When Dishorne, a young man in the WYM program, died earlier this year I received the incredible honor of washing, dressing, and preparing his body for burial.
Born and raised in the United States, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to perform such an action, as a job like that to Americans is looked upon as scary, disgusting, and unwanted. I didn’t know how I would react to the scents, the touch, the realization that I was moving around a dead body.
When someone in the States dies, we quickly hide the body as soon as we can. Once the last breath is taken, we become almost frightened of the body that is left behind. We pay someone massive amounts of money to “take care of it”, embalm it, dress it up, put makeup on it until it no longer looks like someone we love, but a strange wax figurine that leaves people whispering in the corner of the funeral parlor or scared to go up and peer inside the casket. More often than not, the dying are put into hospitals hooked up to machines in order to “make them more comfortable”. They are surrounded by strangers, beeping machines, medicine, unfamiliar smells and sounds. Death becomes scary, and informal; a job for someone else to take care of. Morgues are frequently the setting for horror movies, dead people the antagonists in our visual indulgences. Looking at a dead body is one thing (crime scenes often attract the masses who want to do just that); but voluntarily touching one? Washing, dressing, and preparing one??? That is something that is looked upon as gothic, sick, meant only for those with twisted motives or strong stomachs.
But I loved Dishorne, and I was grateful for the extreme privilege that was bestowed upon me by the family, and the community; so I accepted the request, despite my American upbringing and cultural hesitations about what I would be doing.
It is tradition on the Island to care for the dying at home. Partly because medical intervention is hardly an option here, but mostly because the dying process is looked at as something to be cherished and the dying to made feel calm and loved. When the dying take their last breath, preparations are made for the wake that night, and the burial the next morning. The community and the family gather together and divide tasks; the women of the community cooking the feast, the men making the coffin and digging the grave. Every single task involved is planned and executed by the family and the community.
After the body is prepared, hundreds of people from all over the Island gather for the wake that night, sitting outside the home of the deceased until sunrise the next morning. Feasts are prepared for those that have gathered, and hymns and songs sung by those who loved the deceased. The body of the loved one is displayed in the coffin on the porch or in the room in which the love one passed on. The next morning those who have gathered perform a funeral ceremony, sharing stories and singing songs, and then follow the coffin on foot to the cemetery for final burial. The gravesites are simple, holes dug in the ground, a tree or bush planted at the site as a marker. Once the loved one has entered the ground, they are returned to the ashes they were born from and the cycle of love and life is complete.
The person chosen to prepare the body is the most important piece. You see, on the Island, they believe that even hours after their loved ones have died, the bodies still can sense, feel, and hear. The person chosen must be someone whom the loved one felt connected to, loved by, and safe with, or the body won’t accept the preparation. It will become stiff and impossible to dress, it will excrete fluids, and sometimes even belch up the sickness that the loved one died from. All are signs that the person chosen was the wrong person, and the entire burial process is compromised.
As I washed myself, as is tradition, so I could be clean and pure to prepare Dishorne for the wake and burial, I wondered if I was the right one, wondered if the boy that became my whole world felt as if I was even an imprint on his. After announcing I was ready, everyone left the house to wait outside, and I went into the same bedroom where only a few hours before I had held him as he took his last breath; and began what was the greatest act of love I have ever preformed.
I left the bedroom transformed, never again to be the person that I was when I entered.
That morning, I made my final transition into becoming a part of the community, and the Island. I instantly became a part of the family and a part of the community in a way that I never was before, and although I may be only a mere pinky finger in the community body, I am still a necessary part of the whole.
Death, although a now beautiful process to me, is also a constant. On an Island, and in a country, where sickness often translates into death, it is always present, always waiting; the Sea always heavy with the sadness of those mourning.
Yesterday, Dishorne’s grandmother, a woman who became an immovable and ever present force in my life, whose porch became as familiar to me as my own, passed away. No doctors to tell her family what she died from, the community concluded it was a broken heart from all of the children she had to bury over the years.
Once again, I washed my hands, prepared my heart and mind for the incredibly sacred task ahead of me, and entered the room to show Ms. Marjorie how much I loved her.
Rest in Peace
Marjorie Glovan Merren
August 6th, 1949-September 6th, 2010