In some cultures it is primarily women who prepare the dead for burial.
I don’t know this to be universal, nor even how wide-spread a practice it is. I could research it, of course, but it is the kind of thing that I would spend twenty years researching and in the end know a great deal about it but have accomplished nothing practical for my efforts.
In his tome The Birth of Christianity, Dominic Crosson discusses the tradition of a community’s women lamenting the deceased as providing a possible explanation for the development of the Passion narratives in various Gospels. With examples from ancient Greece, from other regions in the Eastern Mediterranean, from the Maccabean Levant, and from 18th Century Ireland, Crosson discusses the historical and cultural evidence for women’s role in preparing the dead and—with lamentation narratives—putting the existential period on the story of the departed.
Closer to modern times, there is a scene in the 1984 film Places in the Heart where Sally Field, as Depression-era Waxahachie widow Edna Spalding, is preparing the body of her dead husband for burial. At one point she touches his corpse and says, “All those years of being married to him, I never knew he had this scar.”
That scene recalled a period of vastly different cultural norms, even in the 20th Century United States.
For one thing, it was a time sometimes when families personally tended to their own deceased.
For another, that line about the scar boggles my mind—that a woman could be married for years to a man without seeing him nude. Modesty or prudery, it speaks to something almost quaint. I’m sure every woman I’ve married has known every scar, every inch of my body, as I have theirs. And every year there are more scars and more ink to know.
There was recently a death in my house as we lost a beloved pet.
Eddie was a majestic tan dog whom my stepson, Jeff, found when he was a teenager. It was one of those, “Please, Mom, can I keep him? I promise I’ll take care of him!”
He may have. That was before I met them. By the time I moved in with his mother, Jeff was out of the house and Miriam was Eddie’s caretaker. Miriam fed him, and walked him, and took him to the vet. For a while I shared those duties. Gradually, I assumed more and more of them.
He had grown to be a large dog, 75 – 80 pounds, and about 3′ high at the shoulder. When I met him Eddie was probably 5 years old. That was a dozen years ago.
Eddie has always stayed in the single-car garage attached to the house. It was his place. We spread some cheap, thick quilts for him to use as bedding. He had a bowl that kept his water from freezing. I installed a ceiling fan to keep him cool in summer.
Over the last year or so I’ve noticed many signs of aging. He got gray hairs. He moved more slowly. He spent many hours just sleeping in the sun.
Just like an elderly human, Eddie grew incontinent. His joints stiffened. He got knobby knees. His hearing seemed less acute and he sometimes seemed surprised when I walked up behind him.
Last week, I noticed he wasn’t eating. He still drank the water I gave him, and he took the Milkbone™ I offered, though I later saw one only half-eaten and another that he evidently just dropped untouched.
Early in the week I texted Miriam that if she and Jeff wanted to say their good-byes to Eddie, sooner was probably better than later to do so. He had visibly lost weight. By Tuesday evening his collar fell right over his head.
Wednesday afternoon I got a text from Miriam that Eddie had died. I was thankful she had taken the opportunity to spend time with him that morning when he was still alive.
I asked if she wanted me to make some kind of arrangements for taking care of his body.
She told me she wanted to bury him in the yard, and that she had called the Missouri One Call System to mark the buried utilities before we dug a hole. They had given her a 24 – 48 hour time frame.
My experience with burying dead pets is limited.
After my family moved to Virginia my mother developed a fondness for Miniature Schnauzers. She wanted to breed them—a venture which never materialized the way she imagined—but we had a registered bitch named Schotzi we kept.
Years later Schotzi had a litter of pups sired by some mutt of no pedigree roaming the neighborhood. We found homes for the puppies once they were weaned.
One night Schotzi went missing. Mother went out looking for her and found her several blocks away, dead at the side of the road. “I think she must have been looking for her puppies,” Mom told me.
I dug a grave for her in the flower bed beside our front porch. A Miniature Schnauzer doesn’t need a very large grave.
My second wife, Marjorie, had a decorative Oreo™ tin she kept in one of her dresser drawers. Inside were two plastic bags. They held the ashes of two treasured pet dogs. Their names were Pepperoni Pizza, whom she called “Pepper” and Oreo Cookie, or “Oreo”. Hence the Oreo tin. I never knew them. They died before we met. Now, I adored Marji and even I thought it peculiar to tote the ashes from home to home like that.
She has since added the ashes of Dr. John Holiday, “Doc”, the Boarder collie-mix we adopted from an SPCA shelter during our marriage. Marjorie’s wish was to have her own ashes co-mingled with the dogs’. That was another quirk I found unusual. (I should talk: I always wanted mine cut into a pound of marijuana and smoked by 20 or 30 of my closest friends.)
