Friday, November 27, 2015

Bone(s) of Contention!!

I recently read a blog post where the author opined that all the death and dying conferences she was attending were being held purposely to coincide with Halloween! Oh my, I thought. This woman actually saw me at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference in Los Gatos, California in early October...and she thinks I'm part of this "Halloween factor!" As someone who was indeed decked out daily in an array of skirts, blouses, leggings, scarves and such sporting colorful skulls, it didn't have a thing to do with Halloween! Au contraire. My favorite day of the year is November 1st when we can finally put all of this Halloween nonsense behind us! Better yet, November 1st is All Saints Day when many folk around the world pause to remember their beloved deceased and may, like me, host a Day of the Dead party for this very reason. My wearing skulls signifies that I am comfortable with death, and it never fails to engage people in a conversation about same. Oh, I love the skulls, “dem bones,” our enduring sticks. And the thought of Halloween and all its concomitant stupidities never crosses my mind when I go to grab a skull-adorned piece of clothing from my closet! And I grab and wear my skull clothing twelve months a year!!!! Heck, every day is a good day to wear skeleton/death positive clothing and jewelry because when you think about it, in the traditions it is derived from (Latin, African, and others) it represents a close connection with one’s Ancestors, and a sense of unity with death.
In the art world, the skull is a memento mori, a reminder that in life we are in death. We should bone up on this fact, living as well as we can, perfecting our moral character, working our fingers to the bone for the common good. (I'm on a roll here....)
And, I actually think what I'm channeling below is one "bad to the bone" obit picture!! I mean, I just feel that
in my bones....

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


I recently presented a program at my local hospice about home funerals and green burial. The folks in attendance were extremely attentive and shared fascinating stories of their own.  As you can imagine, when you are working with death and dying on a daily basis, you quickly build a repertoire of stories.  No one decried anything I said; rather, they were eager to keep the conversation going about all aspects of both home funerals and green burial.  I was on a roll! We covered the difference between law and policy, health precautions to take when keeping a deceased love one at home, the environmental impact of our conventional funeral practices, legal matters, and paperwork.
Then a hand was raised.   "Are these forms posted on your blog so we can see them?"  Gulp.  I quickly added, "Not currently, but I will be sure to get this done so that they will be available and you will be able to see what needs to be completed."
Here are the forms you will need to complete:
~ Notification of Death
~ Certificate of Death

In the state of NORTH CAROLINA (check your own state laws regarding this required paperwork!), you may act as your own funeral director.  If you do this, you must notify your county health department of the death within 24 hours and then arrange for a death certificate to be filed within five days with the registrar of the county where the death occurred.  

It would be a good idea to talk in advance with your county staff to find out what steps you will need to take, whom to contact, and how.  Tamma Hill is the Field Services Manager for North Carolina Vital Records and will be happy to reassure any county workers that might be hesitant to work with you.  You can reach her directly at 919-792-5832 or
Be sure to talk to the physician who is taking care of your loved one, and let them know of your plans to act as the funeral director and to claim custody of your loved one's remains until final disposition.  It helps if you have power of attorney for health decisions since that grants you clear authority to make decisions regarding the care of the remains.
You and your family or friends may legally transport the body.  If you remain within the state of North Carolina, you do not need a burial transit permit unless 1) the body is under the care of the county medical examiner (this could happen if death was suspicious or unexpected) or 2) you plan to carry the body across state lines.  You can easily fit a pine coffin or cardboard body container (or just have the body wrapped in a shroud or favorite family quilt!) in the bed of a pickup truck or in a minivan with the rear seats removed.  Here is the burial transit permit for North Carolina:

I love giving presentations of this sort and am looking forward to providing more education on this subject in the future!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Molte Grazie, Guglielmo Marconi!!

