Washing the dead

I was watching BBC’s The Retreat on Monday. It follows a similar format to The Monastery and The Convent of the last two years, but The Retreat is Muslim. As with the other series the group who have gone on the retreat are taken through a variety of exercises – in this case Sufi exercises – to help them explore theire spirituality and a potential relationship with God. On Monday night they engaged in a curious exercise called Washing The Dead. Essentially, one member of the group “plays dead” and the others simulate the washing of his body as if preparing it for burial.

Death has a powerful impact on our lives, it is the only certain thing, and in Western society we are more afraid of it than ever, because we are more divorced from it than ever. Have you ever seen a dead body? How many times? How many people do you know that have died, died before “their time”? This removal of death from the every day has resulted in our increasing inability to cope with death and decreasing resources for dealing with death when we do confront it.

This  exercise of “washing the dead” was a powerful moment in the programme because many members of the group had lost close family, one member in particular Pom found it very upsetting. She said that it made her feel as if she were back by the bed of her sister as she lay dying. Late she expressed that although it had been very upsetting at the time through participating in what is essentially a very simple ritual she now felt as if a weight had been lifted from her – her sister had died when she was 12 she is now in her 20s.

This form of playing opened up the group to discuss death and to confront their own death and those deaths of others that they hadn’t yet come to terms with. This is the gift that play can offer our sprirituality. What rituals could we bring to Christian spirituality to enable us to penetrate some of the mysteries?


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