Grace’s death a few days after Christmas hit her family and friends like a sledgehammer. Yes, she’d been ill with cancer, but no one expected the abruptness of her exit. She’d been up and engaged in holiday festivities one day and, the next, dying in a hospital bed.
Friends who had sat with her through the night were not ready to relinquish her body to a funeral director when she died. They saw it as their role to accompany her through the days following death, marking her departure in a personal way and as a spiritual transition.
As a funeral guide for the non-profit, Natural Transitions, I helped her community, her people, to bring her body home, lay her out in a sunlit room and hold vigil with prayer, meditation, singing, and love. My role was not to take over, but to educate and empower, as a midwife for end of life. The circumstances were hard. There was so much grief. But so much healing happened in the days of Grace’s wake. The culmination was a memorial gathering in her living room. Friends reminisced, laughed, cried. The children, including Grace’s own galloped in and out of the room containing her body for a last look. She lay in a cardboard container, Gandhi-esque, just her head visible, her body clothed in white silk, decked with evergreens and flowers. The children had decorated the casket with their fond farewells and messages of love. Bees wax candles and essential oils perfumed the air. The space felt uplifted, inviting, not dark and foreboding.
Natural Transitions facilitates home funerals. Mostly we work with expected death, helping a family to consciously plan how they will honor transition as a rite of passage that touches many.
A home funeral is a family-centered response to death in which the family plays a primary role in caring for their dead, often forgoing the mortuary entirely. It’s a new but old way of funerary care. Families who conduct home funerals are invariably more environmentally conscious. They may advocate alternatives to conventional burial such as burying their loved-ones on private land or in designated conservation burial sites (conserved wilderness designated as appropriate for burial of un-embalmed bodies in graves located by GPS system). They shun embalming as an invasive, environmentally toxic procedure that also removes the body from the private domain, as it must take place in a mortuary. Home funeral families are hands-on. Their desire is to avoid an institutional, industrial approach to after-death care in favor of a more healing experience.
Those who assist families in the care of their own dead feel called to the work. Natural Transitions uses the term funeral guide to explain their role. My brother, who died at age nine in an intensive care unit, is the light that guides me to extend myself to others at the most challenging of times. His death, alone in the hospital, and then unmarked by my family in any meaningful, healing way, is in stark contrast to the way in which Crossings founder Beth Knox honored and integrated the death of her seven-year-old daughter. Knox’s child died in an air-bag accident. She brought her body home from the ICU, laid her out in her bedroom, and then invited an entire school community and more to visit to pay their respects. They filed through a room filled with stuffed animals, recognizing that their dear friend no longer enlivened her body.
The example of Knox inspired me to create Natural Transitions in 2003. I wanted to spread the word that most US States allow families to care for their own dead, something most people still do not know. Now, as we head into 2010, a National Home Funeral Alliance is forming to unite the growing number of educators and providers across the US who want to support families to exercise their innate right to conduct their own after-death care.
On January 23, 2010 in Boulder, Natural Transitions will be offering a day-long empowerment workshop to demystify what it might take to care for a body at death. In Caring for the Dead: Reclaiming a Sacred Tradition, written by Lisa Carlson we’ll address fears of being with dead bodies, the legality of the home funeral, how to lay out the dead, home wakes and vigils, and taking care of the paperwork.
You can register online and find out more information at www.naturaltransitions.org. You can also call 303-443-3418 for more information.