One thing I did know was the hole needed to be fairly deep. When I lived in Buckroe Beach my friend, Tone, had a Pit bull who met an unfortunate end. Tone and his friend buried the dog in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, they did not bury it deep enough, with particularly grisly results.
I considered the range MOCS gave us alarming. We’ve had temperatures in the 80s and two days seemed too long to leave Eddie unburied.
When I got home from work Wednesday Miriam emerged from her room, her eyes red with mourning, and told me, “I’m going to ask you to do something hard.”
Miriam wanted to prepare Eddie for his burial. “I want you to help me carry Eddie to the bathtub. I want to wash him before we bury him.”
I understood that. One of my independent courses of study and research—including extensive reading in the works of Joseph Campbell—has persuaded me of the importance of ritual for human beings. My understanding of that might be metaphysical in nature. There is something about the rhythms of Nature, the cycles of seasons, and the fact that we are all comprised of stardust that imprints those rhythms on our very DNA … and ritual is one way we celebrate that.
So I was willing to do what I could to help her ease her grief in whatever ritual she needed to follow.
She left to buy the materials she needed, including a set of clean cotton sheets that would serve as sort of a shroud for Eddie. By the time she returned it was rather late, so we agreed to rise early the next morning so she could complete her task before I left for work.
The next morning we went to the garage to place his body on a sheet. The plan was to use it as a sling to carry him into the bathroom.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” I said. It wasn’t being weird about Death or about emotions I had around Eddie. It was trepidation about the smells and the fluids that were already seeping from his mouth and anus.
In a matter-of-fact tone Miriam said, “He’s gone. It’s just Science, at this point.”
It was the science that was bothering me, thank you very much. The science of decomposition—something I had researched recently for quite another matter.
“He’s gone.” She used much the same words a few years ago when her beloved grandmother died and we went to her funeral. Funerals are a whole potpourri of maudlin rituals. As the gathered mourners filed passed the old woman’s open casket, Miriam glanced at the makeup-coated face and turned away. “That’s not her. She’s gone.”
We donned rubber gloves and long sleeves. With effort I pulled Eddie’s body from beneath a large workbench, a spot where he had made a cool cubby-hole when he was alive. He was heavier than I expected. I placed him on the sheet we had lain on the floor.
It was as difficult as I imagined it might be. Twice I had to rush out of the garage into the fresh morning air to clear my lungs. Both times I vomited a bit of bile.
Miriam is evidently made of stronger stuff.
When we attempted together to carry him inside, however, she found she was unable to negotiate the three steps up into the house while supporting his weight. So I lifted him, in the sheet, and placed him inside the door. Then we put him in the tub.
Miriam took the better part of an hour lovingly washing her pet’s body. As the dust washed off his body and down the drain he lost a lot of fluids as Death worked her devastating effects on the tissues and internal organs. Sobering.
“You know, he’s going to be heavier now he’s saturated with water, because he can’t shake off.”
I knew. He was so heavy that she was no help in moving him. We placed him on a second sheet and I pulled him across the floor toward the garage. He was, if you’ll excuse the expression, dead weight.
“Now I know how a murderer feels, getting rid of his victim,” I said as I tugged on the sheet.
Once we got to the garage door Miriam was able to take the sheet and help me transfer the body atop a small table we had there. She covered him with an old towel and other cloths to keep the flies off him.
Missouri One-Call did not come Thursday. Eddie’s body began bloating.
Yesterday, Miriam called them again, to ensure they were coming. “They have until midnight,” a customer service rep told her.
“The reason why it’s important,” Miriam returned, “is I have the corpse of a dog in my garage where it’s been since Wednesday, and it’s important to get him in the ground.
I don’t know if that got customer service to prod a crew to get there or not. I kind of doubt it. The same way I doubt that any crew of workers was going to be marking utilities at midnight of a Memorial Weekend Friday. When I got home, though, the yard had a veritable abstract expressionist image of multicolored lines snaking across the surface of the grass.
Miriam was gone getting Jeff, her son, who was going to help her bury Eddie. I took a shovel and spade and began digging in a space she had marked beside the peonies. It was tough going, particularly after a long day of work.
Jeff soon joined me, and we cleared an area about 40” deep and as wide as a double bed.
Jeff and I carried the table bearing Eddie out beside the hole, then lowered him inside.
Miriam wept as she placed some tokens in the hole atop Eddie’s shroud. Then she picked two peonies and placed them there. It was important to her to scoop the first few shovelfuls of dirt onto the white sheet.
Dust to dust.
And the women, they bury the dead.