I suppose we have come a long way since Marconi's first public radio transmission in 1896!  And in our fast-paced world of lightning-quick communications with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and email, it is hard to believe that there are still lots of folks who listen to talk shows on the radio. On AM stations.  In counties where there are lots of small towns and cities.  
As my friend and home funeral guide Merilynne Rush says, sometimes it feels like she's swimming upstream in her efforts to help people discuss death and face their mortality, which often includes speaking about home funeral and green burial.  I feel you, Merilynne.  But I keep reaching out and doing what I can to get people thinking about these issues.  
On June 26,  I was the featured guest on WBAG's "Meeting Place" with host Olin Campbell.  The show went swimmingly well to keep that metaphor going, and I didn't feel like I was fighting the current!  People were genuinely interested and called in with great questions about home funeral and green burial.  
Here's the interview in its entirety.  I hope you will enjoy it!  

Sara's radio interview

Friday, April 24, 2015

My First Home Funeral

I am grateful to Elizabeth for giving me permission to share this story.  It is a powerful teaching gift as we remember how important home funerals and their healing rituals are—for both the living and the dead.  All names have been changed by request. 

It seems that for the past two years, I have repeatedly told all my friends within the home funeral movement, “I’m just waiting for somebody to die!”  This was because I had done the requisite training for after-death care, including a year’s worth of online coursework, as well as workshops at several national conferences and within my local Crossings Care group.  I was primed and ready to take care of someone’s dearly departed. 
I cannot recall the exact moment I learned about the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA), but in 2013 when they had their national conference in Raleigh (35 miles from home!!) I was so ready to be there.  I immersed myself in all things NHFA.  It paid off.   Within a year, I was asked to be on their Board of Directors.  Everything they stand for resonates deeply within me….everything they do is the way we used to do things….everything old is new again.
Penny was a gentle spirit who I had met many years ago when our daughters Heba and Elizabeth were in middle school together.  She was a public health nurse and her caring and loving nature was coupled with a free and easy style which made young girls like my daughter idolize her.  It was no secret that when some girls ran away from home, they wanted to take shelter with Penny. 
Sadly, eighteen years later—when our daughters were now mothers in their early 30’s—her third recurrence of breast cancer had finally gotten the best of her.  She came back to her childhood home to spend her last days.  This would be the easy choice for her only daughter, Elizabeth, who lived close by, and for her older sister, Judy, who still lived in the home. 
On the afternoon of February 24, my daughter Heba was trying desperately to reach me to ask for my advice.  Elizabeth was in Raleigh with her dying mother Penny whose final wish was to be buried in a pine box in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  Heba wanted to know if I could help Elizabeth with all the questions she had about cemeteries and coffins.  Elizabeth was an amazing woman who did her research and her homework—and it would pay off later.  During her research, she found that my name, Sara Williams, kept popping up.  When she called me, she recognized my voice from long ago and hung up, in disbelief and shock, immediately phoned Heba, and asked her, “Is that YOUR MOTHER who is doing home funerals?” 
After Heba confirmed that it was indeed her mother who was “the green reaper,” Elizabeth and I talked at length about what would be involved.  I helped her believe she could absolutely do this herself and that although I was trained to do this as a Home Funeral Guide, I had never done one myself.  Her reply was, “Well, it looks like you’re going to be doing your first home funeral soon.” 
At last, I thought to myself.  Here is the dead person I will be able to love and care for, and share this love and care with her daughter and the rest of her family.   Thank you, Penny, for coming back into my life after all these years, to help me learn from you.
You know, mothers would be lying if they said they didn’t have favorites among their children’s friends. Elizabeth was always impressive. Elizabeth sparkled, both in her physical attributes, and her athletic prowess, but also as a brilliant young woman who was a good student, polite, and whose aura was golden. 
I coached her through the necessary and required paperwork.  She had already ordered the pine coffin from an artisan who is also my friend, Don Byrne of Piedmont Pine Coffins.  She had located the perfect green cemetery in Penn Laird, VA—Duck Run.   This young woman was on it!  Plus, when she told Heba how helpful I had been, my daughter said, “Mom, I will never make fun of you again for your ‘dead’ work.”  That was no small accomplishment, believe me.  My daughter, like so many people who don’t understand yet, had basically eschewed all this home funeral business.  Now, suddenly, I seemed legitimate!  (Thank you again, Penny!)
I had been trained.  I was ready, willing and able.  And I knew it would be so much better if I had support.  So I contacted my friend and experienced home funeral guide, Jenny Bingham, to ask her to please work in tandem with me during this first home funeral.  She agreed to do so with love and happiness that I would finally get to have this experience.   I was delighted to work with Jenny.  She had really been my mentor this past year, and we had been meeting regularly for lunch and discussing our work within the home funeral and green burial movements.  She was so “Zen” in contrast to my hyper, type-A personality.  I loved being in her presence.  (Thank you, Jenny!)
