Friday, April 17, 2015

Preserving a Body with Aloe and Peruvian Mint -- book excerpt

How we preserved Dolores' body when she died
Using Aloe vera and Peruvian mint

[An excerpt from Christopher Nyerges’ book, “Til Death Do Us Part?” which is available from Kindle or a pdf download from]

After 1 p.m. or so, I began to call people to tell them that Dolores had died.  I was still in shock and disbelief.  I informed Dolores’ mentor RW as well as Prudence, Fikret, and Marilyn.  My operations began to be somewhat auto-pilot, as if I was in this world of alternate reality that I didn’t quite yet believe, but I still had to keep my body moving as if it was all real.

I covered Dolores’ body with a blanket, and my mind raced to think what I should do next.  I knew I would do a moment by moment life-review with Dolores during the better part of the next three days.  But I was also acutely aware that Dolores wanted her body to be left alone for three days after death. 

By 3 p.m. or so, Julie, Prudence, Fikret, RW and I gathered up on the hill.  We sat close together in a small circle and poured coffee-elixir, including one cup for Dolores. We toasted by touching our cups, and holding our cups in that touched position while we thought of Dolores.  I strongly felt Dolores above us as we sat there on the back porch.  I couldn’t control myself and I put my face into my hands and sobbed uncontrollably.  Everyone was quiet.

Then, after a while, we spoke of many things in the following two hours, including, “What now?”  Can we fulfill Dolores’ wishes of leaving her body alone for 3 days.  And if so, how do we do that?  None of us were undertakers and we had never done anything like this. 

After a lengthy discussion, we agreed that we would do our best to keep Dolores’ body preserved for the next three days.  I would not call any authorities to inform them of Dolores’ death, since we felt pretty certain that the legal authorities would not respect Dolores’ wishes, but would simply demand to inspect the body and remove it to elsewhere to do whatever they do to dead bodies.  Julie and Prudence came over that evening to prepare Dolores’ body.  Prudence had collected a huge bag of Aloe and jade and Peruvian mint.  Our plan was to wash and then wrap Dolores’ body, and then to set it on some sort of upraised rack in the bathtub.  We thought this was a good plan because the bathroom was always very cool, and we thought that a dead body would leak fluids.  Frankly, we had no idea what to expect.

I carried Dolores to the bathroom and we carefully and thoughtfully washed her body with warm water and soap, and then I combed her hair.  Meanwhile, Prudence washed and pureed all the green plants in the food processor.  She added a little water, and we had a thick green material, which we then strained. The result was about a half-gallon of very thick gelatinous green material. 

We set three milk crates up in the tub as a rack, and laid a large flat rigid screen over the crates.  We folded a thick blanket and laid it onto this rack.

Then we lovingly covered Dolores’ entire body with the green solution, and Prudence placed crushed Peruvian mint leaves into all the body openings (eyes, mouth, ears, etc.). We then dressed her in one of her long cotton T-shirts, and wrapped her with muslin cloth.  We then further wrapped her entire body in two layers of thin blankets, and then placed about ten “blue ice” containers around her body to keep it cool.  We lit a little votive candle and placed roses on top of her body.

Lastly, we tied a little bronze bell to Dolores toe via a string, so that the bell hung over the edge of the tub. This was based on an old practice since sometimes the “dead person” wasn’t really dead and could ring the bell to alert people that they’d awaken from their death-like coma.  In some cases, a person would be in a coffin, with a string stretched to the outside attached to a bell.  We were quite certain that Dolores was not merely in a coma, and that her time had come, but we tied on the bell nevertheless.

We felt we’d done as well as we could, so we cleaned up and Prudence and Julie departed.

I spent a fitful night, half-crying, half trying to review the details of our life together.  I took some notes that night, and tried to look at our interactions month by month from when we met, what I did right, what I did wrong, what I could have done better. 

