I came across a rare flower today, cypripedium candiduma, the white lady's slipper. There is a lady's slipper village in the woods not far from where I live, a place just a little off the beaten track where there are more wild things than people. For a week or so towards the end of May the lady's slippers grace the forest floor with wanton blooming, drawing me to their passion like a reverent pilgrim. I detoured there for a forest recharge and was awed.
I was on my way to deliver fabric for a burial shroud to the seamstress I work with. The cloth is heirloom French linen, sheets we think, from a great grandmother's trousseau. Tomorrow it will be pieced into a chrysalis shroud, with pockets for love notes and ties that come around in a gentle hug.
I have become accustomed over time to the unbearable conversations I have with the people I send shrouds to. Helping them choose fabrics, explaining how the wrapping can go easy, reassuring that they will find (in the communication between their hearts and their fingertips) that they do indeed know how. A mixture of practical advice and honest witness, I often hang up the phone with salty tears crossing my face.
It is more rare that I have the chance to sit with the dying person (and their spouse and sister). When the Shrouding Lady comes to visit, there is no hiding from death. Instead, there is an opportunity to sit with what is so, to take a breath, to run hands across a family's storied linens that have traveled from one century to the next and still hold the resilience to carry a person home to the earth. There is a sigh, a breath at the threshold. A moment infused with a degree of trust and surrender that I have no words for.
We talked about the fabric, the fine hand stitching and embroidered monogram, remembering a war bride's travels to America. We talked about hospice a bit, about green burial, about how to negotiate with the funeral home to transport a shrouded body directly to the cemetery without a casket. And when the dying person had left the room, we talked some about washing, wrapping, and carrying the body from the house. They asked what the people from the funeral home would actually do. How does one prepare a person for that wrenching finality? I mentioned they could invite friends to line the walkway to sing their loved one off. They had only imagined being terribly alone. They had not thought to sing.
And this morning, I stopped along the way to be reassured by the wanton blooming of New England orchids and came across a wonder to cherish. I delivered the linen, along with the old story of an immigrant bride and the rare beauty of a white lady's slipper, into the able hands of my seamstress friend. Both stories will be sewn into the shroud (with pockets for love notes) which I'll fetch and deliver in a few days. Some time in the next week or two, the linen will swaddle the person in a simple grave in the earth. When the Shrouding Lady comes to visit...
Breathe. Witness. Trust. Surrender. Wash. Wrap. Carry. Sing. Cherish.
Not many jobs would bring this collection of verbs to my day. Good words, and work I love. People ask how I came to be an end-of-life navigator and shroud maker. The long story is I was a kid who played in cemeteries and one curiosity lead to another. First I learned this and then I learned that, which lead to learning another thing, and so on. The short answer is, I followed my heart and life is full of surprises.