The moon was full and brilliant on the night I first attended a home funeral. It was in the home of my friend Laura, whose mother Sharon had died of cancer. Laura and her sister Beth cared for their mother at home with the help of hospice. They didn’t have the money or the desire to send her body to a funeral home.
I had met with Laura and Beth three days earlier. They realized that they needed to make some plans for what to do when their mother passed. Laura’s little apartment was transformed into a sick room, with her mom’s few possessions and her medications and equipment taking up the whole living room. Boxes and furniture crowded Laura’s living space. Sharon’s brother and the hospice chaplain were also visiting, so Laura, Beth, and I sat at the kitchen table and had a cup of tea and talked, while the others sang hymns and prayed in the adjoining “bedroom.”
Laura and Beth told me they didn’t know what to do when their mom died. I replied, “Well, there’s really very little you have to do. You don’t have to do anything in a hurry.”
This seemed to be a big relief to them. I explained that when their mom passed, it wasn’t an emergency, that I could guide them through the process of caring for Sharon’s body at home.
I explained the steps. The first thing would be to thoroughly wash her body, similarly to how they had been giving her bed baths. Then they would need to pick out some clothes and dress or swaddle her. They would adorn her and arrange her body in the way they wanted her to look for the next few days. Her body would remain on her marital bed that had been moved into the apartment to be her resting place and give her a sense of home. A few pieces of dry ice would be wrapped in cloths and placed underneath her body to cool it and delay decomposition. It could be replenished as needed. I assured them I would be there to guide them through the process if they wanted.
This all sounded good to them. They wanted to be the ones to care for their mom. They knew that Laura’s home was the right place for Sharon to remain with her own things and the people who knew and loved her surrounding her. After Sharon died, Laura and Beth could decide if there was anyone else they wanted to visit and if they wanted to have a gathering or ceremony.
They already knew that Sharon wanted to be cremated. I explained that I would refer them to a funeral director who would help with a home funeral, who would facilitate the transportation to the crematory. We arranged to get together again in a week to go over more details.
However, three days later, Laura called me at 10 p.m. to say that her mother had stopped breathing. “We had just gotten off the phone with Beth. Beth told mom she loved her, and mom opened her eyes for a moment. When I was getting ready to let the dog out, I heard a breath, and then I realized that I didn’t hear any more. I turned and looked at her, waiting for it, but it didn’t come.”
“How are you doing?” I asked. “I’m OK, I guess. What should I do?” I replied, “You should call the hospice nurse. She’ll want to come over. But other than that, there’s nothing you have to do right now. Just be with your mom. Do you want me to come over?”
“No, Beth is on her way. I don’t want to bother you.”
“That’s OK, you’re not bothering me,” I said. “Just call me when you’re ready.” I had been in bed reading.
I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping that night. I had so many thoughts and questions. When would she call me back? Should I just go? Did she really need me but not want to say it? What supplies would I need?
I got up, got some clothes ready, checked my bag, and prepared a snack. After an hour, Laura called me back to say that Beth was in transit and would be awhile. She was having car trouble. We agreed I should come over.
The largest full moon I ever saw illuminated the highway directly in front of me. Grandmother Moon provided a brilliant beacon, a path. For many years I was a home birth midwife and called my practice “New Moon.” Now, as I left to attend my first home funeral, I was being led by the full moon.
Laura’s apartment was on the ground floor of an old Victorian mansion. I thought, “There have probably been other deaths in this home over the years, and probably home funerals, too.” In the old days, most people died at home and were cared for by family. It has been only in the last three to five generations that people have forgotten how to do this.
Laura greeted me at the door and gave me a little hug. She led me to her mother’s bedside. Sharon looked peacefully asleep. The lack of movement made me stop and wait, as if I had to check for myself to believe she was really not breathing.
Laura took my coat and I squeezed her hand. At first we just talked as Laura moved around straightening things in the tiny apartment. Many thoughts and memories were coming to her, and she wanted to share them.
After a cup of tea, we took the dog out and looked at the moon while she had a cigarette. It seemed this kind of visiting and chatting was exactly what Laura needed right then, as if telling me the details helped her believe them: “I went to work, I came home, I had dinner, my mom died.”
Beth arrived after about an hour. It was time to begin washing Sharon’s body. I knew that if we waited too long, the body would be very stiff and washing it more difficult.
Beth immediately sat on the bed, caressed her mom’s hair, and talked to her. We got a bowl of warm water and picked out some nice-smelling soap and picked out some nice-smelling soap and some linen, and Beth began to carefully and lovingly undress Sharon. It was slightly difficult because her arms didn’t bend very well. But Beth was not daunted.