In that moment, with Dolores “gone,” I felt plunged into a deep psychic darkness and I felt that my life was naught but a wasted opportunity, and that it was all so much loss.  I felt remorse and regret that I had caused Dolores so much pain in a marriage that seemed so full of promise at the beginning.  Even the entire world seemed dark, gloomy, empty.

I slept lightly, off and on, and awoke Wednesday to a cold dreary day.  I don’t remember what I did all day.  I ate something, I checked on Dolores, I cried, I met with someone.

In the evening, Prudence came over and we checked Dolores’ body. Our plan was to rewash and to re-cover her body with new linen and herbs. But there was no bad odor and no dripping liquids.  We didn’t know what to expect but her body seemed well-preserved and even sweet-smelling.  So we uncovered the blankets, and over the muslin, we applied a thick layer of Aloe vera juice we had just made.  As we had done the night before, we pureed the fresh Aloe leaves, strained them, and then covered Dolores’ body in this green solution.  Her body seemed to quickly absorb the Aloe.  This was actually very fascinating to do, and to observe, something I’ll never forget.

Then we wrapped and covered her body again, put back the blue ice, the roses, the photos, and re-tied the bell to her toe.  Prudence departed and I spent another fitful night.

Prudence came back Thursday night to check on Dolores body, and when we examined her, we found that there was no foul odor, and no appearance of any sort of “decay.”  We simply rewrapped the body, re-tied the bell, and put back the blue ice and roses.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"The Winds Erase Your Footprints" -- a glimpse of Navajo life during the 30s.

A book by Shiyowin Miller

[Nyerges is the author of several books, and he conducts field trips in ethnobotany.  He can be contacted at]

One of the books that came out of my family was “The Winds Erase Your Footprints,” written by my wife Dolores’ mother, Shiyowin Miller.  Shiyowin, who was part Osage, was immersed in Native American culture. I remember visiting her home in Temple City, which seemed like an Indian museum with a full library, drums, pots, and artifacts from all over the country.  Shiyowin had been a music and dance teacher, and was a professional dancer. She knew Iron Eyes Cody, and worked with Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux who wrote “My People the Sioux” and other books. Luther Standing Bear adopted Shiyowin, and let Shiyowin act as his agent for his various books and other legal matters. It brought the past alive to me when I was able to see and feel the pipes, sandals, robe, and other materials that Standing Bear had given to Shiyowin.  (There is a special exhibit of Standing Bear’s robe and other items at the Crazy Horse Museum in South Dakota.)

Shiyowin also had many friends from the Navajo lands. In the 1930’s, Shiyowin’s best friend, Juanita, fell in love with a Navajo man, Luciano, who’d been working as an extra in Hollywood.  Juanita and Luciano got married, and moved back to Luciano’s Navajo lands in New Mexico.

Shiyowin kept in touch with Juanita, and wrote about the experiences that Luciano and Juanita underwent on the reservation, during the Depression when there was so little work.

Shiyowin edited and revised and rewrote her book many times over the next 30 years, and she died in 1983 before it was ever published.  I married Shiyowin’s daughter Dolores in 1986, and when I saw the box with hundreds of pages of manuscript, I asked Dolores if I could read it.  In fact, Shiyowin had hired Dolores to type many of the revisions over the years, and so Dolores was familiar with the content.

Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe that it had never been published. Shiyowin had actually received an offer from a publisher some 20 years earlier, but since she kept rewriting and revising, it never got published.  To me, it was like reading a Tony Hillerman novel, except it was true!

Everyone said that the book accurately depicted life on the Rez during that time, mixed in with some accounts of Navajo witchcraft.  With some editing, Dolores and I got the book published in 2002 by Naturegraph Press, which features many Native American titles.  If you do an internet search with the book's title, you'll see some of the reviews that have been published about this book. 

The story was descriptive, compelling, and you feel as if you are re-experiencing the harsh winds, the life in the Hogan making coffee, the search for work, and all the ceremonies and gatherings that were a part of the Navajo way of life.  The books, which was 335 pages when published, also contained hints and clues in the backdrop about Navajo witchcraft, and the ma-itso, the wolf clan which was feared by most.

