Death Clothes; Resurrection Love
I spent part of Thursday morning at Manna House sorting through clothing donations. On this particular morning, among the clothes I sorted, were some from a young man who died a little more than a week ago. His sister and her husband brought the clothes to Manna House on Tuesday. Such donations of clothing from the deceased are not unusual. Over the years, we have often received donations of clothing that belonged to someone who had died.
But this was the first time I started to reflect on how the receiving and sorting of clothes from those who have died is a holy task. I think I am beginning to see this now because I am still reflecting on my Mom’s death this past February. After she died, I sorted through her belongings with my sister and brothers. Though we certainly kept mementos, we had to let go of a great deal, including most of her clothing. In our grief, we had to let go of many things that would remind us of her. In my grief I am trying to learn how to live with love in the face of death. I am trying to nourish compassion and love and openness to God by acceptance of vulnerability and death.
This shapes how I see the giving of the deceased’s clothing as a holy moment. Those who have lost a loved one come to donate clothing they have seen the deceased wear. The old saying that “clothes make the man” point to an intimate reality about clothing; what we wear reflects our personalities, our work, our leisure, our sense of style (or lack thereof). In this way, the clothing of the person who has died still reflects something of his or her spirit. To give away their clothing is an acceptance of their death. It is part of the hard work of grieving. To let go of the clothing of the deceased is to let go, again, of the person who has died. For me to receive that clothing is to acknowledge the loss of those who grieve and to participate in their time of grieving. This is holy work, to grieve with those who grieve.
The giving of the deceased’s clothing is a holy moment, too, because the people who are grieving also affirm their desire for others to have this clothing. They honor the deceased by offering the clothing of the deceased for continued use, for people on the streets to be well-dressed, as well-dressed as the person they loved. The clothing is handed on so that others may have what they need. There is a graciousness in letting go while in grief so that others may receive. At the same time, the grief itself is lightened by the knowledge that others will use this clothing, others will appreciate in their lives a good pair of pants, or a comfortable shirt.
In light of my faith and my Mom’s death, I reflect on this holy moment of receiving the clothes of the dead by recalling a central mystery of Christianity, the cross and the resurrection. The clothing to be donated comes to me as a sign of death. I know from my Mom’s death that death’s power was palpable in the grief I felt not only when my Mom died, but also when her belongings were gathered up to be given away. How hard it was to bag up the very clothes that reminded me of the one I loved. Yet, as I found after my Mom’s death, and as I have seen at Manna House, the giving of the clothing for others to use is a sign of compassion and love in the midst of grieving the loss of a loved one. This clothing offered for others to use moves beyond the reality of death to the reality of ongoing life. Giving the clothing of the one who died is an act of love. And this love is not only what makes life possible, that love is not ended by death.