Wis recently interviewed and photographed people in the Washington area who are intimately involved in the post-death period. Their occupations are different, but their insights into death, pain and life are universal. (Interviews have been modified and condensed).
Owner of Strong Oaks Woodshop of Front Royal, Va. (In the picture above)
II did woodworking for a while and it never came to my mind [to make a casket]. But about 12 years ago my mother called and said: "What would you think of making a grandma's coffin?" He had dementia and the writing was on the wall. I had to sit down and understand the general problems of construction, but it turned into something very special. At that time, a couple of my younger brothers were visiting here. It was a project we worked on together and it was completely different from anything I had experienced until then. It was this last gift we could give to someone we love.
As often as possible, the people asking for the coffin, we try to involve them in the process. A gentleman had a family with German heritage, and we made a German shrine along the road carved on top. His fourteen-year-old daughter came and cut it into gold leaf. Doing this takes away the feeling of impotence that brings death. He was able to take his pain and use it for a good purpose. There's something fruitful about this.
I am very involved personally in these projects. Every job is great, but here everyone knows that when a coffin arrives on the bridge, I just have to let it all go away and disappear for a couple of days. I am a Catholic Christian and we believe that God himself has chosen a human body to live and have lived a human life here on Earth. I've had good Catholics who say, "God pity, Mike, that coffin is too good to be grounded," and I just say I'm not in agreement. I do not think we could honor that person too much. A body was considered a ship well enough for God. Whatever I do to honor that human body is rather pale in comparison.
Domestic funeral guide and co-founder of the Threshold Support Circle in Baltimore
Wwhen you die, why would you want to be somewhere different from your home? We feel tears, but we also feel love, connection with other people. I actually tried it with my mother. He had dementia and we took her to Baltimore and took care of her before she died. At the beginning, when my father saw my mother in the bedroom, lying down with flowers and a small tent blowing in the wind and the music was playing, she was sobbing and said, "I do not know if I can go back to see her again. "But then other people came and saw them go upstairs to spend time with her. He said, "I want to get back on." And he has become so comfortable.
We are in a culture that does not really want to face death so much. But death can be a meaningful experience that families share. It allows pain to be practical. And what people do not understand is that they can do more on their own than they thought. In some states you can be your funeral director. I have trained as a domestic funeral guide, so I can guide other people through this: wet the body, keep the body stored for a few hours or overnight before it moves. There is a way to use dry ice to cool the body so that it does not start to decompose. They are there as support, as a counselor, someone to reassure you that you are doing well.
You want to feel that people are cared for and treated. It is a privilege to accompany a family at a time like this. I'm on the loss and I'm also moved by the love I feel. Being able to share it with other people, having other people who come and stay with you, is so comforting. Sometimes we are so meaningless in our lives. What is more significant than accompanying a loved one as he approaches death or after death?
Executive Director of Kavod v & # 39; Nichum, which educates and supports groups of chevra kadisha, volunteers who perform funeral rites for Jews, based in Columbia, Maryland.
TAhara is a Jewish tradition that dates back thousands of years. This is a ritual in which the people of the community gather and, with respect and intention, recite prayers and wash and dress the body of the person who died. As part of our prayers, we ask the person standing there before us to forgive us if we do anything to disrespect them. Most people do not talk to cadavers. But we do it, because we believe that the soul hovers above the body. Until they are buried, it is part of them or with them. The essence of the person is still in the room.
There are many emotions in this. I went to Pittsburgh to provide support to those who were washing the bodies for the people who were killed [in the Oct. 27 shooting]. What made it so much worse is that two of the people – one who was killed, one seriously injured – were part of the group that washes bodies on a regular basis. When the Chevra left the room, we stopped in a circle, we held each other's hands, we hugged each other. People were talking about the experience of Jerry [Rabinowitz, one of the 11 people killed at Tree of Life synagogue], on how they appreciated the support, and then they went ahead and did another. And the night before they had done three. It's not an easy thing to do.
