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In a recent episode of Kate Bowler’s podcast, Everything Happens, the actor and director, Richard Grant, shared the story of his late wife’s death. Richard met Joan Washington (a renowned dialect coach) in the early 1980s and they loved each other fiercely for the rest of their shared lives. “Essentially, a conversation that began in bed in January 1983,” he said, “ended in bed holding each other’s hands, at 7:30 on the 2nd of September, 2021, when she died.”

Richard told their love story to Kate (and also to readers of his recent memoir, A Pocketful of Happiness). A man after my own heart, Richard kept a “forensically detailed diary” of Joan’s cancer journey and death. The particulars of what happened in the hours after Joan died drew me into his story (and also deeper into my own memories). The Undertaker – a “really old school Englishman from the countryside,” according to Richard – came into their home and said, “Would you mind if I, if I talk to Joan? While we’re preparing everything?”

And I said yes, yes, go ahead. And he said to her, “Joan, we’re now going to wrap you in the folding sheet, and then we’re going to lift you onto a stretcher, and then we’re going to put you in the car, and we’re really going to look after you.” And it sounds so bonkers now when I repeat that. But, his calmness and him just speaking to her and explaining. And because she was very, very pragmatic, I thought, well, she would have found this extremely amusing, but also grateful that she was being told exactly what was going to happen.

The Undertaker. Doing the work of Taking Under. And doing it so well.

The Undertakers that came to take my mom’s body to the funeral home on the evening of November 4, 2020, were not old school Englishmen and they didn’t talk to my mom’s body. But I will not soon forget the gentleness of Elise and Rose. Even their names sound soft and kind in my mouth as I speak them now. They arrived and we welcomed them into Mom’s “happy place” – the den with the couch and the blankets and the lamps and the sliding doors leading out to the oft-sun-soaked deck. Mom’s body had chilled by the time they arrived, save for the warm spot on her legs where her loyal old beagle, Abby, had curled herself.

We scooped up the dog and had her sniff Mom’s face one more time. Abby looked away.

No breath. No kisses.

Elise and Rose invited us to help wrap Mom’s body in a sheet. They moved so slowly and carefully, but the moment they began to fold the sheet down over her face felt quite abrupt. “I’m not ready for that yet,” I said, and moved the sheet away so that I could kiss her forehead one more time. For me, a kiss on the forehead is always a subconscious check for fever… a test for a relative degree of warmth.

No warmth. None at all. Carry on with that sheet-tucking and head-wrapping.

They lifted her on to a stretcher, placed a blue quilt over top of her and tucked a pillow under her wrapped head. And then they took her out. Took her away. Took her under. We walked out to the front porch and watched them load her into the back of their vehicle. In my diary account, I wrote: “And we came in the house and I wailed. And we took the towel and sheets and blankets off the hospital bed and started the laundry.” As she would have wanted.

In the middle of that first night, unable to sleep, I texted a friend whom I knew would be awake. I told her about the undertaking: “How kind and hard it was when her body was taken away. How haunted I was by the end.”

When Kate Bowler interviewed poet and Undertaker Thomas Lynch for her podcast, his thoughts went down a similar path. “I think somehow that we are all sort of happily haunted by the people that loved us and we loved. Or we argued with a lot. And contended with, but took seriously. And I think their lives and times and loves and foibles still haunt us in a way.”

Richard Grant said one other thing about the old Englishman Undertaker:

He came back a week later, after the cremation… And he had a Hessian bag with a, a box of ashes, and he handed it over at my front door, the cottage where we were living in the countryside and said, he said, “This weighs approximately the same as a baby when it’s born, so…”

And as Richard recalled that moment with the Undertaker, I could picture the careful transfer of the bagged box of ashes… almost like the giving over of an infant from a labour and delivery nurse to a first-time father.

Dr. Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist who wrote much about the relationship between mothers and babies just after birth, said it this way: “When a baby is born, a mother is also born.” Hmmm… yes. When I was born, my mother was born as a mother. And when my mother died, in some ways it also felt like a birth was happening. Again, in a text to my friend that night: “We sang so hard and so loud and cried so unabashedly. It felt like we were coaching her into the birth of death. Shouting her into glory almost.”

When my mother died, she was born into glory. And something else happened. A new gestation began within me… a new undertaking. I now carry her inside of me – her life, her times, her loves and foibles. I am happily haunted.

