Once upon a time it was a familiar and normal thing for a family to prayerfully wash and prepare a loved one's body for burial
[In January of 2015, Aleteia featured a video about Lizz Lovett, in which she discussed what “death with dignity” meant to her. You can watch it, and become acquainted with this beautiful, awesome and strong woman of faith here. – Editor]
Our culture is generally squeamish about death, and that may partly be due to the fact that many generations have passed since the days — really, just a hundred years or so ago — when it was quite the norm for a family to prepare the body of the departed and hold a wake in the home, before a funeral and interment.
Death is a bit more regulated in the 21st century. Community health codes (and the funeral homes that work within them) have removed from modern society any memory or understanding of what once was, for all humanity, a fairly normal piece of business and a final familiar intimacy between a family and its departed member.
In a certain sense, death has been “sanitized” for our safety, to the point where something in the common human experience has become completely foreign to us. A wife who has perhaps adjusted her husband’s tie for him every Sunday as they left for church does not get to adjust it at the threshold of eternity. More importantly, the long tradition of reciting prayers over a body as it is being lovingly prepared for burial has been lost.
This past July, Ryan Lovett decided he wanted to tap into these ancient Judeo-Christian rituals and prayers as a final act of love and service to his wife, Lizz Lovett, when she passed away after a long battle with cancer.
In the months leading up to Lizz’s death, Ryan thought and prayed about how to honor Lizz once she died, including how to honor her body. The book of Tobit helped inspire his prayers. He noticed how much Tobit risked, and was rewarded, for his reverence for the dead, and realized that both risk and reward must still exist. “This is respect for a Christian and her body, as well as for God’s creation,” he explained. “It seems to me that a proper Christian burial is vital to our call to be good stewards of God’s creation. And in reality, I could think of no more beautiful way to perform a final act of love for my wife at the end of her earthly, bodily life. After all, though she is dead, she is still alive. I want her to know my love for her did not end when she died.” Where it led him and those who assisted in the Christian ritual was something beautiful beyond his expectations.
Tara Chandlee, a close friend of Lizz and Ryan, describes the experience with his permission:
When Ryan asked whether I would participate in the process of preparing Lizz’s body for Christian burial, he warned the group of us he didn’t want any drama; he wanted prayer and service, and he knew it would be both messy and hard. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, but knew I would be challenged in new ways in the process, and that I was above all being trusted with a profoundly intimate and sorrowful experience.
What I did not anticipate were the many gifts of grace — even beauty — that would flow from the ritual of preparing Lizz’s body. I prayed for strength not to be repulsed, not to be weak, not to be fearful. I had never seen a dead person before, and deep inside I feared that confrontation with my own mortality. Lizz had faced her impending death with such strength, dignity, faith, and even practicality. I prayed for a measure of those gifts as I drove to her house an hour after she had died.
The heart of the idea was to join in praying for Lizz after death and having her body cleaned by those who loved her most.
Including Ryan, her mother and her sister, there were eight of us in the room. I was the last to enter. Lizz lay on her hospital bed in their bedroom, her mother beside her stroking her hair, another friend continually praying the prayers Ryan had selected. The room was filled with scent of Athonite style incense. Lizz’s mother was so courageous, but her pain was raw even as she maintained perfect poise.
As soon as I entered, her mother beckoned me to come over and hold Lizz’s hand. What I didn’t know was that everyone in the room had already had that chance. She was still warm.
Ryan said our first step would be to clean Lizz’s body, removing bandages and stains, and to brush her hair. We worked together, all attending to a part of the process. Her mother and sister stayed by her head, braiding her hair. Her sister wept as she worked and her mother whispered words of comfort and love to Lizz. All the while the words of the Psalms and Gospel were being read, steadily and beautifully, in the background.
After the essentials, we got a fresh tub of warm water scented with spikenard oil, and with new sponges we all took turns wiping her down again – this time not with the practical business of cleaning her, but with a more tender reverence towards her body, an anointing with our love, really. We then dressed her in worn old pajamas that looked like they had seen a lifetime of cuddles and children and warmth.
Lastly, Ryan brought out a long piece of ivory cotton cloth that he had carefully and precisely folded – much like the flag would be folded by the soldiers at her internment a few days later. The seven of us then began at her feet and wrapped her completely in the burial shroud, moving back and forth, over and under her body, pinning as we went, until we reached her face. Ryan then knelt beside her and gave her a final kiss before we completed the wrapping and pinning. Father Boyle – Ryan and Lizz’s pastor – who had been waiting in the living room, then came in and led us in the final prayers, using holy water.
Aletheia (8) and Ambrose (6), two of the Lovetts’ four children, were then allowed to come in the room. Aletheia was too shy in the crowded room to focus on her mother’s body, and scrambled out, but Ambrose lay down beside his mom, wrapped his arm around her, and lay with her, just as he had hundreds of times before. He did not weep, but quietly rested with her shrouded body, loving her with such tenderness that all of us who witnessed it had a hard time not weeping openly.
I had entered the experience with trepidation and a determination to be strong enough, for Ryan and Lizz’s sake. I had never heard of anyone preparing the body of their loved one for burial, but Ryan had done his research. Still, even he was not ready or fully prepared for all we experienced. All through the hours we were together in that room Ryan, during his hardest moments, would look straight up, and I knew he was asking our Lord for strength. He would visibly be shaken with the power of his own grief, look up, and then be composed and strong again. It was subtle, but clear. He knew he was not strong enough alone, and kept asking for guidance and help. And because of that incredible faith in God, he was able to show his wife the greatest act of love I have ever witnessed, or am likely to ever witness. Lizz departed her body, in faith and confidence that her Maker loved her and was preparing a better way for her. Ryan not only honored her body and her life by giving her such sacrificial love to the end, but he joined in her trust. By lovingly preparing her body for Christian burial he participated in preparing his wife for the marriage ceremony of her union with Christ in Heaven. He gave her up, with dignity and tenderness and faith, to the end.
There was beauty. I was surprised by my own moments of joy during the process of preparing her body. To witness such sacrificial love in Ryan, in her family, in all of us, was to participate in something supernatural. God’s love was so present in the room that there were moments when I found myself smiling, bursting with hope, in between the moments of weeping and searching deeply for strength in prayer. Ryan and Lizz gave us each a tremendous gift when they chose us to participate in such a sacred ritual, and I believe Lizz understood that when she chose us to do this for her. She was teaching us, drawing us nearer to the Lord, and showing us the way not just up to death, but through it and past it.
I will be forever grateful for the gift she and Ryan have given me, and shall pray that this ministry can become more widespread, so that many more graces can flow.
[Additional notes per the author: Arrangements were made in advance. Instead of making the call to hospice the minute she died, they waited until they prayed with her body and cleaned her. Since Lizz did not want to be embalmed, they wrapped her in the shroud. Then they called the funeral home. In keeping with Lizz’s wish there was no open-casket viewing. She was waked at a church facilitated by the funeral home, followed by the funeral the day after. – Ed.]