Elizabeth called late Friday night, February 27, to let me know her mother had died.  I had told Elizabeth earlier in the day that Jenny and I were willing to come over that night if she died before 9:00 PM.  Due to really icy roads and cold, however, we were trying to avoid that.  Elizabeth called right before 11:00 PM and I assured her that her mom would be fine until the morning if she cracked the window.  She asked me what to do with one eye that would not shut, and her mouth which would not close.  I suggested she put something on her eyelid for some weight—she had a sleeping mask which I said should be perfect—and told her how to tie a scarf around her mother’s head after first placing a small rolled towel under her chin.
I picked up Jenny the next morning at 8:00 AM—she had her kit with her.  In it were things I didn’t have, like washcloths, towels, gauze, sheets.  (I did manage to pack some of my essential oils like lavender and eucalyptus, and one lesson learned is that creating my own home funeral kit is now a priority).  Being able to grab my kit and go will give me time to think about other more important things, show I am prepared, and lend even more credibility to my work as a home funeral guide. 
Jenny and I stopped on the way at Harris-Teeter grocery store to buy dry ice.  The checkout clerk rang up 26 CENTS, but I was quick to point out that it should be more like 26 DOLLARS!  I was right once the supervisor rechecked the receipt!  It is so good to be able to laugh during all this!
Then on to Raleigh to meet with Elizabeth, her dead mother, and whomever else might be there.  Jenny asked how I was feeling. I thought about walking together up to a house I had never seen before, into a brand new situation.  My friend and experienced home funeral guide asked me if I was nervous, and then talked to me about what to expect when we saw a dead body—the dead body of a woman I had known years before.  I was a bit nervous, true, but I had such a strong feeling that everything I needed in that moment would manifest itself, and that with Jenny by my side, all would be well. 
Elizabeth came out to meet us, sweet as ever—a young woman so full of wisdom for her years.  She escorted me and Jenny in after an apology to please overlook the cluttered house.  Penny was in her childhood home where her sister, Judy, now lived.  Her hospital bed, provided by hospice, stood in the center of the dining room where she had been able to watch the sunrise, the roses out the window, and the winter birds flitting past. 
Oh, to see Penny, tiny and pale in the high hospital bed, the morning sun on her face. After all these years to see her from her vibrant state to this final one of repose.  I remembered her sweet smile, how she loved to dance, and her work with our school’s PTA.  I always thought how nice it must be to be so tall and carry yourself so well!  (And that’s from a tall woman!)
Elizabeth told us that when her mom died, “It was the worst relief I ever felt.”  She explained how long it had taken hospice to get her pain under control, and how her mother finally took her last breath.
Penny’s daughter was proud to show me the pine coffin that she had ordered from Don and it was beautiful!!  The three of us took some time to practice getting it through the doorway…this is really important.  (We would later learn and see firsthand that Penny, who was really tall, looked a bit cramped when we first placed her in the coffin.  But we realized with a little gentle maneuvering we could adjust her to where she looked totally comfortable). 
We wondered where Judy, Penny’s sister, was.  “In her bedroom, a bit spooked I think,” Elizabeth told us.  Judy had not come out since Jenny and I arrived.  When Nancy, a cousin, arrived to be with Judy, she too absconded to the back bedroom after looking hastily at Penny, dead on her hospital bed. 
This is the last thing home funeral guides want to happen.  We are here to educate the family and put them at ease with their dearly departed.  Soon after, Olivia, a hospice nursing assistant arrived.  She seemed a little addled at our presence, and soon told Jenny, “You’ll need to hurry with your preparations before rigor mortis sets in.”  Jenny told her, “We don’t rush anything in this work.”  
Elizabeth told Olivia that Jenny and I really wanted Judy and Nancy present to help with bathing and anointing and dressing Penny.  Olivia simply said, “You need to COMMUNICATE!  Did you invite them?”  Another lesson learned!  Be sure you communicate to all present and make them believe that they are critically important within this home funeral work!  She went in to them herself before she left to return to work, and within 15 minutes, Judy and Nancy appeared!  (Thank you, Olivia!)
We were so happy to see them, and immediately began speaking about how they could help us do all the washing and anointing.  This was the strongest and most positive vibe we had that day…here was a group of women doing what they have always done, through all of time, caring for their dead.  They could have remained in their room, but they didn’t.  You NEED five or six people to do this work so it was a very happy moment to witness Judy and Nancy, in concert with me, Jenny and Elizabeth, as an integral part of this holy endeavor.
Before we began, to focus us and get us present in this sacred moment in time, I read a poem while we were gathered at Penny’s bedside.  As we stood around the hospital bed in the dining room of Penny’s childhood home, I read it aloud.

