“The Last Thing I Can Do For Momma”

By: Daryl Berry
Monday, May 2, 2016

Occasionally in the course of my career as a funeral director I have had family members ask if they could take part in preparing their loved one for viewing.  Maybe they want to style the hair or apply the cosmetics just the way their loved one would have.  Back in the day before there was such a thing as funeral directors or embalmers, family members did take an active role in caring for the dead.  Now days families rely on us to do this preparation for them but I do not discourage anyone from taking part if they wish.

Sometimes when someone is facing their own death they will request a family member to “fix their hair” or “do their makeup”.  Most have never done that before and are a little unnerved at the thought of doing so.  While most will find this difficult to do they will end up finding that doing so was therapeutic in honoring their loved ones wishes.  I have seen some that had every intention of doing one last thing for someone but just could not do so when it came down to doing it.  That’s okay and is what we are here to do.

I can recall one daughter that came in to fix her mother’s hair saying, “It’s time to put on my big girl panties and get this done”.  She then proceeded to take a deep breath, walk through the door and get to the business of fixing Momma’s hair just like she had done many times before.

I guess as embalmers, we take what we do for granted.  We are accustomed to seeing people looking their very worse after they have passed.  Many people have seen someone breath their last and know what I am talking about.  The struggle to live is over and a relaxation takes place. The eyes do not automatically close upon death and a relaxed jaw will cause the mouth to fall open.  With the absence of blood flow, gravity will take over and the color will drain away leaving an ashen appearance to the skin.  With no muscle tone, wrinkles seem to disappear as the tissues relax and sag leaving a sometimes peaceful look but to many a disturbing sight that will remain in their memory for a long time.

During the embalming procedure we close the eyes and mouth and the process will restore a firmness to the tissues.  While this makes the individual look more “normal” it still leaves an unnatural appearance with the absence of lifelike skin tone and unstyled hair.  This is what someone wishing to cosmetize a loved one would see and it might be as I heard it described the other day as “unnerving “.  In most cases this is the first time that someone has seen a deceased person in this condition and it only makes it more difficult that it is someone they loved. 

What else should someone expect if they wanted to take part in the preparation of a loved one? Expect to be nervous or anxious about doing this.  It may take a few minutes for you to deal with the grief associated with seeing a deceased loved one for the first time and we understand this.  Expect the a cold feel to the skin as room temperature will not have the warm feel  you are accustomed to. We will be there for you to lend moral support and provide you with anything that you may need.  We have a room separate from our embalming room where these preparations are made and have basic supplies needed to fix someone's hair and do their make-up. You may be more comfortable bringing those items that you are accustomed to using. 

We all deal with the loss of a loved one in our own ways.  Some of us are doers and want to be a part of the process while others are takers that take in what the doers have done. While some will want to be hands on in preparing the body, others may be more comfortable in sorting through photographs to be used in preparing a memorial video. No matter what part you wish to play, I would encourage you to take an active role in doing something to honor someone you love when that time comes.

I personally think that you should give yourself time and not feel rushed to get everything done in less than a day.  Many feel an urgency to get the funeral behind them.  Unless there has been some time to prepare for an imminent death there will be things that need to be attended to.  Taking an extra day to recover from a death and allowing time to prepare will me more comforting than being in a panicked rush to get everything together just in time for visitation.  I know that some will tend to want to rush to get the funeral behind them, to get it over but experience tells me that an extra day or two gives you an opportunity to come to grips with the loss and to rest from what may have been an ordeal waiting for a death to occur.

Whatever the case may be, we want you to feel that we work with your schedule and try to not make it about our schedule.  If there are scheduling conflicts due to weekends, holidays, cemetery schedules or other services we may be conducting, we will do everything we can to accommodate your wishes. 

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