The freak death of Luciano was generally attributed to the work of the ma-itso, and Shiyowin gives the clues in bits and pieces, in the way that Tony Hillerman so masterfully slowly revealed his mysteries.

The line drawings for the book were drawn by Navajo artist Chester Kahn. Shiyowin’s daughter Dolores stated that the drawings seemed the ideal artistic representation of Shiyowin’s work, capturing the feeling and quality of the historical account. 

The books is available from Amazon, or from the Store at

The following excerpts from THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS are Copyright  and may not be re-printed without permission of the publisher.

Fom chapter 7: The Sing
"Before we came here," her husband began, "when I tried to tell you about everything which might seem strange to you, I didn't tell you about ma-itso--the wolf clan. One reason, it no longer seemed as believable to me as it once had; perhaps all the years in school did that; anyhow, in Hollywood I seldom thought of it. When we came here, my mother told me the wolf clan was still strong in CaƱoncito. I didn't tell you then because I could see no reason why they would try to harm us. But to be sure you were safe, my mother and sisters watched you every minute.

"There were times when I almost told you, those times when you were upset about things you didn't understand. And yet I hated to frighten you needlessly. Already there was so much for you to worry about. It seemed better to wait until I had a job, until we were living in town and then tell you. "But now two things have happened which make me sure the ma-itso is for some reason after us. I found yellow pollen in an X mark on my hat brim, and today my mother found pollen on our clothes. That is their warning. Lorencito thinks you will be safer if you know about this evil thing."    A hundred questions sprang to Juanita's lips, but her husband went on talking, interrupted now and then by Lorencito or his mother.

"The wolf clan is as old as the Navajo tribe. From the beginning some men turned certain powers, which should have been used for good, toward evil things. Corn pollen, used for blessing, is used by the ma-itso as a warning to a person marked for death. And death does not come in a usual manner; it comes in a round-about way which cannot be easily traced. The victim sickens suddenly; sometimes his mind leaves him. No Medicine Man can cure him. Sometimes the victim meets with a mysterious and fatal accident.       

Fom chapter 13: Wolf Tracks
Juanita had hung up two diapers when she became suddenly aware of something across the arroyo. When she looked carefully nothing seemed unusual; in the dim light she could see the sharp banks of the arroyo, the clumps of juniper in dark patches on the other side. Then gradually, two of the dark juniper patches began to take on the indistinct forms of dogs sitting on their haunches.

That was what imagination would do for you. She even thought now that she could see the large
pointed ears. Juanita smiled to herself. This must be what Lu had seen, the queer-shaped juniper
bushes. They looked surprisingly like coyotes, only larger. The likeness had even startled her for a
moment and her mind had certainly not been on wolves or wolf tracks. She pulled her eyes away and began resolutely to hang up more diapers.

A sudden movement, one dark figure detaching itself from the other and moving farther down the arroyo, a third form appearing almost directly across from her on the opposite bank. Juanita stood absolutely still. There was no sound except the flapping of the clothes on the line.

When Juanita reached the kitchen door, she called to her husband to bring the shotgun. "Those
figures that you saw are out there again." This couldn't be her voice, tight and choked.

Two of the dark forms were loping off down the arroyo when Luciano reached the bank, but the
third sat directly across from him like a very large coyote on its haunches. Luciano raised his gun and fired directly at it. The animal seemed to gather itself into a ball and plunge down the bank of the arroyo--across the wide, sandy bed.

"Lu! Watch out! It's coming for you."
He raised the gun to fire again ...      

