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.