issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
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Sacred service

After her father died, Vajrashraddha discovered her vocation to work with the dying, the dead and the bereaved.

I had worked at the funeral parlour for only a few weeks when I dressed little Emily. She was 81 years old and had no friends or family to go to the funeral - just a couple of staff from her care home could attend. She was 4ft 10in, and tiny, tiny, tiny. A sunken green belly, sunken eyes, sunken mouth, skinny discoloured arms, wafer-thin hands. I stroked them for a long while. The fact she was dead didn't stop me. It matters. She was cold because she had been kept that way to stop her from decaying more, but her hands were soft and the wrinkles had eased a bit. Her white plastic sheet was removed and I dressed her in a white satin gown. I liked the simplicity of this. It was odd to see a dead person in their 'finery' with ticking watch and hard leather shoes. Robin, my boss, said 'Bless her'.

I often wonder how I've come to work in the area of death and dying. Why is it so important to me to spend my time with people who are terminally ill or dead, and the people who care for them? To answer that I need to go back seven years to the person I was when I climbed down onto Kingcup, the boat on which my Dad had lived for many years. Dad didn't take great care of himself. He would leave piles of stuff on his bed and when it was time to sleep he would push it all to the end and climb under the blankets with the bundle on top, like a badger in a sett keeping warm. Now I was scared of what I might find, and trepidatious about clearing up his things alone.

Earlier that day his friend John had phoned my mother from Spain to say he had found Dad in bed, dead ... of a pulmonary embolism. Strangely, the news came as no surprise to me, even though none of us were expecting his death. He hadn't been unwell. He was 67, the same age as his father when he died.

I also felt incredibly sad that I hadn't acted on the impulse I had felt for a couple of weeks to write Dad a poem expressing my love and gratitude. I'd never said it when he was alive and now I had missed the opportunity. I had put it off until tomorrow, and now there was no tomorrow. I learnt the hard way.

Looking back I think that with my father's death I started to open to the reality of death. I wonder if we have to 'experience' a death or witness someone dying to start really to feel the truth of impermanence. Then the knowledge that all things are impermanent may shake us to our core.

I was impressed and grateful to the man who arranged my father's funeral and I decided I wanted to help others who were experiencing the loss of someone close to them. That, I realised, was my vocation - something I desperately wanted to do before I died. Soon afterwards I began training to be a funeral director and my wonderful boss, Robin, let me gain experience in any area I wanted, whenever a suitable opportunity arose.

One part of my work was to arrange the funerals. The bereaved relatives I encountered were not only trying to cope with their shock and grief, they also had so much to organise. Some were in a daze. I helped to arrange a fitting and dignified ceremony to mark the end of a precious life, and enabled people in distress to gain some clarity in a time of great confusion.

When someone loses a loved one it can be agonising, even overwhelming, and leave the bereaved feeling that life is not worth living. Sometimes they cannot see how to get through the day. This is a natural and honest response to having loved and lost. Occasionally I hear people suggest, on learning that a friend has lost someone close, that this is an opportunity for spiritual insight to arise. Maybe so. But we cannot short-circuit grief. Only when we have felt the loneliness of a broken heart in the pit of our belly can we fully understand it.

The aspect I found hardest was arranging funerals for people who had no-one involved in the planning and no-one to attend the funeral. I once carried a coffin containing the leathery skeleton of a man who'd been dead for 18 months. It was pitiful to imagine a life so lonely that nobody had even noticed he wasn't around for a year and a half. How can we live in a society so fragmented that this can happen?

The other part of the funeral parlour work was caring for the deceased. A decomposing corpse is not a nice sight and can smell foul. I made a practice of remembering this was once a human being, which helped me to overcome any sense of revulsion. I felt a need to care for the dead tenderly and treat them with reverence and respect.

Death is a mystery - we cannot be sure what happens afterwards - but I don't believe it means total annihilation. In my experience, consciousness seems to linger for a while and it has always felt natural to me to talk with the deceased, or stroke their hand. I know their body is a lifeless, breathless, rigid shell, and they cannot feel my touch, yet doing so somehow feels like an act of devotion. It has kept my emotions flowing and I have grown fond of many people I've cared for.

My main desire is to communicate with those who have been touched by death, whether confronted by their own death or that of someone close to them. It is this, together with my sadness at the thought of people dying lonely, that led me to working as an auxiliary nurse at St Christopher's Hospice. My duties are quite practical: straightforward tasks like giving patients their food, talking with them and their families, making beds, cleaning dentures, emptying catheter bags or pushing a patient in a wheelchair around the garden. But I find myself engaging in all this with a feeling of 'serving' people who are so in need of tender kindness.

My work team is an extraordinary group of 'guardian angels' and our task feels beautiful, meaningful and true. About as true as it gets. I find it both sobering and uplifting. Taking care of someone close to death is a sacred act in which certain boundaries are dissolved and each of us is affected by the other. Communication is typically immediate, intimate and honest. The people I meet are often full of fear and a tremendous sense of loss: loss of control, loss of identity, loss of certainty, loss of companionship, loss of lifestyle and, most devastatingly, loss of life. Simply bearing witness to this can help to alleviate their fear.

I sit with someone and allow them to cry, without becoming embarrassed or trying to make everything all right. Paying someone full attention at this time seems to work magic, and a deep trust can quickly develop. Within minutes of meeting a new patient, I can feel as if they are a part of me, part of my life.