“Oh, her arms are getting stiff,” she said. “I guess that’s what happens when you stop breathing and you die. Oh, mama, you’re not breathing anymore.” Beth continued talking as she gently washed every inch of her mother’s body, tears streaming down her face.
“Look at her beautiful hair. She was so proud of it. Remember how she did our hair when we were young? Her lips are so dry; can we put on some ointment? Oh, mama, you washed me so many times when I was a little girl. Thank you for caring for me and giving me life. With these breasts you nurtured me. With these hands you guided me. With these arms you rocked me.” As Beth gently turned her mother over, she said, “Look, her back is still warm. Oh, I want to hold you just a little bit longer and feel that warmth. I love you. I’m so glad we are taking care of you, and not anyone else. I don’t want anyone to take you away yet. This is so special. I will take good care of you now, mom.”
At the end of the bath, Beth and Laura chose some special scented oil and took turns rubbing it on her feet and hands. I can’t begin to describe the reverence in the room, the love and honor and emotion flowing all around.
Laura and Beth were in the haze of extreme grief, openly crying, talking, and processing. To feel one’s mother’s body turn cold and become stiff requires a great deal of strength and will. At times I thought it was almost too much. I began to feel a little afraid. Was this really a good thing? Should these daughters be doing this? Were they going to be all right?
Although I had studied how to be a home funeral guide, I had never done this nor witnessed these actions, this kind of extreme, raw emotion. All the memories of my childhood, when I was told not to cry, to keep my distance and not break down, came flooding back to me. I had no model to reassure me that this was OK, that these daughters would make it through. I had to trust in myself and in these friends. I had to trust that they could handle it. And I had to trust in the wisdom of our foremothers, our great grandmothers and aunties, who must have done this all the time.
When I first heard about home birth, when I was pregnant with my first child, a light bulb went off. I gave birth at home, then became a midwife so other women could birth at home, if that was where they felt most empowered to do their awesome work. I consulted with hundreds of women and their families, attending them through the night while their healthy bodies did what they were made to do–push a baby out into the world.
Five years ago, when I learned it was possible to attend the dead at home, the light bulb lit again. As a hospice nurse, I had accompanied family members as their loved ones died; as a midwife I had been with parents as they said goodbye to a dying newborn child. I had seen overwhelming and all-encompassing grief. And now I would be helping Laura and Beth care for their mother during the time immediately after death.
Being with Laura and Beth after their mother died was so much like being with a woman in labor. I attended them, but it was very clear that this was about what they needed to do. Like a midwife, I was there to reassure them that this was natural. When we got scared, I told them it was all right.
Laura and Beth cared for their mother at home for more than two days. On the third morning, they arranged for the funeral director to retrieve her body. As they lovingly helped place her on a sheet on the floor, they tucked flowers, love notes, and mementos in her arms and wrapped her up. They escorted her body to the waiting black van.
We got in my car and followed the van the few miles to the crematory. It was an industrial looking place, about the size of a large garage. It had a cement floor, high ceiling, and metal walls. A technician in work clothes opened the door for us. There was no family waiting area or place to sit.
Laura and Beth went directly to the open cardboard cremation box on the cart where their mother had been placed. They touched her one last time, lingered a few minutes, and then wrapped the sheet over her face and placed the lid on the box. The lid had been at their home the last two days and had been decorated by family members and friends who had visited. It was adorned with loving phrases, well wishes, and expressions of grief, poetry, and art. It was beautiful.
The box was pushed into the retort, with Beth and Laura’s assistance, and the doors shut. The technician asked them if they wanted to be present when he pushed the button; they said yes. We heard a whooshing sound, paused a moment, and then slowly walked out into the cold winter day.
In the driveway outside, Beth looked at me and said, “That was really difficult, but I feel relieved.” She continued, “We were with her all the time; we never left her body. I’m kind of glad to know exactly what happened. We saw it all through. I don’t have to wonder where she was or what happened to her.”
Later, Laura told me, “It’s as if we just waded right into it. We didn’t skirt around the edges, dipping our toe in just a little; we walked right in.”
Laura and Beth have made their way through. Now, several years later, they reach out to other families, helping to teach about home funerals and sharing the precious photographs of that time at home with their mother.
Since that full moon, I have found a new calling. I midwife families that wish to care for their loved ones at home at the end of life. And I have good teachers–the families that I serve. Beth, herself a midwife, had been a student model for me at a midwife workshop thirty years ago. Laura, using the gifts of her mother’s journey, teaches me now as she faces health challenges.
We all teach each other. The circle continues.