I was nervous the first time. But the thing that stands out most is not what happened in the tahara room, but what happened when I went out into the world and saw trees and people living and I said, "Oh, now I understand: life is really precious "I came as close to death as I can come. I hugged the person, turned them, washed them, dressed them. I can not treat people like I did before. I can not treat every living person as a miracle. How is it possible for people to live?
Funeral Director of Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring, Md.
II have been in the funeral industry for almost 19 years. The first place I worked in served 250 families every year, and 200 of those were Hindus. The place where I am now is a true melting pot, serving people from all over the world.
We do not have a crematorium on site, but we still do a good number of head cremations. We have families, they want to be involved in the whole process. Let's go to the crematorium. Men would wash men and women would wash women. They set them, put flowers around the body. I saw them put clarified butter [clarified butter] on the body to light the fire in the coffin as he enters the chamber. The eldest son would have started [the crematorium]. Even the priest would come out. In some of the other religions they would be monks. There is a lot to pray for
It's not like being in a church or a cemetery, though. The crematorium is a very large industrial machine, covered with bricks. Only the temperature: they can be very hot places to work. It's a dirty job. This is reality.
People do all sorts of things with the ashes. I can not tell you how many times I sent them to India. A woman, I remember her husband died young. He had cancer and was about 30 years old. He decided to make a diamond ring from his remains. She would wear it in her right hand because she was convinced she would be getting married again.
There have been times when I have come into contact with the dead and the living, and what people have endured has just changed me. I once helped take care of a girl who had been killed in a really horrible way. I went to work one way and left another one. I saw the world through a different set of eyes.
Funeral coordinator for the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a mosque and a community center in Sterling, Va.
ANo deaths around our area, in our community, call me. I supervise everything from the hospital to after the burial: what to do, where to call, who to call. It's a job 24 hours a day, 365 days, because in Islamic culture you have to bury your body as soon as possible. If someone passes today, we make sure the body is buried tomorrow.
I've been doing it for about 10 years. I've always wanted to help people and I thought it was the best place. Families were struggling with how to do a funeral, how to wash bodies, and if I had time, I would go to attend the weekends. My wife is a voluntary coordinator of ADAMS and her mentality is the same: we should do something, help people.
My brother and sister-in-law died in 2009. Since then, I have taken care of their three children and my four. I did the funeral for two years, but I panicked, just like everyone else. My mind was a clean blackboard. So I remember my situation – how panicked I was, and I actually knew how it worked – and I think of other families who have no idea what to do.
You can deny everything, but you can not deny death. I'm [volunteer] clergy at the Inova Fairfax hospital, and whenever they have patients who need help or something, call me. Some are close to death, which is really difficult. I do my best to console them and the family, and I remind them that this is the truth, everyone has to go, everyone has their time. It's not easy. Someone is right there in front of you and dying, and you can not do anything. You feel powerless.
But it certainly gives comfort to people. I remember last year, there was an 8-year-old boy with cancer. The doctor was saying he would go anytime. We saw the child, prayed, recited the Quran. I was coming home when his mother called and said it was over. He seemed to be just waiting for us to hear the words of God, and he felt comforted.
Professor of mortuary science at the University of the District of Columbia
I he worked for an insurance company, doing customer service. I knew that the work of my dreams would involve a high level of customer service. I worked with a podiatrist, and that's where I became familiar with bones, blood and tissues. I knew I wanted something surgical.
From the first lesson in mortuary science, I knew: it is so. I can do it. It is the perfect combination of service and science. Not everyone can do it, yet I am attracted to it. It is recession proof. I will never be without work. My parents taught me to be kind and compassionate, especially my mother. We have grown to be kind, to show a natural kindness to the people who are suffering. This is essential for this work.
