A Guide to Washing a Loved-One After Their Death

An act of loving devotion and a ritualistic way to support you in your grieving. Today I thought I’d share with you a little about washing your loved-one after their death.

This is such a beautiful, intimate and tender thing to do and yet many aren’t aware that you can do it even after your loved one has arrived at a funeral provider. You may have to ask so don’t be put off if it is not offered up-front.

Just for clarification in some religions washing after death is forbidden and in others washing should be done in very specific and ritualistic way that is fitting for their beliefs.

If your loved one has been ill for some time and death expected there is no need for them to be is rushed away to the undertaker after they have died. Take your time and allow yourself as much time as you need.

Of course, if death was unexpected, that is different as everyone will be wanting and needing answers to the cause of death.

Either way, washing your loved-one is a loving option if you wish to be involved in this way. It is an offering of pure devotion and can be utterly, utterly heart-expanding.

So here are some little ways to make this time as beautiful, gentle and caring as possible.

For this post I will assume that you are caring for your loved one at home without the guidance of a funeral service provider. It is usually best to wash your person and lay them out before rigor mortis sets in which is usually between 1-2 hours after death has occurred but don’t worry if rigor has already begun. Washing is still ok although some areas may be a little tricky to access.

You may wish to wash the whole body but it is equally ok if you just wish to wash their face and hands. In this post I am focussing on the face and hands.

Let’s make this time as special and memorable for all the right reasons. This is such an important time that you won’t get back or get a replay so take your time – there’s no rush. Slow down and breathe.

Make it into a loving, tender and sacred ritual. A time for loving, for grieving, for acceptance.

Let’s begin.

What you will need: Make sure you have all this together and in place BEFORE you begin.

A bowl – any bowl will do but consider that this occasion is like no other that you will experience – go on, go and find your best, most beautiful bowl. It doesn’t have to be plastic. It could be china. As long as you can put enough water in it plus room to swish a soft washing cloth.

Warm water.

Liquid soap (optional) I prefer just plain water but others prefer using a soap. You choose.

Soft cloth – the softest you can find.

Essential oil (optional)

Towel – again make it the softest, most luxurious that you can find.

A sponge stick.

Coins or wheatbags.

Long piece of cloth such as a gauze bandage, tie or scarf.

Setting the scene:

Who would be helping? Is it just yourself or are others helping to wash your loved one too?

Decide whether you want natural light, bright light or soft lighting. Perhaps candlelight and the soft glow of a lamp.

Would you like background music, sounds of nature, silence or their favourite show playing in the background?

Perhaps you would like to sing or hum to your person as your are washing them?

Consider if you would like incense burning, an oil burner.

Before we start consider that, if your loved one have been ill for some time their skin may be fragile.

Let’s start with washing their face.

Fill your bowl with warm water and add any liquid soap, shower gel, or essential oil that you wish. Give it a little swish to disperse and pop in your flannel.

Use your soft cloth to very gently wipe their eyes. Make sure to squeeze that cloth out well first so it doesn’t drip everywhere. If their eyes are open you may wish to gently wipe around the eyes.

As you continue with the rest of their face I invite you to really slow down. Slow your breath if you can and your movement. Take it all in.

Continue to wash –

The hairline, forehead and brow.

The cheeks and contours of their nose.

Their chin and lips.

The neck if you wish.

Their ears.

Soft and tender strokes of the skin with your wash cloth.

Stop and pause whenever you feel it’s helpful. Remember there is no rush.

Gently pat the face dry with the towel. No need to rub – just gently pat.

If your loved ones eyes are open and you wish to close gently, with your index finger, close the lids and simply place coins on them. I like to use a small wheat bag on each eye.

If you wish to clean their mouth a sponge stick dipped in water might be helpful. You may wish to clean and replace dentures if they wear them.

Don’t be surprised if you hear noises escape from their mouth. This is just air leaving their lungs.

Again, if their mouth is open (which is usually what happens as the face and jaw relaxes) you can put a rolled up towel under their chin to gently close the mouth or tie a piece of fabric from the top of the head to under the jaw to hold the mouth closed until rigor begins.

Next the hands.

This is a chance to get really intimate with the hands that held so much love and tenderness. Perhaps the hands that held you as a baby or child. The hands that grafted. The hands that created. The hands that soothed and caressed. The hands that cooked and nourished you. The hands that played. The hands that wiped your tears.

Squeezing out your wash cloth begin on the backs of the hands up to the wrists and down to the finger tips. Lift up their hand gently so you can attend to the palm. Again up to the writs and gently wiping and caressing each finger in turn taking care to attend to between the fingers and in all the crevices also. Take as much time as you need and wish – breathing and perhaps uttering words of love, gratitude or recalling a memory.

Pat dry.

Repeat with the other hand.

These are such special moments. Breath it all in. Stop just to hold their hand – intertwining your fingers whenever you wish.

Once complete lay their hands by their sides out of the covers so others can reach out to hold their hand when they visit.

I will talk about washing hair and the rest of their body, dressing and laying out in another post. And perhaps talk about anointing too.

I hope the guidance in this post proves to be helpful in some way.

And please remember, it’s ok to do things differently or not at all and leave the washing of your person to someone else. And it’s ok to ask for help with this. Always, always be kind and forgiving of yourself.

With much love as always

Nancy

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