Today in the first part of a two-part interview, SevenPonds speaks with Susan Oppie of One Washcloth. Susan has been in the medical field for over 19 years and has worked as everything from a Home Health Aide for the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston to working extensively in hospice. Together with a group of two other women, Susan launched One Washcloth, which creates beautiful, simple washcloths for the bereaved to wash and care for their dead with. Their gesture is simple, but the message, particularly in the words of Susan, is profound: “The majority of people in our society are not aware of their rights regarding caring for the dead. The mission of One Washcloth is to reintroduce this ancient art in a simple, nonthreatening way.”
MaryFrances: What is One Washcloth and how did it get started ?
Susan: Well, we don’t really know how we should define it yet. We have an idea. One Washcloth is definitely a project, but it’s more like a campaign. I would like to say it’s part of a movement that is helping reconnect people with death and the ritual of caring for the dead.
MaryFrances: How does one get involved in making washcloths for the dead? What were your (the founders’) backgrounds?
Susan: So the three co-founders, Rochelle Martin, Lynn Holzmann and myself, are all nurses. So we’ve come to this by being around a lot of death in our lives. Lynn and I have done a lot of hospice nursing. Rochelle is a psych nurse in an emergency room in Canada.
“I would like to say it’s part of a movement that is helping reconnect people with death and the ritual of caring for the dead.”
— Susan Oppie
MaryFrances: You’ve certainly experienced a lot of death firsthand.
Susan: We’ve all seen a whole lot of death, and we’ve all seen what a strange disconnect there is in our society from it. And we realized that that’s just so unfortunate and that our society could really benefit from reconnecting with a part of the circle of life. Without that connection, our society can’t thrive – death is also a huge part of existence and it’s the denial of it that really plays into the pathology of our society. Denial of anything, on any scale, creates problems for people.
MaryFrances: How did such a group of women meet?
Susan: The three of us met through the home funeral movement. We’ve all volunteered for some period of time within that movement, and I actually just stepped down as one of the board members of the National Home Funeral Alliance due to my move to Hawaii. But I knew I still felt very strongly and very passionately about the work I had been doing.
I feel that my contribution to everything end-of-life-related has come from my profession. Nurses are a very powerful force, especially when we unite. We can make a huge change if we’re focused and believe in a need for change.
“It could feel like too much, and I can understand that. So you really had to be drawn to it to take it up.”
— Susan Oppie
MaryFrances: Any thoughts on the home funeral movement?
Susan: I think the home funeral movement is fantastic; I’ve been involved in it for about nine years now. Other nurses used to get a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look when I told them about it, but they thought, “We’re already understaffed and overworked, how can we integrate this and learn all of the legalities…”. It could feel like too much, and I can understand that. So you really had to be drawn to it to take it up.
MaryFrances: Whose idea was it to bring in the washcloth idea? To really make it the center of everything?
Susan: The three of us got together to speak about what we as nurses could do in the movement. Rochelle actually shared her habit of handing loved ones a washcloth in the emergency room after a death. No matter how tragic or violent a death was, she would always offer a washcloth to the survivors. Every time that they accepted it, she saw a huge transformation take place – just through that simple gesture.
Join us next Saturday for Part Two of this interview, where Susan will go in-depth about everything from the use of the washcloths to the surprising, inspiring stories of those who have benefited from them.