Background The care of a person who has died is of importance to the person themselves and to their loved ones. Nurses have a unique role in providing this care. This work explored the literature concerning the formal practices of the care of a dead person, the teaching of such practices and the cultural and informal curriculum by which such practices are passed on in nursing.
Methods A pragmatic review of UK and US published literature since the establishment of nursing as a trained profession in 1860. Journal databases, textbooks of nursing as well as historical archives were searched for materials.
Results The care of the dead person is ritualistic and prescribed. There are strong cultural influences on practices and little evidence base upon which these practices are based. Geo-political, religious and local cultures all have strong influences in both the practices and the tone of the care. The informal or tacit curriculum, such as the placement of tokens of respect such as flowers or the opening of windows to ‘let the spirit out’ is absent from teaching materials but alluded to in memoires and personal accounts.
The care of the dead person is secretive and professionally guarded. By some it is seen as a privileged activity and by others as an activity akin to punishment or of low value in the work of that shift, even one to avoid.
Conclusions The care of the dead person is an area of secrets and diversity of cultural values and approaches. There is a paucity of literature and evidence base.
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