Opportunities for Tenderness

Dina Stander

Not much is more awkward than a casual conversation along the lines of “and what do you do?” suddenly hooking into a taboo subject like death. The quizzical look I get when I say I'm a shroudmaker reminds me a lot of what happened when I first told friends I had become a Funeral Celebrant. There is a look that crosses people's faces, a look that says without words, ”What is that?",  and "why would you want to make death a profession?” and (if they have already shaken your hand) followed quickly by the obvious embarrassed reflex “Is death catchy?”. Um, no!

I have been thinking more about the journey to becoming a shroud maker and the experiences that have informed the aesthetic sensibility of the shrouds at Last Dance. It is not always easy to articulate, in part because talking about death is understandably scary for people. And yet, I am finding that with most people, a conversation about death offers a fleeting deepness and a shared and precious opportunity for tenderness.

There is a frank vulnerability that comes with these conversations and I have learned to keep my lamp steady in the face of mortality. When I was interning as a hospital chaplain there was an early morning in the emergency room, where a woman in her forties had been brought in unresponsive and they were not able to revive her. The nurses attended to making her presentable, and I was sent to find her family; her husband and teenage daughter, her sister and mother, and bring them to say goodbye.

It was a lovely, quiet, and anguished hour behind a curtain in the ER. All the hustle, bustle, and beeping machines faded. The mother stroked her daughter's still warm hand and arm, then her cheek, and finally sat fondling her ear. She traced the bend of cartilage that was different from any other person's, reminding me of the way the mothers in the maternity ward, a few floors up, fondled their nursing babies. This was the morning I learned that some families need to touch in order to say goodbye. When it was finally time to go, I watched the mother slowly tuck the sheets around her daughter's still body. The instinct to swaddle is so strong in us.

In an elemental sense, this endeavor of making and offering shrouds is a response to witnessed trauma and grace; a continuation of the deep learning from the chaplaincy internship, which I have still been sorting through. With the help of cloth and the thread of human connection I am making more sense of the months walking in the hospital with open eyes, heart, and arms.

I have been a funeral celebrant for about a decade now. I listen carefully to people who, in the midst of deep sorrow, thread together the story of a person now gone, painting for me a map of the constellations navigated in their person's journey. It is a process I see mirrored in caring for a loved one after death and shrouding them. An unhurried head to toe summation of a lifetime; a forgiveness of the dings, dents, and callouses earned by living; a celebration of unique beauty and individual spark; an acknowledgement of old scars and healed injuries; a gratitude for our existence. And finally, release.

Being able to care for our loved ones after death with reverence, kindness, and gentle touch is a blessing. It is a need that can be easily accommodated, even behind a curtain in the emergency room, and perhaps more ideally in the hours before calling the funeral director when someone has died at home.

I became a shroud maker in part to explore more of this territory. Every one crosses a threshold here, the person who has died as well as those who live on and must learn to exist in a newly configured universe. The process and motions of shrouding provide a clean slate for a beautiful farewell: cocooned and tucked into a soft place, easy for carrying and laying to rest. Shrouding is an act taken in sacred time; connecting us most elementally to one another in that place at the edge of life and death. It is simple and tidy. It is an opportunity for deep tenderness at a time when our humanity is both vulnerable and starkly visible.

I am a shroudmaker because I am keenly interested in exploring what makes us feel most alive and in making death less feared. I am a shroudmaker because for people facing death (which is all of us) being open about dying supports wellbeing. Because having this conversation at the edge is so remarkably real. Because I want my work in the world to support the tender connections we make with one another when we are walking in this place. Because opportunities to give and receive genuine tenderness are precious and I would like to make them less rare.



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