Picture by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Laying out a person’s body when they die was once something that anyone might do in a lifetime, a final gesture of care and kindness, as well as a practical task.
It’s a once-familiar tradition that widely fell out of common practice during the 20th century, as more people died in hospital or care outside of the family home.
In recent years, though, more and more people have been choosing, when they can, to die at home. Almost one in four people who die every year in England now do so in their own bed, according to the latest figures published by Public Health England (PHE).
For some people, preparing the body when someone dies, may be a comfort and fulfil a sense of love and duty.
“When someone dies, they are still a patient”
Although it’s become less common for us to do it ourselves, caring for people who have died is something healthcare professionals and funeral directors regard as an important and meaningful part of their work.
Jill, a nurse from Devon, says it’s matter of respect, as well as compassion.
“When someone dies, they are still a patient. We will wash their body and comb their hair and dress them in a clean gown. We talk to them, call them by their name and tell them what we are going to do. It’s an act of dignity.
“When the time comes to cover their face with a sheet, we’ll tell them how sorry we are to have to do this.
“It takes two nurses to lay someone out and lift them, so they’ll always be working with someone who has done it before. It’s something you learn, by doing it with care.”
When someone dies at home, their death should always be confirmed by their doctor, before their body is laid out. This is the stage where a funeral director can begin to help, but some people may choose an end of life doula to support them through this stage of their loved one’s transition after death.
Our body’s transition after death
Laying someone out is an intimate task, certain aspects of which, people may find distressing. When we die, our body goes through natural processes, as it begins to shut down and our muscles no longer have control over its functions.
When someone is laid out, their body is washed and, in a hospital environment, a sanitary diaper will go on, before the person is dressed in a clean gown or set of nightclothes. When someone is traditionally laid out, their body cavities are stopped with cotton wool or cloth pads, for hygiene reasons.
After the person’s eyes are closed, the nose and mouth must be gently cleaned, before their body is sponge-bathed and they are dressed. The person can be shaved and their hair brushed, combed and tidied. If they wore dentures, these may be put back into place. A small cushion is placed beneath the person’s chin, to keep their jaw supported, while the arms are placed in an elevated position, usually crossed on the chest or abdomen.
Care and support
A century or more ago, when most people died at home, a nurse, or woman with long experience of midwifery and of laying out the dead, helped many families prepare their loved one’s body for the funeral.
These days, laying out is a stage that is most often carried out at a funeral home. Just like a healthcare professional with a living patient, a caring funeral director performs the tasks that may be more distressing for loved ones, but they can be happy to accommodate the wishes of families who want to play a part in the care of their loved one.
Independent funeral director Michelle Peskett is happy for families to help look after a loved one, at her funeral home in Lee on Solent, Hampshire.
“They can be as involved as they want to be,” she says. “Some people will ask, can I do the hair, or the nails? We’ll put some music on, have a drink, whatever they need.
“For most people, it’s the opportunity to get involved, helping to do something for their loved one because they feel as though they should. It can be a lovely experience and an opportunity for us to get to know the families more.
“It gives you hope; especially when you talk about someone, about who they were. There can be tears and, often, laughter.”
A part of life’s journey
For many people who choose to become a funeral director, looking after a person who has died, as well as supporting their family, is a big part of the appeal of the profession.
“They are a person at end of their journey and I am caring for them,” says Scott Watters, an independent funeral director from Cornwall, who is also an experienced paramedic.
“Until someone reaches their final destination at the crematorium or are laid to rest, these stages are still a significant part of someone’s cycle of life.”
- Choosing to die at home may be among the things you talk about with loved ones. Read more about talking about death about end-of-life planning.