When the time comes, which do you want: a funeral home or a home funeral? Burial or cremation? Fancy casket or cardboard box? Ashes in an urn or scattered someplace special? Who have you told about what you want? No one? I’m not surprised. Death hasn’t been a popular topic of conversation — until now. That’s because of an emerging “death positive” movement.
Our first exposure to death usually comes in childhood. As a kid, I remember driving from Virginia to Pennsylvania several times a year to visit with my grandparents, Nana Mom and Pappy.
They lived in a big house on a hill in Altoona. Cousins from Ohio and Washington DC would all come at the same time. We would gather on the enclosed front porch. It was long and narrow with lots of windows and a cracked linoleum floor. It also had a red swing big enough to hold 3 or 4 of us at the same time. There were kid-sized chairs, a kid-sized desk filled with crayons and the pretty fronts of old Christmas cards, a deck of playing cards, and a ceramic wall-vase filled with flowers my grandmother made with wire and crepe paper. She once told me she didn’t use the porch. I told her I didn't understand why she'd have a room she didn't use. She said it was for the grandchildren.
When the cousins gathered, we filled the porch with laughter and silly songs. Just off the porch, inside the main part of the house, was the living room. On the right side of the room was a couch, several chairs, and a small table for the wooden radio. After Pappy went blind, he spent his days sitting there listening to music and news. He smoked a pipe that made the room smell like vanilla. There were windows on that side of the room.
I always assumed the left side of the room was the dining room. It had a long table decorated with a lace runner and a glass vase. But we never ate there. There weren’t any chairs. There weren’t any windows, either. I don’t remember details about the wallpaper except that it was dark. The whole room was dark. Gloomy. Creepy. To get from the porch to the kitchen where the adults always gathered, you had to walk past the creepy room. I always hurried.
One day, I decided that at nine years old, it was time I faced my fears.
In addition to the long table, there was a china cabinet and a buffet — more evidence that this was a dining room. On the top of the buffet was a lace doily and a large bowl and pitcher.
I waited until my cousins were all on the porch, the adults all in the backyard garden. I slowly pulled open the top drawer of the buffet. I had a feeling it wasn’t filled with Christmas cards. I was right.
Inside were long, white taper candles, unused. There was a white tablecloth, or maybe it was a sheet, plain, pressed and folded. There was a pile of white napkins, though they looked more like ordinary wash cloths. There was a brand new cake of Sweetheart soap. Everyone knew Nana Mom loved the oval white soap with the lacy design around the edge. There was a string of rosaries — big dark beads, smooth and shiny, with a silver crucifix. There was another crucifix, too, a big one. It was the kind that had a hidden compartment on the back. I released the latch. Inside was a small candle, a book of matches, a tiny glass bottle. I quickly closed the compartment.
I had always been a good catechism student. I knew what I had stumbled upon. If I had any doubts, they disappeared when I saw the thin, paper booklet, about 5 x 7. On the cover was a picture of Jesus. He was holding a sheet and it looked like he was changing a bed. The booklet was titled Death Can Be Joyous: The Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
I had found the items used for the Last Anointing, the sacrament given by a priest to people when they were near death. But why were these items in Nana Mom’s dining room?
I went to the back yard where she, my mother, and my aunt were bent over picking vegetables. As though I would be doing my grandparents a big favor, I announced that I had begun cleaning and rearranging that gloomy dining room. Nana Mom bolted upright, the green bell peppers in her apron falling to the ground.
I knew how Nana Mom looked when she was angry. I had seen it plenty of times when my Uncle Bud came home drunk. No, the look on her face wasn’t anger. She was upset in a different way. I heard my mother say something to my grandmother and heard my grandmother say, “No. I’ll talk to her.”
My grandmother took me inside, through the pantry, past the wringer washing machine, through the kitchen, right up to the edge of the gloomy room. She looked relieved to see that nothing had been disturbed.
She put her arm around my shoulders and said, “This is where we care for our dead.”