Situations change quickly and every hospice shift I work is different. I've learnt not to assume I know what a person will be like when I enter their room. Patients' moods can swing rapidly, energy comes and goes, lucidity and vagueness regularly alternate. Often patients are too weak to say what they need or want, but if I listen with my whole being, even without words the person lying before me is able to express themselves. Silence, eye contact or touch are often medicinal. A kiss, a wave, a smile, a tear, breathing together, holding hands.

This constantly changing situation is a challenge. It is humbling to attend to a patient with whom I've built a strong connection over a few days, only to be asked on another shift 'have we met before?'. Then how rewarded I feel if a patient's face lights up when I walk into the room and they reach up to touch my face. And how inadequate I can feel when I have no answers to the questions I'm asked.

The only other time I have experienced this kind of communion with a stranger was when I came across an old man lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. He was conscious in an unconscious kind of way and when I crouched beside him I realised his brains were spilled onto the pavement. I stayed with him, cradled him and reassured him until the ambulance arrived. His name was Eddie. While I was with him there was no separation between him and me. I felt no sense of shock, just completely soft and accepting. At that moment I accepted that life means suffering and that we are all interconnected. Soon afterwards the shock hit me, and I was deeply disturbed by the event. Eddie still feels part of me.

Death can shake us to the core and wake us up. When someone has advance warning of death, they often reassess their lives and make big changes. I went into this work to care for others, rather than to gain insights into death, but the more I experience death the less I dispute the law of impermanence. And the more I feel a deep, unsettling vibration within myself that feels like the truth. I accept that truth, I have faith in it - while simultaneously not wanting death to happen. On the whole I hope people don't die, unless it is a release from chronic sickness, or the frailty of old age. Yet I don't see anything wrong with death itself. It seems completely natural, the only inevitable aspect of life, part of the constant flux and flow. I regularly ponder this apparent contradiction and wonder if the reason I don't like it when someone dies is that it takes me a step closer to reality.

I'm not conscious of being afraid of my own death, but I do fear the prospect of a lot of pain. Sometimes people's bodies bring intense suffering. This raises the burning question: 'Why does it have to be like this?'. Yet I am amazed and inspired by the dignity so many patients, who are often incredibly brave, uncomplaining and grateful.

Grace was younger than me. Her athletic body had not responded well to breast cancer treatment. Her family clubbed together to pay for her to come to Britain for further treatment and, leaving her husband and six children at home, she came to the UK alone. But when she arrived surgery was out of the question, and then the chemotherapy didn't work. By the time she reached St Christopher's she was terminally ill. She was too weak to travel back home, and her family were unable to visit. They never saw her again.

Grace touched every one of our hearts, not only because it was so tragic that this young woman would never kiss her little children goodnight again; but also because she shone with such radiance. She became weaker and weaker, and her pain grew more constant. She was in danger of dying from an unstoppable bleed, her right fungating breast rotting day by day. But her spirit was so alive, her face lit up and her eyes sparkled as I walked into the room. I would sit by her bed and we'd listen to the sound of Taize, the Christian community chanting, on the tape-recorder. It was like the sound of angels filling the room. I'd stroke her bloated hot arm. During her last week she was unable to speak, yet her silence shone. One day I came to work and her bed was occupied by someone else.

I am drawn to this work because it is intrinsic to life. It is liberating to know I cannot control life - that life and death are my masters, rather than I theirs. That death is a mystery and beyond control intrigues me. I have felt more alive working in the funeral parlour and the hospice, because of the ongoing reminder that it could be me on the deathbed. I'm more in touch with a desire to live well and make the most of these too brief times.

When I visited India a few years ago, death was publicly on display. At Varanasi six bare-foot children escorted us to the Burning Ghats, holding our hands like protectors. There at the riverbank we saw long rows of corpses lined up on stretchers, draped in coloured cloths and flowers, according to their sex and age. The bodies were ritually dipped in the filthy, infested water to purify their souls. Funeral pyres littered the area, fires blazing, flesh melting, bones turning to ashes; the eldest son of the family circumambulating the parents' blazing bodies, sprinkling holy water and chanting all the while. No women were present, they are banned from the area because in the past some wives would become hysterical and throw themselves on top of their husband's pyre.

Amid all this paraphernalia, were men who make their living by diving under the water to sift for gold and silver treasure that may have been thrown into the River Ganges with the ashes of the deceased. Seeing these fellows scavenging the disgusting filthy water felt more grotesque than witnessing the bodies crackling in the dancing flames.

We watched in silence for a long time. Witnessing it all was deeply sobering; at the same time I experienced tremendous stillness and relief. Amid the noisy hubbub of the area, there was also a sense of tranquility. The children who had brought us were as familiar with it as any child in their own back garden. To them the sight of death is as natural as the air they breathe. That evening I sobbed in my meditation and experienced again a wave of relief.

In the West we are adept at ignoring or covering up the simple but profound truth of death. We tend to live so far removed from an acceptance of death in our culture. I am regularly asked if my work is depressing. And many people refer to death as though it is morbid, or worse, a subject to be avoided altogether.

Discovering this vocation has enriched my life immeasurably. It has changed me in numerous ways. I am so glad to have nurtured the seed that was sown when my father died. It is showing me I have a heart that cares. And helping me find the courage to dance amid life and death.