During my first week as a hospice nurse, I spent a few days up at one of our organization’s hospice houses. A hospice house is typically a small unit, sometimes in a free-standing building, that provides an environment for people to get their symptoms managed so they can return home OR an environment for people to pass away. It’s all up to patients and families, but you can imagine how difficult a job that could be for staff. Patients either arrive in crisis or in an actively dying state. The amenities are positively amazing, and the entire place is set up like a birth center. I always tell people being a hospice nurse is like being a midwife, just on the opposite end of the life spectrum. There’s a kitchen for families, and a suite attached to each room for loved ones to stay overnight. There are stone fireplaces and chapels and gardens for walking and clearing the head and catching a breath. My favorite part of the hospice house, though, is the postmortem experience.
Stay with me, folks. The staff at this hospice house understand how difficult it is for families and even themselves, dealing with death day in and day out. So they’ve developed a beautiful ritual, a processional, for each patient’s passing. After a patient dies, the nurse walks outside and cuts a handful of rosemary, the herb of remembrance, from the gardens. The rosemary is tied up with ribbon and placed on the patient after they have received a bath. The staff follows the rosemary with a handmade blanket from a volunteer. And then the unit’s lights are dimmed, music playing and candles lit, while the entire staff follows the body outside to meet the funeral home vehicle. Every available employee lines up, from the nurses to the janitor to the cook, and they do their own thing. Some pray out loud, some sing, some sway back and forth, some just bow their heads in silence.
This is what we mean when we talk about death with dignity. Lord, don’t ever let me forget that.