When a family, group of friends, or community cares for the body of a loved one after death, they often experience feelings of deep peace. If they were feeling some initial fear or discomfort, which is not uncommon, they almost always relate that, ultimately, they found the time they spent with the body to be profound and transforming.
Families are often surprised to see that the body after death does not change significantly. In a very slow and almost imperceptible way the skin becomes whiter, the body relaxes until rigor mortis sets in (two to four hours after death), the body grows cold. Those present begin to accept the transition from life to death as the natural process that it is.
After death when the body’s muscles relax there is an occasional occurrence of fluid being released from the rectum or vaginal area. After cleaning the area put on a diaper or Depends for protection. Usually once the initial cleaning is done there is no further discharge.
Washing the body is done to remove any residual bacteria that may remain on the skin after death. Most bodies after death do not need more than a ritual washing with warm water infused with some kind of aromatic oil (lavender or rose are often used). Gently wash and thoroughly dry all parts of the body.
During this time many families have music playing, light candles, or tell stories. It is usually a quiet, sacred, respectful time to honor the body; to know that these tasks are being done for the last time; and to feel the connection to our ancestors, who took care of their loved ones in this way for generations before us.
There is no need to rush. During the quiet and intimate time of caring for the body and during the days of the vigil, people often describe feeling the presence of their loved one. A home wake gives them the time to be with that presence and to begin to accept that their loved one is truly gone.