I stared straight ahead. “On the table?”
“Yes,” she said, and I felt her hand tremble.
She explained how she and my aunts or women from the church would cover the table with several sheets, fill the pitcher with water, pour it into the bowl, soak the white cloths, and wash the body. They’d dress the body and wait for the priest. He would administer the last rites.
Over the course of another day or two, friends and family would come to pay their respects. Someone would sit with the body, all through the night. People would say prayers and tell stories. They’d always bring food to share. Yes, people cried. They laughed, too.
I said it sounded like a party. She said it was, in a different way. I had more questions, but a stillness had settled on Nana Mom and I got the feeling she didn’t want to talk any more.
I forgot all about the dark parlor until six or seven years later when my mom died. We lived in Virginia. Our house didn’t have a parlor. So my mom’s body wound up at a funeral home. I had never been inside one before. Nothing about the place or the service felt like a celebration.
After the Virginia funeral, my mom’s body was put on a train and taken to her childhood home in Pennsylvania. Not to Nana Mom’s parlor, to another funeral home. In a span of a few days, I’d been inside two funeral homes. They were both dark, tip-toe quiet, sad places. In both, a priest said some generic prayers, and assured us that my mother was in a better place. Better? Better than being with me and my sisters? My BS-detector went off.
We left the Pennsylvania funeral home and drove in a long procession out of town and up in the mountains to a little cemetery in a village where Nana Mom had grown up. My sisters and I held hands and watched the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Right after our mother died, I’d been instructed to pick out an outfit for her to wear. I remember wondering for just a second if I should get her pocketbook, too, and then realizing how foolish that was. The concept, the customs, the finality of death — it was all so new, so confusing, so unfair.
THE EMERGING DEATH POSITIVE MOVEMENT
That was July of 1963. Fast-forward to now, October of 2020. Not only have I been to a lot of funerals, I’ve just completed a certification course in funerals taught by the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, the same organization that taught me the history and structure of rituals in general, and wedding rituals in particular.
One of the most surprising and encouraging things I learned was that there is a death-positive movement being shared across the country. The movement can take different forms. Here are four:
- Death Cafes: These are informal gatherings where people share cake, tea, and conversation about death in order to make the most of their finite lives.
- Death Doulas: These are people who are trained to provide non-medical and non-judgmental support to those who are dying.
- Speaking Grief: In their own words, Speaking Grief is “a public media initiative aimed at creating a more grief-aware society by validating the experience of grievers and helping to guide those who wish to support them.”
- Home Funerals: If you go to the website: homefuneralalliance.org, you’ll find a Quick Guide to Home Funerals by State. It was written by Josh Clocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Lee Webster from the National Home Funeral Alliance. Here’s the first sentence: “Keeping or bringing a loved one home after death is legal in every state for bathing, dressing, private viewing, and ceremony as the family chooses.”
The laws governing what happens after that vary by state. For instance, some states have a limit on how long you can keep the body at your house, with or without preservation.
Some states require a licensed funeral director to remove the body from your house.
Some states have a mandatory waiting period before a body can be cremated.
There are practical realities to be considered, too. For instance, here in New England the ground can freeze for months, making winter burials impossible. And, just because a family can legally bring a body home for a certain number of days, that doesn’t mean every family would want to.
I know we live in a busy world. Funeral homes often schedule a two-hour wake the day before the burial. It gives people time to sign a guest book, look at photos of the deceased, stand in line to offer condolences to the family, even view the deceased if there is an open casket. People can be on their way in twenty to forty minutes. Is it efficient? I guess. Is it meaningful? I’m not convinced. But when you don’t know you have options, you settle.
I think of the two- and three-day funerals my grandparents held in their parlor. I picture neighbors, friends and family filling the house for days — cooking, cleaning, and comforting the family. I imagine friends telling stories about the deceased — funny stories, sad stories, stories told in colorful language and punctuated with cups of black coffee and shots of brown whiskey.