My mother always made fun of me that she should have known. Since I was a child, I loved horror movies. I want to be mortally scared when I go to the movies. But I do not think embalming is horrible. I know that dying is a part of life. As soon as we are born, one thing is certain: we will die. Our bodies will stop. It is my faith that prevents me from being scared. When embalmer, I am praying for the soul of this person. I'm believing they went to heaven. This helps, especially when I have to do the children. Someone has to do the kids, right? Because it goes beyond children; I'm doing it for mothers, for fathers, for families.
Everything makes sense that this is work for me. This does not prevent my family from teasing. My little cousins will ask: have you washed your hands? When I visit relatives in the hospital, they will say: what are you doing here? I'm not ready to go yet!
Owner of the Floral Convention in Washington
Wand we are with people in important moments. When something happens – marriages, births, deaths – they come to us. It is very intimate to share these moments. I'm
passionate about that part of my job.
When someone dies, the family has so many questions. Our task is to guide them and explain the role that flowers can have. Different flowers have different meanings. For example, in a Christian family, a crown means continuity of life after death. A broken heart means that someone has lost someone very close. It's so personal. I do not ask too many questions; I leave you to tell me what they want me to know in their free time.
A long-standing customer wanted us to deliver the flowers to a cemetery exactly at 4pm. at Halloween, take a picture and send him a text message. We're usually closed by then, but he said he would pay more. I did not ask why. We went – I could not do it alone, so I had my family with me – said a prayer and put the flowers on the grave. After a few days, he called. He was so happy. He explained the reason: it was the exact time when the deceased was dead. He asked me about my favorite charity organization and donated big numbers. Continue ordering flowers every year for the cemetery – no more for Halloween.
My faith is Orthodox Christian. Death and the afterlife are always in our thoughts. Our daily decisions are guided by this. Constantly, I ask myself: did I do the right thing? Am I treating people the right way? Being so close to death keeps you in touch with reality. I am grateful for every moment, every turn of the leaves, the song of birds. When we go to the funeral home, we are often with the dead. We see them. We see their families. It makes you wonder: this is all chaos, and one day we leave, say hello and let go.
Andy Del Gallo
Stone sculptor for oriental memorials in Washington
SPeople are so exceptional. I'm with me when I make the original sketches, when I work with the stone, when I'm in the cemetery. One Marine was the winner of 50 close fights. He weighed 150 pounds. This means that he fought 50 men with a knife. How can you not think of people like that? You have a good reminder of how lives can be abbreviated. This work is an excellent motivator. I am constantly informed of death. It makes me get up every day and go out there and do as much as possible. In fact, I do not sleep much because I always try to do more with the very limited time I have. At any moment, it could be me under that stone.
The permanence of it, the purpose of the work – are almost sacred. You allow yourself to enter a special moment in people's lives and you really have the opportunity to be an instrument. The best job I can do is be the hands that could not be. Speaking of artistic language, asking questions and making decisions about the stone, the design and the details of the process, this helps the participants to put their feet in front of the other. Of course, there will be tears; we cross it together.
I'm a great self-help guy. I think it was Stephen Covey who asked him: what would people say to your wake? It's the same thing for a tombstone. What kind of life do you live and what will be your actions that inspire people to tell you when you left? I do not really think about what I want to say, my memorial, because the memorials are for the living. That's not what I mean about myself. It's like my loved ones want to remind me of me.
President of the ministry of hospitality at the Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland (pictured above, top right)
II am very meticulous I can say to someone: "That central piece is off-center, those salt and pepper shakers are in the wrong place." And they laugh at me! I used to beat myself on this one. But then I said, someone must be like that. If God gave me that kind of eye, so be it.
Hospitality in its essence means giving back, helping. One of our greatest missions is managing a meal, dinner after a memorial, a funeral or a home service, when a person returns home, in his next life. Our typical menu is baked chicken, pilaf rice or mashed potatoes, honey-glazed ham, rolls, string beans and salad. In times like this people want to be comforted. They want to have something they are familiar with.