Sunday, April 05, 2015

“The Medicine Finally Worked…"

Spotted Owl of the Ojibway Nation inspects one of the Aloe vera plants sold at the WTI booth at Highland Park's Old L.A. Farmers Market

Some experiences with the Remarkable Aloe Vera Plant

[Nyerges is the former editor of Wilderness Way magazine, and the author of 14 books, including “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and others. He leads regular outdoor field trips to identify edible and medicinal wild plants. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

Sometime in late 1978, my mother shared with me an experience she had with the Aloe vera plant.  My mother, Marie, was a Registered Nurse who worked at a Pasadena retirement home as the staff nurse.  About three months earlier, a housekeeper who lived on-site at the retirement home began to break out in a hive-like rash that caused her to itch constantly. The cause was said to be a nervous condition.  The patient’s thighs, back, arms, shoulders, and neck all broke out in this rash, which the patient described as “burning like fire.”

My mother offered to apply the juice of the aloe leaf to the patient’s red spots, but the patient responded, “No, I’ll have the doctor check it.” The doctor came and prescribed Atarax (internally) for the itching and allergies, and cortisone (externally), which was  applied as a cream.  The doctor also prescribed tranquilizers for sleep.

After about 45 days, the patient, Lucille, told my mother that she still could not sleep at night, and that the rash hadn’t improved. Lucille noted that there was a slight improvement in the rash when she stayed home and didn’t go to work, so Lucille and the doctor assumed this was a nervous condition associated with work.

So my mother, Lucille’s nurse, asked again if she’d like to try some aloe.  Lucille responded, “Yes, please, bring me anything!”  My mother noted that Lucille’s skin was hot to the touch, and there were big red spots all over.

At 7:30 a.m., my mother took a fresh succulent Aloe vera leaf, slit it open, and rubbed the gel on Lucille’s arms, legs, back, neck – almost her entire body.  Lucille said her skin immediately felt better.  By 3:30 that afternoon, all the visibly red spots were gone, and Lucille happily told my mother that all of the burning itching was gone.  The next day Lucille told my mother that that night was the first night she’d slept in the previous approximately 45 days.

My mother had been somewhat reticent to apply the aloe because she was subservient to the doctor, and could have lost her license by doing something without the approval of the doctor.

When the doctor arrived, Marie told him that Lucille’s rash had cleared up, and she admitted to having applied aloe juice.  The doctor was somewhat taciturn as he examined the patient, and, without commenting on the aloe,  told my mother, “It’s good that the medicine finally worked.”  Really?!

My mother always had a laugh re-telling this story about a doctor who couldn’t see the obvious!  Eventually, the other nurses referred to my mother as the “witch-doctor” because she used aloe and various other natural methods of healing, behind the doctor’s back. 

Over the years, I had my mother document the many cases where  she use aloe to cure various skin condition, on her patients, herself, and even cats.

Marie used aloe for sun burn, burns from hot oil,  skin sores, diaper rash, bed sores, even poison oak rash.

In one case, our family cat had a large open ulcer on his thigh – we weren’t sure of the cause, but we presumed that the cat got into a fight.  My mother directed me to put some of fresh aloe gel onto the ulcer every day for three day, while also making some of the aloe leaf into a juice which was added to the cat’s water. The wound was completely healed after three days.  “It was unbelievable,” expressed Marie, “but it worked!”

My mother’s experiences took place over 35 years ago, and today, Aloe vera is a common household word. You can buy it anywhere, even Trader Joe’s markets. And as the succulent plant was studied and researched all these years, many have come to call it a miracle herb. 

The properties of aloe are a broad mix of antibiotic, astringent, pain inhibitor, emollient, moisturizer, antipruritic (reduces itching), as well as a nutrient.  It apparently works because of the polysaccharides present, the main one of which is a glucomannan.  Others ingredients of the aloe include galactose, uronic acids, and pentoses.  The miracle qualities of the aloe is not believed to be the polysaccharides alone, but the synergistic effect of these and other compounds in the leaf.

Obviously, many have tried to create an aloe product that you can buy in the bottle, and some are quite good.  I’ve had some good results from the aloe drink that I have purchased at Trader Joe’s market. But please make no mistake about it: the best results come from the gel from the freshly-broken leaf of aloe.  And though Aloe vera seems to be the best, any of the juice from any aloe can be used for burns, poison oak, etc.