When I die I'm going to dance first in all the galaxies...I'm gonna play and dance and sing.
-Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

"A Hospital Where Last Rites Are Done Right" from Spirituality and Health magazine by Susan Maas:

Last spring, Theresa McHugo's beloved younger brother died in her arms at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

Soon afterward, Theresa dressed him in a linen gown trimmed with embroidery, with long, flared sleeves. The bedside table was cleared to make way for a rose, a candle, and an embroidered pouch for Tim's belongings. As family members entered the room, Tim's favorite music played softly. "They all commented on how beautiful he was," she says. "Like an angel. It made it easier on them, and on me. I felt so good to be able to do that for my brother."

"I get the chills when I think about it," adds McHugo, a nursing assistant.

The McHugo family is one of hundreds to experience North Memorial's After Death Care offering, an innovative component of the hospital's bereavement program. Occasionally, as in Tim's case, family members are the ones to dress the body and prepare the room. Usually, hospital staffers do the work: removing medical equipment and trash, adjusting the lighting, replacing the standard hospital bedding with special linens made to match the gowns lovingly sewn by volunteers.

The program supports grieving families by caring for departed loved ones, giving the family time to "linger, settle in, say goodbye," says Chaplain Greg Bodin, North Memorial's manager of pastoral care. "We're respecting the body not just as a biological entity, but as a person who was loved."

The endeavor was begun by William Kimber, M.D., a cardiologist at the hospital, whose father-in-law died of a heart attack during a trip to Norway. When Kimber, his wife, and their son went to view their loved one's body in an Oslo hospital room, they found themselves in a candlelit sanctuary where Kimber's father-in-law was dressed in "a linen burial gown, with lacy linen pillowcases--no tubes, no IV," with a rose beside the pillow and another in a silver vase. "The nurse and physician spent time with us, made sure we were okay with the grief process, offered to help us with the logistics. It was extraordinary."

Kimber believes that a warm, sympathetic ritual helped temper the family's shock and allowed them to focus on grieving. He shared his story at work, and several staff members and volunteers launched the program in 2001. They bought fabric and sewed gowns and bed linens, even laundering and ironing them. "Anybody on the committee who knew someone who could sew recruited volunteers," says Connie Petersen, R.N., assistant head nurse in the medical surgical intensive care unit.

Before, death at the hospital was "more clinical," says Petersen. "We used to use a plastic denture cup or a bag" for jewelry, glasses and the like. Today, she has a growing collection of letters from patients' families, thanking hospital staff for the unusual effort. "Sometimes this is their last goodbye, especially if the person is being cremated. This is the viewing."

The program isn't just helpful for the families, Bodin emphasizes. "A lot of staff say this has been a gift for them, that it's helped their processing of the loss of their patient. And it's a chance for them to care for the patient, and the patient's family, one last time."

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