Ritual Bathing After the Death

Dear Barbara, What is the importance of the family or the hospice nurse cleaning the body, since I assume the mortuary will be set for that. Of course, the body should be presentable for other visitors, if there are any.

You asked about the significance of washing the body following a death when really the mortuary will wash it. Yes, you are right, the body will be washed at the funeral home. 

I don't think it is about the cleanliness of the body but of the hands-on ritual of saying goodbye. Bathing is an intimate ritual. It can be a way of saying goodbye through our hands and our tears. Also, guilt can come out through busy fingers.

As a hospice nurse I, personally, didn’t wash the whole body or suggest that the family wash it on every death call. I did have a ritual bathing in my “tool bag” as an option if I thought it would be helpful for the family in their grieving process.

Again, it isn't about the need. It is about the ritual, a way of further saying goodbye. It actually can be very beautiful. If there was stooling or urine I may, without the family, wash that body region to eliminate odors, as I tidy the room

As part of my guiding the significant others following the death, without a ritual bathing, I would straighten the room, arrange the body with the head of the bed up a bit, and put a clean sheet over the body leaving the head uncovered. I then suggest the family, one by one, come in to say goodbye again. 

This is their last opportunity to have a truly private goodbye. It is setting the stage for creating a sacred memory.

Something More... about Ritual Bathing After the Death

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Hi Merilynne, thanks for sharing.. I always value your input. Keep safe. Blessings! Barbara

Merilynne Rush

Thank you, Barbara, for responding to this beautiful question. It is so important for the family to have the opportunity to participate in this sacred ritual, and for hospice workers to model for them that it is indeed ok, even beautiful, to touch, caress, and be with the body of their deceased loved one. We have gotten so far away from these traditions that people don’t have any family member that remembers we all used to do this for our own dead.
Some families may want to go even further and not have the body be taken away for up to 2-3 days, so that their extended community may visit and also have the opportunity to be with the dead body in a natural state, even if not hands on in washing, but in sitting at the bedside (another time honored tradition). It is legal in all 50 states for the family to do this, with proper instruction and preparation, and in this case, it is imperative to wash the body. I teach about this in what is called “home funeral guide” training. Home funeral is not a great name, because it implies you have to have a home and a funeral service, but neither are required for the loved ones to take charge and keep the body with them for a few days.
Thanks again for normalizing this important tradition.
Merilynne Rush, at thedyingyear.org


Sarah, thank you so much for sharing the beautiful story of your father’s dying. He gave you a such a gift but I’ll add you gave him the gift of allowing him to say goodbye his way. Blessings to you and your family. Barbara


I Truly believe in the ritual bath,, my dad was in a whole mind the Tuesday before he passed. That Tuesday he told me he was going to go on his “ journey” the following Sunday night. It was last year and that Sunday was Mother’s Day but I didn’t remind him of that.. he and my brothers and mom spent an amazing week preparing for his Sunday journey. He wanted a German lunch that Sunday with all his grandchildren and my 2 brothers , me and Mom. We lived in Germany in the 1970’s when my dad taught special Ed on an army base. He also wanted to have a toast, for everyone present , because he was saving a very special bottle of his favorite scotch for this day. My dad was very Scottish. On the Wednesday before his planned journey, I pushed him around his neighborhood in a wheelchair.. he was walking the day before, to knock on neighbors doors because he wanted to say good bye to his neighbors of 30 plus years. The dogwoods and azaleas were still n full bloom and the sun was bright and temperature perfect. The next day we ate the meals he longed for and by Sunday am he was ready for his special day. I bathed him at 8am with a body wash called vitabath.. it was a pine scented wash that we bathed with when we lived in Germany years ago. I shaved him and put his favorite cologne on. He was so happy to smell like what he always bathed in and the after shave he always used.When our family arrived, he was so happy that everyone commented to him that the aroma in his room.. felt like home.. my dad passed very peacefully the morning after mother’s day last year.. he was alone for 2 hours and I guess that’s what he had planned all along.. once we all said good bye and he was happy, he got his wings and flew to see all the people he had talked to the days before his journey. No death is perfect but as a hospice volunteer and a nurse and as is my mom, we were so blessed with the gift my dad gave us.. it was nothing I have ever experienced.

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