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Aromatherapy in Hospice: The Connection to Biblical Oils

Boswala tree makes the essential oil frankincense which is helpful to hospice patients

By Valerie Hartman

More than a year ago, I started studying for my clinical aromatherapy certification, perhaps an unusual thing for a hospice nurse. The introductory weekend explored Biblical oils: more than 18 aromatic plant oils are mentioned in the Old and the New Testament.  While I expected to be learning about essential oils that were used for religious purposes (such as an anointing), I discovered that the essential oils of Biblical times reflect a lifestyle. Dating back 4,000 years ago people of all faiths and traditions had a close relationship with, and reliance on, the extracted oils from a variety of herbs, flowers, and tree resins. Physicians and spiritual leaders relied on plants for health and spiritual care.  Physicians used essential oils for healing ailments (anxiety, depression, insomnia); spiritual leaders burned aromatics in sacred rituals and used essential oils to prepare the body after death and to ease the grief of mourners.

Biblical oils comprise a list of some of the most effective essential oils in the day that protected against the plague, were used for healing, and promoted more peaceful spiritual practices.  Among the list of precious oils: Frankincense, Myrrh, Balsam Fir, Sandalwood (Aloes), Rose of Sharon, Spikenard, Juniper, Pine, Olive, and Myrtle. Sandalwood is an example of an aromatic that was used in spiritual traditions of the Chinese, Sanskrit, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist faiths in ritual ceremony.

In hospice, Biblical and spiritual essential oils still carry these traditional connections into modern day. You can use essential oils in a diluted carrier safely (one drop on a cotton square to inhale) as a way to bring the essence of spiritual connection into the hospice experience.

  • A drop of Frankincense on a cotton square in ritual every Sunday can symbolize the Spiritual practice of one’s faith tradition.
  • A drop of Hyssop on a cotton square can be used in active dying, useful for moist breathing; symbolic of the last plant oil given to Jesus on the cross before he died.
  • Sandalwood on a cotton square can deepen a meditative state and assist with spiritual contemplation while easing anxiety.
  • For those that find spiritual connection through the simplicity of nature itself, the aroma of a favorite flower can be enough to bring someone to universal contemplation:  rose, lavender, sage, geranium, basil, sweet orange, bergamot, ylang ylang, or even patchouli can be used for the memories and symbolisms that they connect to.
  •  Simpler still, in the last days of life the use of lavender oil lightly massaged on the palms will hold symbolism, an emotional gesture.  Lavender calms the nervous system and is a good antibacterial essential oil for the skin during this time.  A drop of rose essential oil on the upper chest over the heart holds symbolism.  Rose essential oil calms the nervous system, has an aroma that is connected to transitions and emotional life.
  • Consider the practice of adding an essential oil to the ritual of post mortem care, cleaning and preparing the body before the funeral home arrives.  A 1% or 2% dilution of lavender essential oil in a carrier oil (jojoba or coconut oil, or olive oil) can be applied to the arms, hands, legs and feet, the back, or the face of the body if it feels appropriate to the deceased wishes, the families wishes.  Many families who participate in this lovely ritual feel that the essential oils honor the body and life of their loved one in a unique and special way.

To learn more about the safe use and application of essential oils please visit:

If your hospice program has a clinical aromatherapist on staff, inquire about using essential oils for spiritual connection.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. i will try the sandalwood for Al

    September 6, 2012
    • Valerie Hartman #

      If you are purchasing sandalwood essential oil, I might try to find it at a health food store, or if you have a wholefoods market nearby, look there. It is important to buy an essential oil that is therapeutic grade, not perfume grade. Sandalwood should be available at any healthfood store that carries essential oils. One drop right from the bottle onto a cotton square will be strong, and enough for an effect. Simply allow him to breathe it in, you do not have to place the cotton square close to his face, the molecules evaporate and can be inhaled from a distance. Throw the cotton square away after a time. Never apply essential oils directly from the bottle onto the skin. I suggest you read about the safe use and storage of oils on the website. They are very simple to use, and I hope this information is helpful. Valerie

      September 7, 2012
      • Valerie Hartman #

        ..also, I was on the phone yesterday with Lisa Browder from Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas. She is a Complementary Therapy Program Director, a Registered Aromatherapist, and the Director for the Nevada Chapter of NAHA. We were talking about using the essential oils for their pleasant aroma (choosing an oil that is pleasing) vs. choosing an oil to improve a symptom. What if someone is not crazy about the aroma of the oil that might help them with a symptom? Lisa feels strongly that if given a choice, an oil that someone loves the smell of, vs an oil that is clinical but not so nice smelling, offer the nice smelling oil first. The simple action of inhaling a pleasant essential oil is calming to the nervous system and does have an effect for the pleasant memories associated with it alone. The Spiritual oils have those connections deeply rooted, so in many ways using Biblical oils can act like guided imageries.

        September 7, 2012
      • thank you so much for this information, as i didn’t know any of this. i will be very careful and also read the information

        September 7, 2012
  2. Karen Hale #

    This is my favorite one ever!

    September 6, 2012
    • Valerie Hartman #

      Hi Karen, thank you! I know that you have shared some of the blog posts with your hospice staff. We always appreciate the feedback, I, too, enjoyed writing this blog post very much. Wonderful exploration of essential oil use in hospice.

      September 6, 2012
  3. l3z70pn2uin89oq8t6vb

    August 9, 2017

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