By Angela Gutzer –
I am sure many of you reading this article have experienced a loved one’s death and/or funeral service. Depending on your background, the funeral may have consisted of a graveside memorial, a viewing, or a church service, with many variations on the theme of saying goodbye and memorialization of the individual. What most of these services have in common is that the remains of your loved one are held until that event is scheduled. This article will focus on the beauty and love that can be shared with a community by having your loved one near as you prepare to say goodbye to their earthy remains for their final destination.
Before the 20thcentury, families would care for their loved ones at home both prior to and after death. Often a clergy member and/or midwife would be in attendance. A family member or friend would build a coffin; another would dig the grave. Around the time of the US civil war, embalming became a way the deceased could be preserved to transport them home. The Second World War made embalming even more popular. Because embalming required the use of specialized tools and techniques, only trained individuals could perform the task. As time went on and cities grew larger the traditional ways were lost. The funeral industry grew as more people could afford to embalm and saw the process as a status symbol.
Fast track to today. Death is a taboo topic—one we are uncomfortable talking about. We are given one to two hours with the deceased before they are whisked away to be held in a morgue. We make funeral arrangements in a messy mixture of emotions including shock and utter despair. For some families, the price of a funeral and burial can be too expensive, leaving only the option of cremation with no viewing options. Regardless of the choice made, the loved one has been taken.
Home funerals are the way we can take back our loved ones. We can sit with them for hours and grieve among family members and friends. We can hold their hand and stroke their hair. We can make those arrangements for whatever we feel or know the deceased wanted for their final destination. We can play music they loved, or watch a memorial video they or someone made. We can eat and drink as a community with loving memories. We can get a clergy member or family member to speak, or say prayers. We can place flowers and plants around the loved one. After two to four days, your loved one can be transported to their ultimate destination. They can be placed in a casket the family has built and decorated. They can be wrapped in a beautiful shroud and carried. It is a time of recognition and love.
Enter back into the scene I left you within in the last article. My mother has just passed away in the palliative care ward in Saskatoon. The immediate family is all there. Each of us touching her, kissing her in turns, and crying. We are told we have as much time as we need; yet, we know they need the bed. Yet, we know the funeral home should be alerted. We wander around the bed in shock making the necessary arrangements. The nurses clean her remains without us in the room. The funeral home comes and moves her into a bag without us in the room. She is on a stretcher. We walk her into the basement, and down hallways to the back exit where we depart for the final time. We all dissemble to different cars in shock.
Doing research on funeral options prior to my mother’s death (and through the death doula course), I came across the CINDEA (Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives) site describing home funerals. I briefly did more research and asked a friend who was a funeral director. She had never heard of it and questioned how we could physically transport her remains home. I spoke with my sister about it. We were running on low engines. How would we get a permit to transport? How would we bathe her? Where would we put her? How long would we keep her? Where would we get ice? With all these unknowns and with our depleted energy we promptly decided to let go of the idea.
The last weekend of my death doula course revolved around home funerals and Green burials. Watching videos of people’s experiences brought me to tears of deep grief I had within me. If I could have held my mother’s hand for longer. If I could have sat beside her crying and talking. If I could have thanked her more profoundly. I cried in the class and quietly apologized to her for not taking care of her the way I felt she should have been. I recognized that this was something I could offer to my community so others could share in the special ritual of saying goodbye.
As I sit here crying and writing beside a lit candle, I know she is with me. Death brings us many gifts. One of the gifts she offered was to inspire me to seek knowledge through the death doula course. Through her death I seek to create community around death. Through her death it is a reminder to live life to the fullest. It is a reminder of how important we all are. No matter what our race, religion, sex, financial status, or views are, we will all die. And although we can not change this fact, we can choose how we will die. With our advanced directives, our wills, and our special people we place in charge of our wishes, we can alter the way we die. Perhaps we can also linger at home in the arms of loved ones.
Angela’s focus in the next year will be to transition from the veterinary world into the death doula services she hopes to provide. A special interest to her is home funerals, and Green burials with respect to both animals and people. The Cariboo Community Deathcaring circle has been created in the hopes that the community finds a place to address any of their needs in regards to the dying.