Deep wet moss and cool blue shadows

Beneath a bending fir,

And the purple solitude of mountains,

When only the dark owls stir—

Oh, there will come a day, a twilight,

When I shall sink to rest

In deep wet moss and cool blue shadows

Upon a mountain’s breast,

And yield a body torn with passions,

And bruised with earthly scars,

To the cool oblivion of evening,

Of solitude and stars.

“Deep Wet Moss” by Lew Sarett

So now to work…and work they did.  I will never forget older sister Judy eagerly volunteering to find us bowls to hold the hot water, extra towels and cloths, and her own VERY SPECIAL oil which evoked the scent of pine forests which she and Penny had always loved so much!  She was so proud to share this oil, and to use it generously as Jenny and I coached her in gently washing Penny.  Judy took her time combing and brushing her sister’s hair—lovingly speaking to her about memories they had shared growing up with each stroke of the brush.
Now came the time to dress Penny.  Often at home funerals, clothes will need to be cut up the back in order to more easily get them on the body.  Knowing how proud Elizabeth was of her recent  purchase of a J. Jill linen suit for her mother, and even though we were having a little bit of difficulty getting her arms through the linen tank top, I declared straight up:  “THIS IS J. JILL AND WE ARE NOT CUTTING IT!!”  Everyone had a good chuckle, and we proceeded to get the top on as well as the jacket and pants! 
We prepared the pine coffin with the lovely scented shavings Don had provided (I remember Elizabeth picking some up in her hands, sniffing them, and then putting them under my nose and saying, “Isn’t the scent divine?”), laying in an old bedsheet (Italian cotton! my contribution!) and covering Penny with her favorite little comforter, a gift from one of Elizabeth’s best friends.  (For the abundant gifts, we thank you!)
It’s almost like magic the way you learn to roll and lay out sheets under a dead body, and how that process makes the body easy to turn and then lift.  Jenny and I taught these maneuvers to Elizabeth, Judy and Nancy, gently rolling Penny on her side and spreading out the sheet lengthwise with half of it folded in accordion pleats.  Then we gently rolled Penny onto her other side and pulled the pleated sheet out, extending it, to complete placing the sheet underneath the body. Each of us rolled up the sheet in our hands until the sheet was tight around Penny, with Jenny supporting Penny’s head.  Jenny remained at her head while I was at Penny’s  feet;  Elizabeth, Judy, and Nancy were lined up along the body and on the count of three  we lifted Penny down into the coffin on the floor. We knew to always keep the head higher than the rest of the body to prevent discharge of fluids.  Now it was just a matter of lifting the coffin back up on the bed where Penny would remain during her vigil until Monday morning. 
We covered the hospital bed with a white matelassé bedspread--and when we placed the coffin back up on the bed, it was really lovely.  Penny loved a lint brush and kept an extensive collection with her even during her last days!  There was a lot of laughter as we all used lint brushes to remove the cat hair from the bedspread!
I decided then and there my gift to Elizabeth for her gift to me of this experience would be a beautiful print called “Our Journey” by artist Gaia Orion. 
She has painted the stages of our life, from infancy to old age, and finally going back to the earth.  Gaia states, “Just like winter is telling us to rest and look inward every year. When one lives in tune with nature life is a cycle following the seasons.  Where does it really start? When does it end? When the caterpillar ‘dies,’ it has no idea that it is initiating the birth of a beautiful butterfly.”

