Deathopedia is a blog series that tackles topics about dying, death and loss, to build death literacy. To see death literacy in action in communities across Australia: check out Compassionate Communities Hub and Dying to Know Day.

Following on from the last question, was another:

How Do We Care For a Body at Home?

Before we begin, let's tackle some of the myths and fears about dead bodies.

The first is that the body will start breaking down or decomposing after a death at home.

Well, yes, they do. All humans and living things start to decompose after death. Our cells start dying and the body changes in a number of ways over the first few minutes, hours and days. So this isn’t a myth. The problem is however that because of how little we see dead bodies these days we tend to attribute normal decomposition (changes in skin colour and bloating etc) as signs of disease. Under most circumstances a dead body  provides no inherent risk to the living*.  In expected deaths at home most people have non-communicable diseases such as cancer, so that’s what we are focusing on here.

Firstly, take your time: Yes you eventually need to call the doctor to issue a death certificate. To paraphrase my friend Victoria Spence, put the kettle on, call people when you feel you need to. There is no rush.

Washing the body: Many people find this a very intimate and caring experience. It provides time to slow down and connect as family after someone has died. The act of washing a body means many different things. There are religious and spiritual traditions that involve rituals that need to be followed. For many of us washing the body is the final act of caring after illness. For those who die suddenly washing and caring for the body can be a way to come to terms with the shock of the experience. If you don’t have a spiritual or religious tradition it’s really up to you how you spend this time washing the body – you can wash a person’s hair, face, arms and legs, remove an old nappy and replace it with a new one until you coffin the body. The act of washing itself isn’t really that different to washing a person before they have died. You might want to use essential oils too. Dressing the dead also depends on traditions and your plans for body disposal. If you are being cremated it doesn’t really matter what you wear, whereas natural burial will call for natural fibres. Shrouds are also available.

Keeping a body at home does mean you need to consider the weather. A hot Sydney summer is going to be different to Tasmania in the winter. In some areas you can hire a cooling bed that keeps a body cold.

If you don’t have access to a cooling table there are a few things you can do to keep your environment cool and the body cool.

  1. If you don’t have air conditioning hire or borrow a portable air conditioner. If the area you are trying to keep cool is large you might consider a smaller room.
  2. Use ice or ideally dry ice to keep the body cool. This is best done by putting it into snap lock bags and placing them directly on the torso – over the stomach/intestines, heart and lungs. Don’t place directly on the skin.
  3. Turn off the electric blanket! (sorry obvious I know!)
  4. Cover the body in a light sheet or a shroud.

Which brings us to the next most common on concern – wee and poo. So yes of course bodily fluids exit in the same way that they do before death. But for most families in a home caring situation they are pretty used to managing this because it’s no different if the person is alive or has died. You can keep a nappy on the body and you simply pay attention to the body as it changes following death and respond and clean up as required.

We will tackle embalming another day,  but do keep in mind, there is no law that says a body must be embalmed before a vigil at home. There is well meaning information out there on the interwebs that advises families to embalm for home death and for viewings but legally there is no reason to do it, unless of course you want it.

Please share your stories too - how did you care for your loved one after death?


Have these questions got you thinking?

Attend one of our “Ten things you need to know about death” workshops. 

While it may seem scary to think about your own mortality, becoming death literate and building your capacity for end-of-life planning can help create healthier community attitudes about death. The 10 Things Workshops will teach you what you don’t know about death; allowing you to set aside your fears of having ‘the conversation’ and walk away knowing how to plan your end of life the way you want to.

At the Groundswell Project’s 10 Things Workshops you will walk away with ten facts about death that will impact you and your loved ones. 


*posts like this do seem to cause mild panic about the risk of disease from dead bodies. If you want to know more Wikipedia has great information about the myths of dead bodies as does this nerdy but upbeat little video about the natural process of decay.  This blog post is not about dead bodies that had communicable diseases and clearly I’m also not referring to how to care for the dead after a disaster such as a tsunami.

Kerrie NoonanComment