Instinct tells me that the grieving process is best supported when loved ones are given a safe space and plenty of time to feel the gamut of emotions and say good-bye.
If it falls to you to make funeral arrangements for someone, here are two things you might want to know:
- Embalming the body is not always required. Check your state’s laws.
- You don’t have to purchase a fancy casket. You can purchase, or make, a plain wooden box. In some states, you can use a cardboard box. Again, check your state’s laws.
If you do use a plain box for the casket, you can decorate it. Do so at the wake. Have the guests, especially the children, paint flowers, write words. Use stickers. Use Sharpies. Use glitter.
THE RITUAL: The Memory Box
As I record this episode, the Covid19 virus has killed more than 200,000 people here in the United States. Many of them died in hospitals and nursing homes without the comfort of family.
Because the virus is so contagious, funerals are being bypassed in favor of a memorial service to be held at some future date. In the meantime, there might be a brief graveside service for immediate family only, or a simple ceremony with the cremated ashes.
The force of the virus, the inability to say good-bye, the pain of losing a loved one, and the absence of the funerary rituals we’re used to — they shatter us, and leave us in shock.
That’s when ritual can help. Will it take away the pain? Make everything better? No. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that.
What ritual can do is acknowledge the pain in a way that gives form to those first, tenuous steps toward healing. That’s how the journey to wholeness begins, no matter how much time passes before those first steps are taken.
Because of the pandemic, I created a ritual I call The Memory Box. I think it would be helpful for anyone who has lost a loved one at any time, and particularly helpful for children.
Many years ago, I interviewed John Carmon from the Carmon Community Funeral Homes and Mary Keane, founder of Mary’s Place, a Center for Grieving Children and Families in Windsor, Connecticut. Mary was an oncology nurse-clinician. She noticed that, “All too often, children are the forgotten grievers.” As a funeral director, John Carmon had seen it, too. Working together, they made Mary’s Place a reality.
During the interview, Mary talked about the importance of giving grieving children a way to express their feelings and how the arts can help.
As I record this episode, Halloween is right around the corner. There are many places online where you can buy a small, wooden box in the shape of a coffin. I’m talking about little boxes, about six inches long, not quite two inches high. These boxes are unfinished, the kind used in craft projects. They sell for around $5 each. Of course, you can use any box, even a little cardboard box.
In ancient Greece and Rome, people would create what's called a “wind tomb.” This pile of earth shaped like the belly of a pregnant woman served as the grave of a loved one whose body was lost at sea or in a war or natural disaster. I talked about that in podcast episode 33, “A Gathering of Ancestors.” The wind tomb gave the grieving family something to focus on as they connected with the spirit of their lost loved one.
The Memory Box does the same thing. The concept is simple.
- Paint the box or miniature coffin. Decorate it with flowers, trees, hearts, stars. Write messages. Add stickers. Glue on crystals. Or keep it plain. Whatever you don, don’t rush this step. Your actions will help you focus on your loss. And while that will likely be painful, it can also be healing.
- Put something inside the coffin or box to represent the loved one who has died. That might be a thumbnail photo, or a small shell, an acorn, a dried rosebud, a ribbon, a pocket knife. Write a letter or draw a picture. Fold it up and put it in the coffin. Help a child make two matching stretchy bracelets, one to put into the coffin and one to wear.
- Bury the coffin in the backyard and mark the space with a special stone or statue or plant. Or, place the coffin in a special place in your home where you can see it. My mom died 57 years ago. To this day, I talk to her picture. Having something on which to focus helps me remember.
- If you’re keeping the little coffin or box in your home you can place it inside a larger box. Craft stores have lots of them. They’re made of heavy cardboard. They come in different colors, patterns, and sizes. At birthdays and holidays, encourage children to add a letter or a drawing to the box.
If you have the honor of helping a family who has lost a loved one, keep The Memory Box ritual in mind. It can be an activity the family does in the days and weeks after the service.
