Preparing the body

Charles Cowling
'Open the window to let the soul fly'

‘Open the window to let the soul fly’

Posted by Vale

I think this lovely poem manages to capture both the humanity and the brisk, professional approach a nurse would take to washing and preparing a body:


Check: water, soap, a folded sheet, a shroud.
Close cubicle curtains. Light’s swallowed
in hospital green. Our man lies dense
with gravity: an arm, his head, at angles
as if dropped from a great height. There is
a fogged mermaid from shoulder to wrist,
nicotine-stained teeth, nails dug with dirt–
a labourer then, one for the women.
A smooth drain to ivory is overtaking
from the feet. Wash him, swiftly, praising
in murmurs like your mother used,
undressing you when asleep. Dry carefully.
If he complained at the damp when alive, dry
again. Remove teeth, all tags, rip off elastoplast–
careful now, each cell is snuffing its lights,
but black blood still spurts. Now,
the shroud (opaque, choirboy ruff), fasten
it on him, comb his hair to the right. Now
he could be anyone. Now wrap in the sheet,
like a parcel, start at his feet. Swaddle (not
tight nor too loose)–it’s an art, sheafing
this bundle of untied, heavy sticks. Hesitate
before covering his face, bandaging warm
wet recesses of eyes, mouth. Your hands
will prick–an animal sniffing last traces
of life. Cradle the head, bind it with tape
and when it lolls, lovingly against your chest,
lower it gently as a bowl brimmed with water.
Collect tags, teeth, washbowl. Open
the window, let the soul fly. Through
green curtains the day will tear: cabs, sun-
glare, rain. Remember to check:
tidied bed, emptied cabinet, sheeted form–
observe him recede to the flux between seconds,
the slowness of sand. Don’t loiter. Slide
back into the ward’s slipstream: pick up
your pace immediately.

from ‘The Point of Splitting’, by Sally Read Bloodaxe Books, 2005

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9 years ago

I would recommend watching the Japanese film “Departures” to see the level of care and attention for detail practised there when someone dies. Absolutely moving, just don’t be put off by the opening scenes or the three hours of subtitles. Our whole family watched it from kids to grandparents and each and every one of us was touched.

9 years ago

Which is why hospitals are the worst place to die. Oh I hope I have some choice when it’s my turn. Maybe last offices is a service which could be offered to hospitals by those who are experienced – rather like it was in days of old – and for a price – or maybe said experienced ones could highlight the need to the powers that be. I do like the idea of doctors learning it – it would give them a sense of the moment and the person. Hey Ru, there’s a role for you at your local teaching… Read more »

Ru Callender
9 years ago

Hi Rosie,
Yes, there are restrictions when the coroner is involved, but still with ordinary hospital deaths bodies are far from laid out in the manner described, sadly.

Ru Callender
9 years ago

I agree with Kathryn. Too often bodies coming into our care from hospitals have clearly been left the moment death has had his dominion. This is not the nurses fault, but the culture. Some hospitals are trying to address this, but it doesn’t really fit in with our tick box obsessed world. I think nurses should teach doctors how to do this most solomn and important ritual, to be able to honour someone how has just left this life is so important for keeping a sense of perspective rather than rushing off to the next set of charts and beeping… Read more »

9 years ago
Reply to  Ru Callender

Hi Ru

I was told that it was fear of medical negligence litigation that has prevented hospital nurses from removing any tubes, getting involved in altering a body before the medics/coroners have completed their paperwork. A don’t touch regime!

Anyone else heard this?

Kathryn Edwards
Kathryn Edwards
9 years ago

Hey, count last rites by nurses as a blessing! All too often these days, it doesn’t happen at all.

9 years ago

I think you have it right, Cassandra – bless the nurses who bring care and their professional courtesies to washing the body, but what you hope for is the true tenderness of love.

9 years ago

Lovely mix Vale. I like the contrasts, the light and shade of it. Thank you.

cassandra yonder
9 years ago

It would be interesting to compare this to the poems that have been written by families who care for their own in death. Gone is the briskness. Come forth the slow and gentle loving touches that create such beauty in death. Both are relevant and sweet and respectful in their own way. Thank you and blessings to the nurses who do this work. Yet please let me be washed by mine own beloved; friends, nieces, daughters…