Hands of the Dying Offer a Unique Memorial

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For the families of people near death, Trish Rogers provides a unique memorial. At the bedside, she creates a cast of the dying patient’s hand, sometimes by itself, but more often joined with the hand of a loved one.

The casts are exact reproductions that capture wrinkles, scars, veins, fingernails and the other odd, quirky features that make hands as distinctive as faces. She makes them free of charge for any family who requests them.

Ms. Rogers, an administrative assistant in critical care at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, began making the casts more than a decade ago, after a colleague mentioned hearing about the process at a conference.

“I wasn’t an art major,” Ms. Rogers said. “It’s just a gift I’ve been given, to give these families. It’s just a calling.”

Jennifer Foster, whose husband, Christopher, was struck and fatally injured by a truck last year, said that when she heard about the casts, “I knew right away that it was something I wanted.”

Mr. Foster, 32, had been declared brain-dead. He was an organ donor, and Ms. Rogers made the cast in the intensive care unit, shortly before he was taken to the operating room.

His wedding ring had been removed in the emergency room the day he was hit, and Ms. Foster was wearing it on a chain around her neck. She and Ms. Rogers put the ring back on his finger, and then Ms. Foster held her husband’s hand.

“I was very emotional,” Ms. Foster said. “I was crying, trying to get down kind of close to where he was so I was near him.”

As family members watched — Ms. Foster’s parents and sisters, her husband’s mother and other relatives — Ms. Rogers guided the couple’s hands, immersing them in a bucket of gel to create a mold. When the gel set, she helped ease their hands out. Then she poured plaster into the mold to create the cast.

A week later she presented the cast, mounted on a wood plaque, to Ms. Foster.

“It looks exactly like his hand,” Ms. Foster said. “Everything is the same. I highly cherish it.”

She keeps the cast on a shelf in her bedroom where she sees it every day, alongside a photograph of her husband and the urn containing his ashes.

“When the accident happened and I went into the hospital room where he was, I grabbed his hand and told him I’d never let it go,” Ms. Foster said. “And now I’ll truly never let it go.”

Ms. Rogers still has vivid memories of making her first cast, from the hand of a young woman who had been ill for a long time.

“I remember thinking, ‘Man, I need a bucket underneath my eyes,’ because I just bawled,” Ms. Rogers said. “For a while, I would cry at every one. Then, instead of crying I would just profusely sweat. Now I don’t, because I know what this means for families.”

She has never made a cast of a member of her own family.

“I think that’s part of what drives me to do it,” she said. “I wish I had one of my mother.” Her mother died in 1996, long before she began making the casts.

Requests for her craft have grown over the years as word has spread. Since last summer, she said, she has made about 60 casts. She usually gives the finished product to families outside the hospital, because for many it is too painful to come back inside so soon.

For parents of infants who have died, Ms. Rogers has created casts of the adults’ hands together cradling the child’s feet. When a parent dies, she makes a cast for each child. If the children are young, families often wait until they are old enough to understand before showing them the casts.

Dr. Buddy Hurst received one of Ms. Rogers’s casts when his wife, Carolyn, died in 2015, after 46 years of marriage. His wife was particular about her fingernails and did her own manicures, and the impeccable results show up clearly on the cast, Dr. Hurst said. Ms. Rogers also made separate casts for his three adult daughters, each holding her mother’s hand.

“It was very meaningful to us,” Dr. Hurst said. “Hands are really so distinctive and expressive and recognizable. It’s a powerful ministry she’s doing, providing these tangible memorials for people who are facing the loss of a loved one. If other places knew about it and had the capability of doing it, it would be a very valuable service for families to give them a little bit of comfort going forward.”