When Mom’s ashes came back to us, they came not in a box, but in the urn we had given to Elise and Rose, beautifully crafted by one of my mom’s dearest friends. The urn is buried now, taken under the ground of a cemetery a short walk away from my sister’s house. But before we buried it, we held it. Before we buried her, we held her. One more time. As cold and unbreathing as clay is, we remarked at how softly and snugly it fit in the crooks of our necks.

“Like a baby content in its mother’s arms, my soul is a baby content.”

Psalm 131:2, The Message

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lives in Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, three children, and a dog.


  • Barb Whalen says:

    Oh Heidi, you write and share so beautifully. My grandfather’s undertaker was Grandpas Case’s dear friend. Larry talked to his friend. They became friends when my grandfather offered Larry a place to stay- my grandparents’ spare bedroom. They were many years apart in age. Grandpa died at age 98. Larry must have been in his 50s. A week earlier my grandmother died at age 95. Grandpa who had Parkinson’s and was non verbal was at the wake. I have a picture of him in a wheelchair next to the casket. There are 4 very young great grandchildren around him talking to him and he is smiling. The nursing home people said from the time he came bacjk to his room that day they could tell he was mourning. We know he died of a broken heart. They lived in their own home until just a few years earlier probably 5 years…until an aunt told grandpa that Mom would like to retire too. He had retired at 65. My mother told Larry to do the same funeral for Grandpa as grandma’s there week before.
    Larry also did my mom’s funeral. I called him the funeral Nazi. His instructions to pallbearers was to line up in height order. Kinda difficult because the 8 tall handsome grandsons were all either 6’ or 6.1. They all just looked at each other – one exception – Nick who is 6.7. At the gravesite Larry instructed me to line up with me the oldest first…I asked him – do you want us in height order too? :). At my step dad’s funeral Larry was lining up cars, he came to me abs said where is your mother .. she was in the driver’s seat waiting for him to proceed. Strong woman.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Beautiful. Psalm 131 – being held.

  • Bev Veltkamp says:

    Beautifully written. Beautiful Winnie left a legacy and was welcomed Home!!!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    This brought the tears of different passings, but same undertakers. My beloved mother died after falling down her lower level stairs on New Year’s Eve in 2009. We did not find her for 1 1/2 days because she and we lived dependent/independent lives as she was in good health in her own home. That night, after my husband had broken in the door, I didn’t get there until the house was filled with paramedics and police, and I couldn’t go down to where my husband, Doug, had released her from where she had died, almost instantly, from a broken neck, against the closed door at the base of the stairs, It still haunts me that we couldnt tell her how much we loved her. Then our beloved Alia died last year and we could at least kiss her coolling face one last time, although none of us where able to be next to her as they tried to save her life. Both violent deaths, in different ways. Our undertakers and friends, the Sytsema family, grieved with all of us they went about their seemingly unimaginable tasks with dignity, love, and profound compassion, giving us a measure of peace. They held, protected, and walked us through both of these events, and grieve Alia with us still. A remarkable profession went done with gracefilled love.
    I especially loved “When my mother died, she was born into glory. And something else happened. A new gestation began within me… a new undertaking”. We carry on, no matter the circumstances, and a new sense of purpose for ourselves does begin to grow. Thank you, again, for such eloquence.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thanks Heidi, My Mom died at 58 years when I was 26 and lived far from her. When our family went to view her body at the funeral home, my Dad said, “Would one of you girls please fix her hair the way she wore it?” I will always remember combing her hair on her cold human remains. It was a precious moment.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Oh Heidi, so poignantly written and relatable. However it was the two photos side by side of your mom and you that brought a deep audible sob. Both such intimate moments. Bless you for sharing this.

  • Mary says:

    Today is the second anniversary of my husband’s death. It was an honor for our kids and I to be present as this man we loved dearly transitioned from this life into glory. We knew from conversation in the last days, where he was headed and that he both looked forward to it, and was expecting it; glory that is, he did not dwell on death. The gentle attention of caregivers for a body now without its soul is a comforting and precious thing. Thanks for writing this.

  • Tears.
    So beautifully written. So true and poignant. Thank you, Heidi, for capturing this sacred rite of passage.

  • Jane Porter says:

    Heidi, I love the love you and your sister had and still have for your mother. This writing takes me back to the deaths of both my parents. Thank you for this moment.

  • Karen Groen says:

    Thank you for such a beautiful tribute. Brought me back to the night the undertaker carried my father’s body out of the home. He had had Parkinson’s and was just skin and bones at the end of his life. I will always remember how the wrapped body in the arms of the undertaker looked like a baby being lovingly held. We were fortunate enough to be at his side singing his favorite hymns during those last hours of his life. A treasured memory.

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