THE DEATH LADY™:
About Death And Grief
Franne Whitney Nelson, EdT., CSDS
Do you believe that peoples' souls leave their body at the moment of
Registered Nurse, SD
I'll answer that question by telling you about two studies.
One study, done by Dr. Duncan McDonald,
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
A Swedish Study which weighed terminally
patients, postulates that the weight of the human soul is 21 grams (.74
Do people ever take photographs of their family member in their casket?
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
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.
Please click here to read
about an actual case of Franne's that applies to this topic.
Is it acceptable to keep cremated remains at home?
session lasts six minutes.
Of course it is. Often,
well-intended folks tell grieving family members they should
cremated remains, when they are,
something with them - they're keeping them at home.
However, it is helpful to the grieving process if
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.
read about an actual case of Franne's that applies to this topic.
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.
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?
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
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
probably be compromised, so if I have appointments the next day or so,
I will often reschedule
then tend to myself by hanging out with people I love and with my dear
I have three dogs, five horses, two llamas, two
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
clearing the decks for a day of selfcare, but everyone can certainly
accept their feelings and not expect to perform at peak efficiency for
cries five times a month, the average man only once.
Are family members allowed to accompany the body to the crematory?
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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Memorial Photography: Andy
and Alice, a
couple that lived in Northern Virginia, were visiting their second home
in Vermont for an autumn
They had gone to a small, local airport so Andy could take a glider
Alice, who was raised in Vermont, adored
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Five different choices were made. One
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.
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.
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