Methods of caring for the body after death vary from culture to culture. What follows are some suggestions that come from my experience as a Buddhist and a caregiver of dying people.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER DEATH
Keep the atmosphere around the deceased simple and peaceful. If possible, do not disturb or touch the body immediately after death. If the body must be touched, do so very gently.
Pray for peace and freedom for the one who has died. If appropriate, read sacred texts or conduct any practices or death rituals from the deceased’s tradition.
BEFORE THE ONSET OF RIGOR MORTIS
As rigor mortis takes about two hours to set in, you will have enough time to bathe and dress the body. This can be done by family members or friends as a last act of intimacy and respect. Know that before and at the time of death, the dying person may have defecated, urinated, vomited, or sweated. You may want to give the body a sponge bath with a mixture of aromatic herbs (such as yogi tea) and a small amount of alcohol to close the pores. Place cotton in the rectum so that wastes do not leak from the body and a condom or rubber glove on the penis or cotton in the vagina. The teeth and mouth can be cleaned. Do not remove dentures or you may not be able to put them back in after rigor mortis sets in. Reflexive muscle spasms will occasionally occur in the limbs or facial muscles.
Mindfully dress and arrange the body before it stiffens. Dress the person in light clothing, and do not cover the body with bedding. The body needs to stay as cool as possible. A fan, air conditioning, or an open window can be helpful in keeping the body fresh.
Often the eyes are open after death. If you wish, you can gently close the lids and tape them shut. The mouth might be open. You can close it with a scarf tied around the head. The last place in the body that warmth will leave is the heart area. If the heart is still emanating warmth, be particularly mindful of what is happening in the environment of the deceased. Buddhist tradition tells us that such warmth usually occurs in those who have some quality of realization at the time of death.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE BODY
Although you might be concerned that it is unhealthy to keep a body in the house after death, there is nothing inherently dangerous about doing so. Treat a dead body in the same way you would a living one, following the same health precautions, particularly if the person died of a communicable disease.
In the United States, a doctor needs to sign a death certificate. It is not necessary that the doctor come to the deceased. It is usually easiest to minister to the body before contacting the doctor about the death certificate. When you contact a crematorium or a burial society, they usually come soon. If you wish to let the body rest undisturbed, wait to contact these agencies. Make sure to remove jewelry before the body goes to the funeral home; it can be placed on the body again if desired.
In most places in the United States, family members or religious groups may serve as funeral directors. A permit is required if you move the body yourself, and a burial or cremation document must be filed.
An unembalmed body should be buried or cremated within several days to prevent bacteria from multiplying to unhealthy levels. Contrary to what many morticians suggest, embalming is not required unless the body is being shipped out of state, although many states require that the body be refrigerated within twenty-four to forty-eight hours after death. Be aware that embalming does not sterilize the body. The chemicals used in the embalming process are toxic to the living and are regulated by the government as hazardous materials. If you plan to digress from a conventional burial, investigate the laws in your area beforehand. You cannot depend on funeral parlors or hospital staff to help you figure out alternatives to normative procedures.
Burial on your own property is permitted in many places in the United States. If home burial is chosen, keep in mind that future owners of the land may move the grave or may not permit it to be visited.
What is most important is to follow the wishes of the deceased.
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