Betty R. Ferrell, PhD, RN


December 03, 2014

Family Members Caring for the Body After Death

The first answer choice is not correct as there is evolving clinical and research evidence that family involvement after death is possible across settings. The second and third answer choices are also incorrect because nurses should not make assumptions about the desires of the family members. The last answer choice is correct: The best approach is for the nursing staff to meet with the family to offer options for their involvement, address their questions, and develop a plan that is culturally respectful.

Advances in palliative care have emphasized that care during the final hours of life and after death can be essential elements of quality care for patients and their families. The National Consensus Project for Quality Palliative Care offers clinical practice guidelines, which suggest that care of the body after death is a component of this care.[1]

Our recent study of "Care of the Body After Death" reports on the perspectives of nurses on postdeath care. Nurses reported that rituals such as cleansing the body, involving family in bathing or dressing, and incorporating the family members' cultural or spiritual practices and other practices could be supportive for the nurse as well as the family.[2] Other nursing literature has addressed the opportunities for nurses to transform the time surrounding death as a valuable time for grief, healing, and meaning.[3,4]

Two examples of such practices were shared through the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC).[5] Nurses at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California, have implemented a bathing ritual in which families offer participation in the care of the body. A similar protocol has been implemented by Palliative Care Chaplaincy at Mayo Clinic in La Crosse, Wisconsin. These rituals involve practices such as bathing with oils and lotions, family inclusion in the care, and incorporating culturally appropriate prayers, poems, and blessings of the body.

As the end of life is increasingly seen not as medical failure but a sacred time with opportunities for care, such rituals will be important contributions. And across all settings, nurses are at the bedside at this vital time.

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