I always hope that something in this meal will touch someone. And I usually have at least one person who comes to me and thanks you so much, it was really delicious, it made me think of something like that. Or: he would have loved, he would have loved it. The funeral we did in the first part of November was for a mother whose famous meal was chicken wings, mashed potatoes and green beans. No iced tea or lemonade; he wanted Coca and Coca-Cola, his mother's favorites.
I changed my way of thinking about death, because I'm in the middle of it all. I told my daughter: "Please do not give me a meal". I think I did it so much that I do not want it for myself.
It's tiring, physically and mentally. We are all thinking: what if? What if we were doing it for a family member? All these repulsions make me think of my mother, Winkie. I had my culinary skills from her, and knowing that she did not want me to leave this plate uncovered, or to leave this place unplugged. I come home, I sit on my bed and I remember the things we've talked about over the years. There have been times when I said aloud, "Oh Winkie, it's over, it's over, it's over." And I take that hexagon and I know it's over. You've had one more. You helped another family through an obstacle. Their recovery begins and my tiredness ends and I can rest.
Bagpiper player based in Montgomery Village, Md.
There's just something about the bagpipes. It serves as a catalyst for this cathartic release of emotions that helps the healing process. The sound is emotionally all-encompassing – so much to drive through the conductor of a song.
I had a funeral last year, just a charming boy. His daughter said to everyone: "My father always wanted the bagpipes, even if it was just a recording, but we got the real thing." As soon as I hit the drones [pipes that play one harmonizing note], the doors opened. I played a lot of funerals, but this was different. I had never seen such a concerted version. I think because she preceded me as something her father had wanted, gave everyone permission.
I played at the funeral of Tommy Keelan, a beloved member of our band [the D.C. Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums]. It was so dedicated. He was retired and lived in Pennsylvania, but he never lost a practice. He died tragically, suddenly. He was preparing to play the pipes for a familiar function. While he was heating the tubes, he had a heart attack. All of us in the band knew we had to play, but it was not easy. We played "The Fields of Athenry". He loved that song. Now we call it "Tommy & # 39; s Song".
Recently I came back from a funeral and I told my wife: "You know, I enjoy playing at funerals rather than weddings". He says "Better is the house of mourning …" That is from Ecclesiastes: "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of the banquet: because that is the end of all men". Going to so many funerals makes you consider – I'm a dad with six children. I want to leave a good legacy. I always try to listen to the praises. Often, it is the fruit of the well-lived, but invariably, it is the fruit of the beloved.
Mourner and trauma psychotherapist for the Wendt Center in Washington
WWhen people find out what I do, the first reaction is to applaud this work, just the fact that anyone is able to sit down with people who are suffering. And the second reaction is: Wow, I could never do that.
I experienced a good deal of pain and loss in my life. It makes me a very special kind of partner with customers. I do not know if this is the first thing I would have jumped out of college. But now at age 40, having learned so much from my pain and my loss and those of others, it is not unknown, nor is it something I am afraid of.
We are in a different place in the conversations about death and mourning of 25 years ago. But still, for some reason, we do not like the sad ones. Many people are unable to witness sadness, and many are simply not comfortable in feeling sad.
Pain is not just sadness. Someone who has been crying for six months or six years will not stop feeling a certain desire, a desire, a void, a void, a hole. Those feelings and experiences are not sadness. They are: I'm no longer the person I was. Something is missing.
We know how to have funeral, burial, cremation and scattered ashes. But pain? It is not something in which there is a recipe. I have customers who just want to be done. They want to face it, make it happen. I encourage people to move on from the idea of being able to conquer them to recognize that it will change, especially if we pay attention and really take care of it. It does not make you fall to the ground if you can really participate in the experience.
Customers do not make me sad. I can be sad with them. If I had come out of my office with everyone's sadness, I would not have left the door. I would like to fall apart In part because we do not open up and talk about death easily, it is a very sacred space. When people are with me, what I feel is honored and privileged.
Amanda Long is a writer in Falls Church. Harrison Smith is an obituary writer of the Washington Post. Annys Shin is a publisher of articles for the magazine.