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, please consider this ritual. Sometimes a ritual as simple as this one can have a profound effect. In the meantime, may the day come soon when your first thought about your loved one won’t be painful.
Imagine six or seven adults of varying ages gathered in a library, or bookstore, or someone’s living room (pre-Covid). They’re sipping tea, eating cake, and talking about where they want to be when they die. The facilitator asks what music you want at your funeral. Or how you want to be remembered? Or simply, what made you decide to join us?
There is no formal organization to a Death Cafe, no speakers, no agenda. It’s a discussion group, not a support group, not a counseling session. It’s not a place for people to sell things, or promote services. In fact, the questions I mentioned are typical of what the facilitator might ask only if the conversation lags. It doesn’t usually lag. Quite the contrary. Given the opportunity, people have a lot to say about death. Being able to talk about death makes people more aware that we don’t live forever…and if we aren’t really LIVING, it’s time to change that.
For a lot more information, including a quick start guide so you can host your own Death Cafe, go to the website: deathcafe.com
When death is imminent, you might find it comforting to know about Death Doulas. These are people who help the dying plan their last days. A Death Doula’s support might be emotional, spiritual, or physical, or any combination of all three.
For instance, a death doula might help a dying person see the value of the life he or she led. Or might help with unfinished business. A death doula might use music, or guided visualization to ease the dying person’s transition from this world to whatever lies beyond. Doulas help the families, too, both during and after the death of their loved one.
The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) is a nonprofit organization. Their model of care shaped the first hospice doula program in the United States. You can find information, ideas, and inspiration on their website: inelda.org
For a fascinating exploration of death, I recommend the book Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living. It’s by Brandy Schillace. The book came out in 2015. At the time, death wasn’t on my radar the way it is now. The Covid pandemic has changed the focus for many of us.
The author looks at cultures all over the world and talks about their rituals around death. She talks about what drove those of us in the western world to sanitize death. And she points out that, with people living longer than they ever did, talking about our mortality has become more and more taboo. Friends, we need to change that.
How? Here are 3 ideas:
- Read obituaries. I had to do that for my course on funerals. What an eye-opener! Obituaries today go far beyond name, age, date of death, survived by, info for calling hours and funeral, and where to send flowers and/or on-line condolences. Today’s obituaries tell stories, sometimes from the point of the view of the deceased. As I read some of them, I thought, good, that person really lived. May it be so for all of us.
- Write your own obituary. I had to do that for my course on funerals, too. Writing it made me uncomfortable, to put it mildly. You don’t need to show your obituary to anyone. You can write it and delete it. Or, save it in a file that can be accessed after you die. Looking at your life can give you a sense of peace. Or, it can motivate change.
- Start a conversation about death with someone your own age or older. An easy way to do that is to tell the person you listened to a podcast about death and it’s got you thinking about what you want for your own funeral. If you find it hard to get the conversation started, send the person a link to this article and/or the podcast episode. Ask the person to listen because you need to talk about what’s in the episode with someone you trust.
In case you’re wondering, Nana Mom lived one month shy of her 101st birthday. By that time, she was living with a niece.
I don’t know who owns the big house on the hill now. It has probably been renovated to achieve an open concept. That’s what I see on all the remodeling television shows. Who knows? Perhaps with the growing death-positive movement and the increased interest in home funerals, people will want parlors again.
Mentioned in this post:
The Celebrant Foundation & Institute <http://celebrantinstitute.org>
Death Cafe <http://deathcafe.com>
The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) <http://inelda.org>
Speaking Grief <http://speakinggrief.org>
National Home Funeral Alliance <http://homefuneralalliance.org>
(This is where you’ll find the Quick Guide to Home Funerals by State written by Josh Clocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Lee Webster from the National Home Funeral Alliance.)
Mary’s Place <http://marysplacect.org>
Carmon Community Funeral Homes <http://carmonfuneralhome.com>
Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living by Brandy Schillace