ASK THE DEATH LADY: Learning About Death And Grief
by Franne Whitney Nelson, EdT., CSDS


Q. Do you believe that peoples' souls leave their body at the moment of death?
Registered Nurse, SD
A. I'll answer that question by telling you about two studies.
    One study, done by Dr. Duncan McDonald, a Boston physician in the 1800's, showed that people weighed between 1/2 and 3/4 of an ounce less at the moment of death than they did immediately before death.
    A Swedish Study which weighed terminally ill patients, postulates that the weight of the human soul is 21 grams (.74 oz).

Q. Do people ever take photographs of their family member in their casket?
Teacher, Indiana
A. They certainly do. Often, particularly with sudden death, the only way people can initially assimilate the fact that their beloved person has died, is to look at their memorial photographs, sometimes over and over.
    It's also a way to enable family members who were not able to arrive in time for the viewing to, in fact, have a private viewing via photos. This is strictly a personal choice for the family and, perhaps, their friends.
click here to read about an actual case of Franne's that applies to this topic.

The average crying session lasts six minutes.

Q. Is it acceptable to keep cremated remains at home?
Mark, Indiana
A. Of course it is. Often, well-intended folks tell grieving family members they should "do
something" with the cremated remains, when they are, in fact,

doing something with them - they're keeping them at home.
   However, it is helpful to the grieving process if one can place some of the cremated remains in a location where family and friends can visit as they wish.
    There are also some religious beliefs that influence peoples' choices regarding final disposition of cremated remains.
Please click here to read about an actual case of Franne's that applies to this topic.

The word mausoleum comes from Mausolus, King of ancient Turkey, who died in 353 B.C. His widow hired a Greek architect to design a spectacular stone tomb, which became one of the Seven Wonders Of The World.

Q. Franne, How do you deal with your own emotions, considering that you are constantly exposed to death, much of it often violent, in your work?
Physician, VA
A. I'm acutely aware that I'm not going to be much help to anyone unless I first take care of myself.  
   Probably the most important aspect of my self- care is that I never expect to be emotionally unaffected by death.
    In my work, I have seen hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies, some with heads torn off, limbs missing - every trauma to a body one could possibly conceive of. However, the bodies of suicides are disturbing to me because of the deep emotional pain I associate with that acct, as are the bodies of children and teenagers who are dead from any manner of death.
    I'm realistic about my reactions to such calls and I lower my expectations of myself for awhile. I know I won't sleep as well as I usually do, so I clear time the next day for resting. I also know my 

concentration will probably be compromised, so if I have appointments the next day or so, I will often reschedule them. I then tend to myself by hanging out with people I love and with my dear animal companions.
   I have three dogs, five horses, two llamas, two goats and one sheep. My beloved animals help make it possible for me to tolerate the sight of often maimed bodies and to withstand the godawful anguish of those who are trying to hang on by their fingertips after someone they adored has been torn from their life, often with no goodbye.
   I fully realize that not everyone has the luxury of clearing the decks for a day of selfcare, but everyone can certainly accept their feelings and not expect to perform at peak efficiency for awhile.

The average woman cries five times a month, the average man only once.

Q. Are family members allowed to accompany the body to the crematory?
Secretary, Ohio
A. Yes, they are. Some funeral directors will even allow you to ride in the passenger seat of the hearse with them. Just ask.

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1. Memorial Photography: Andy and Alice, a couple that lived in Northern Virginia, were visiting their second home in Vermont for an autumn weekend  visit. They had gone to a small, local airport so Andy could take a glider ride.

Alice, who was raised in Vermont, adored the blazing colors of a Vermont autumn and had bought Andy a gift certificate for a glider ride for his birthday. Andy wanted Alice to join him on the ride, but together, they were three pounds over the weight limit. Knowing how much Alice adored the fall colors, Andy graciously insisted that Alice take his glider ride.

The glider pilot closed the canopy, the glider was attached to the tow plane and Alice beamed as the glider was pulled down the runway. Alice waved to Andy and blew him a kiss as the tow plane and glider began to rise in the air. When they reached the desired altitude, the tow plane disengaged from the glider to head back to the airport, and, as Andy watched in utter horror, the glider crashed to the ground in the field adjacent to the airport, killing Alice instantly. Subsequent investigation showed that the canopy had not been securely latched and it had blown open, causing the glider to plummet to the ground.

I spent several hours at the airport that day with Andy. Alice's body was in an ambulance by the time I arrived and it was amazing how unmarked her face was, considering the manner of her death. After the on-scene investigation was completed and Alice's body had been removed for transport to the Medical Examiner's office for autopsy (as required by Vermont law for these circumstances), I drove Andy to his and Alice's camp. We left his car at the airport for a friend of his to pick up, because Andy was certainly in no condition to drive himself.

I had several conversations with Andy over the next couple of days and one of the topics was the disposition of Alice's body. Andy already knew that Alice wanted to be cremated upon her death, so he was planning to have her cremated in Vermont, then bring her cremated remains back to Washington for the visitation, her memorial service and burial in the family plot.

That certainly seemed to be a reasonable plan, except for one critical element which wasn't being taken into consideration. Andy and Alice had four grown children and numerous grandchildren. And none of them, except Andy, had seen Alice dead.

The single, most therapeutic event of all our death rituals is viewing the body. And the more unexpected the death, the more vital it is to see the body. I have dealt with thousands of grieving people all over the country and I know there are untold numbers of folks who are looking to say goodbye because they never saw their beloved person's body. And, because of that, they will most likely not achieve grief resolution.

I explained this to Andy, who understood. So we took photographs of Alice in her casket at the funeral home. In order to provide transition and somewhat ease the shock for her family members looking at the pictures and seeing her dead for the first time, the first photos of Alice in her casket were taken from the doorway. Just a little of her forehead, hair and nose was visible from that distance. We then moved to the middle of the room and took more pictures. And finally, we stood over the casket and took close-up photos of her.

Andy subsequently told me that the photographs brought some peace to the family members who chose to look at them, and for those who didn't want to see them at that time, they were available for viewing even years later.

2. Disposition of Cremated Remains: People have a myriad of reasons for deciding whether they opt for full-body burial or cremation. However, with full-body burial, the body, of course, can be buried in only one place.

When cremation is chosen, depending on one's personal or religious beliefs, there are a variety of options available regarding disposition of the cremated remains.

One family I worked with had five grown children and after their farmer father died in a tractor accident, agreement couldn't be reached among his children about what to do with their father's remains. A simple solution was to divide the remains among the children.

Five different choices were made. One child spread them from an airplane over a prominent Vermont mountain; another buried his portion of the remains under a beautiful headstone in the family plot of a cemetery; another chose to spread them in her garden, which her dad used to help her tend; one buried his portion on his farm to acknowledge the large cow herd his father used to milk and love; and the fifth child chose to put some of the cremated remains in a memorial locket, which she wore on a chain around her neck.

A word of caution: We humans seem to have an ancient need to know where our ancestors are, and want to have a specific place to go to honor and remember our loved ones. When deciding what to do with the cremated remains of someone we adore, it might be worth considering to save some to bury under a gravestone or marker.
People sometimes express regret that they spread all of their person's cremated remains and didn't save any to bury, so that friends and family could visit as they wished.

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