational and racially and ethnically diverse family was inspiring, complex, and a genogram-maker's dream. As I worked the crowd and met person after person, a map of the family took form in my brain, and I began to more fully appreciate the depth and breadth of the support and intimacy engendered by this clan. Many close friends who seemed like siblings filled the rooms of the funeral home, and I tried to chat with as many as I could, increasing my knowledge of the family and its interconnections. It's interesting to gain such insight as my work with this family has now actually come to an end, but this knowledge is a piece of the puzzle which helps to more fully inform my practice as a nurse and cement this experience in my mind and heart.

As I was introduced around---or introduced myself in some instances---people would say, "Oh, you're the Keith that we've been hearing about for the last two years!" Luckily, the reputation which preceded me was a positive one, and the feedback which I tried to take in with grace and humility was a very nice way to end my workday. So many times, one can be somewhat uncertain as to how one is perceived, and a clear reflection of one's impact on another human being is truly a gift.

Tomorrow, the funeral will see our final view of his body, handsomely clad in a dark green suit with lovely black mandarin-collar shirt and tasteful gold jewelry. The notes, children's drawings, and other mementos---along with his black fedora with jauntily-placed red feather---will all be sealed within the fancy coffin and lowered into the verdant earth.

It happens all over the world, this process of mourning the dead and placing their bodies in their culturally appropriate container, be that container wood, metal, fire, or water. In Tibet, bodies are sometimes left on mountaintops for vultures to devour, sending the body back to the Source in a visceral (and to some shocking) fashion. But the body is only a vehicle, a vessel from which we are eventually released, and its corporeal existence will deteriorate as it should according to the dictates and wishes of its loved ones who care for it in its final days. As for the spirit and the soul, some of us see its eternity and rejoice in its freedom from this mortal coil.

As the funeral card memorializing my patient reads:

"I shall lead you
through the loneliness,
the solitude,
you will not understand;

but it is My shortcut
to your soul."
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