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Crying and Digging

Reclaiming the realities and rituals of death

February 06, 2005|By Nancy Rommelmann | Nancy Rommelmann last wrote for the magazine about Microsoft's Smart Home
  • Reclaiming the realites and rituals of death with hands-on home funerals, hands-in-the-dirt burials and cemeteries as nature preserves.
Reclaiming the realites and rituals of death with hands-on home funerals,… (Mark Hanauer )

For centuries in America, we tended to our dead. People died at home, and relatives prepared the body, laid it out in the parlor and sat by as callers paid final respects. The body was buried in the family cemetery, if there was one, or on the back 40; pieties were spoken, and life went on until the next person died. Death, if not a welcome visitor, was a familiar one. This changed, incrementally, during the Civil War, when others were paid to undertake the job of transporting the bodies of soldiers killed far from home; this is when formaldehyde as an embalming agent was first used. But it was only 100 years ago that we began routinely to hand over our dead to the undertakers. Soon the gravely ill as well were deemed too taxing, and moved to hospitals to die. Within decades, what had for millennia been familial responsibilities were appropriated by professionals.

"People think we're not emotionally capable, let alone physically capable, of carrying this out," says Jerri Lyons. "Well, what were we doing before when we weren't supposedly able to take care of people?"

Lyons is making tea in the small cottage she shares with her husband in a leafy glade in Sebastopol. Bookshelves overspill, a computer is crammed into a nook and there is no room for a dining set, so Lyons sets the teacups on her massage table, which, in any case, is multipurpose.

"We use it to turn people during seminars," she says. "We use it for reiki, and we also lend it to families that want to have a showing at home."

What she means by "a showing" is a wake. But Lyons, a 57-year-old former Costco rep and café owner, is not an undertaker, or, in her euphemistic parlance, a "well-intended grief choreographer." In fact, there is as yet no title for what she does, which is to teach people about their right to a home funeral and how to prepare the body for it.

There's an alternative-death movement fomenting in Northern California, one that leaves the funeral industry out of the picture altogether. Proponents of home funerals and of green burials, wherein bodies are interred in natural environments and in ways that promote decomposition, insist that this country's "death-denying tradition," in Lyons' term, is not merely costly but corrosive to body and spirit, to land and communities. Fear and doubt, they say, crept into the space left when we handed death to others, and our attendant helplessness supports the multibillion-dollar death-care industry. And they know, even if we don't yet, just how badly we want to bury our own dead.

"We're always afraid of the unknown, until we've been exposed to it and seen that it isn't frightening," says Lyons, proffering several fat albums containing photographs of former clients: dark-haired Donna, who stenciled her own casket before dying of a brain tumor at 32; Bernd, who also died of cancer, lying in bed, wearing a prayer shawl, his mouth curled in an easy smile. There is nothing ghoulish or grotesque about the images; there is neither rictus nor putrefaction. Instead, there's a 3-year-old in foot-pajamas peering at Aunt Donna, lain out after death in her own bedroom.

There's also a picture of Carolyn Whiting, who died suddenly of respiratory failure in 1994 and whose friends, Lyons says, "were simply not ready to let her go."

It turned out that they did not have to. Convening at Whiting's home the night of her death, Lyons and others learned that she had left instructions as to how she wanted to be cared for. "She did not want to be turned over to a mortuary," Lyons says, "but rather wanted her friends to bring her body home if she was in the hospital, and prepare her body."

Lyons admits that they were caught off guard. "I don't think this would have occurred to us. At all," she says. "We, like everyone else I talk to about home funerals, would have asked, 'Is that legal?' "

Home preparation of the deceased, without an undertaker's involvement, is legal in every state but four. Today there are books (such as Lyons' "Creating Home Funerals" and Lisa Carlson's "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love") that give detailed instructions in after-death care. At the time, Whiting's friends winged it: They took her body home, bathed and perfumed her, picked out clothing, held a wake, and then loaded Whiting into a van and drove her to the crematory.

"It was so helpful to us, to deal with our shock and our grief, and in such a loving, beautiful way to celebrate her life," says Lyons, who went on to found Final Passages, a nonprofit educational program, and Home and Family Funerals, a service wherein Lyons is paid as a "death-midwife," helping the dying and their families with everything from preparing the body to filing paperwork. She works on a sliding scale, but says a full cremation with her facilitation could cost $750. She estimates that in the last 10 years she's helped more than 250 people "pass over."

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