The three days after death are a special time. In any death, the people around are changed. They are changed with sympathy, grief, shock or relief for the loved one’s release from suffering in a damaged or aged body. We are brought closer to the spiritual world by a loved one’s death for it brings life near and makes it precious.
One could ask, “Why is it helpful to have the body present after death?” First, a basic and healthy response in those viewing the body is the immediate realization that the person they knew and loved is no longer in that body. This direct experience helps give finality and closure. Second, even though the spirit of the one who has just died can immediately touch the lives of loved one at far distances, there is a vitality, a soul and spiritual essence which remains near the body for about three days. Sitting nearby, quietly and openly, one can often feel a peace, a sense of spiritual presence, and an enhanced state of awareness.
The point of an all day and night vigil (when it is practical and reasonable to do) with readings, poetry, music and prayer, is the creation of a continuous stream of human consciousness and caring; this stream will follow the one who has made the transition. It creates an accompaniment of warmth and spirit truthfulness for the individual adjusting to a new state of existence. Spiritual substance is built up through the natural comings and goings of the family around a death, and through the prayers and readings (which can also take place far away). Such substance can be especially tangible in the proximity of the one who has died. Those on this side are offering up gratitude, love, devotion, human warmth, and the tenderness of human sorrowing in missing the one who has crossed. The expanding soul and spirit gives back vitality and blessing which can be full of universal wisdom. The spiritual substance in the space between becomes a mutual creation.
Friends in our community who come to this type of vigil for the first time often enter the room with some trepidation. Most come away amazed by the uplifting and soul-altering space they have experienced there. They can feel something of the eternal, a peace and a blessing. The experience for many people during these three days can be a sense of living in an altered and elevated timeless state, though it may also be wrought with intense pain and loss.
Family members are benefited by being encouraged to do everything they feel they can or want to do around the death to create the setting and ceremony. When it is appropriate for them, family members who are able to move out of passivity in face of the experience, and put forth their will to meet it, even in small ways, make important first steps toward healing. The caring for the body can be a deeply fulfilling experience. Family members can also make phone calls, arrange flowers, find photos of the loved one’s life to display for those who come, and make a guest book. These activities will seem natural to do. These are first steps in healing that may be more easily realized when the body is present. Sometimes when it is not, the death can seem unreal.
Common sense needs to be part of any decisions about the vigil. Family members may be exhausted from their exertions to be there for the loved one’s dying process. Their sleep and recovery are priorities. Hopefully, food and help to look after children will be forthcoming. The family often has to make last minute funeral arrangements and decisions and needs to inform and meet relatives coming in for the funeral. It is obvious that friends and helpers need to be present to help schedule people to come and give support to make a full three-day vigil possible. But in any situation, it is helpful if there can be a quiet period of time just after death before the mortuary is called. This can be a time from which everyone can benefit.
During the three days after death, the one who has died is experiencing a vivid picture tableau of the life just lived. Whether the body is at home or not, as family and friends gather, the memories, the jokes, the shared stories that naturally take place at a death and the funeral become a natural support to this process. As the stories and characterizations are gathered, they build up a picture of the individual’s life. New appreciation and awareness can be possible now for us to develop a sense of the skein of destiny through which the individual’s life, with the major challenges and triumphs, and a truthful picture of what that person experiences and transformed and gave back as gifts into the lives of others can shine through the eulogy.
It is always helpful for those who have passed on, as well as those remaining, when gratitude for their presence in our lives is expressed. Hopefully, whatever ritual, service or sharing that takes place around the death will reflect the solemn and powerful aspects of being a unique spiritual human being who goes through life and death on earth, and who can continue to evolve in the spiritual world while still caring for loved ones that remain here.
Excerpted with permission from Living into Dying: A Journal of Spiritual and Practical Deathcare for Family and Community.
Nancy Jewel Poer is a co-founder of Rudolf Steiner College. She is an author and filmmaker. A noted pioneer in the home death movement, Ms. Poer’s latest projects include the award-winning documentary, The Most Excellent Dying of Theodore Jack Heckelman, and The Tear: A Children’s Story of Transformation and Hope When a Loved One Dies.
This article is reprinted with permission from LILIPOH magazine. LILIPOH is a Waldorf- and Rudolf Steiner-inspired quarterly publication with a focus on folks interested in holistic health, well-being, creativity, spirituality, gardening, education, art, and social health. Please visit our website at www.lilipoh.com to learn more.