I hope this will become my signature gift to everyone for whom I have the 
great gift of working together during a home funeral.  Being able to do this, to be there and serve as a guide for this family, was all that I had hoped it would be.  One of the benefits of caring for these loved ones after death is experiencing both the finality of death and the continuity of life. Fear of death is usually fear of the unknown. When we experience something firsthand, and when we are allowed to be at home with it, then there is little that we shy away from. By participating in the end of life of a loved one, by helping with arrangements and bringing sanctity to the days after death, there is an almost universal experience that life and death are embraced without fear.
Because we had already practiced getting the coffin through the doors, and because Elizabeth had already measured and calculated how the coffin would be placed in their car for transport to Virginia, this last remaining task was in her hands.  Now she was in charge; she had her husband and brother to help now, and Jenny’s and my work was done.  I had advised Elizabeth on all the required paperwork and she had dutifully gotten all the documents as well as the doctor’s signature on the Death Certificate and Notification of Death forms.   She and her husband drove Penny in her J. Jill suit in her custom pine coffin from Raleigh in the back of their Subaru to Duck Run on Monday, three days later, without a hitch.  They had their Burial Transit Permit in the car with the Death Certificate, and were ready to present them at any point in the 250 mile journey.   But they didn’t need to.  Now Penny is at her “soul’s rest” in the beautiful, peaceful landscape of the Shenandoah Valley.
I now felt “legitimate” and could not wait to get my “Beyond Hospice” Home Funeral Guide certificate shrunk and laminated!  I carry it in my wallet at all times like a badge of honor.   Right beside my new business cards which Heba designed and presented to me! 
At Penny’s memorial service on Tuesday, four days after her death, it was so comforting to see all the family again.  The women who loved her and hid in the bedroom, sister Judy and cousin Nancy, were so grateful for their experience and thanked me profusely.  “We think it’s amazing,” Nancy said.   “It occurred to us that if more Americans spent more time with their dead—at least until the next morning—they would come away with a new respect for life, and possibly a larger view of the world.”
Later, in the receiving line, Elizabeth’s husband Bob said to me, “Sara, you changed our family’s lives.”  And Penny and her family changed mine.  Bob’s words will be with me always, reminding me that this work we do is important, healing, and transformative for all involved.  (Thanks to everyone!)
My first home funeral totally captured and reinforced the circle of life.  Two years ago, I could only read about and study how home funerals promote healing and closure; how they provide a comfortable place to discuss life and death; how they allow us to express our grief and loss.  Now I knew all this to be true because I had lived it!  Quite simply, home funerals return death care to the traditional and natural.   

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

REMAINS TO BE SEEN...or, Pat's Ponderings Get Posted!

It was a perfectly ordinary Tuesday in late autumn, when I heard the doorbell ring.  On the porch stood a wild-eyed woman, a casual acquaintance, who was shouting something.   Over the din of two barking dogs, I could just make out, “I-want-you-to-make-me-a-burial-shroud!”  Should I slam the door and call 911, sic the dogs on her, or grab a bottle of Chardonnay and invite her in?  I went with the wine option, and so began a great adventure with Sara Williams, Certified Home Funeral Guide and Green Burial advocate.  A couple of glasses later, I was persuaded, converted, intrigued, and totally on board.  Here’s how it went:
A shroud, I thought, innocently, should be simpler to create than a garment.  There would be no need for pesky sleeves, collars, and the like.  However, there were some.... unique design requirements.  Besides being simple and dignified, it must:
-         ~ Cover a variety of body types
-         ~ Be easily and neatly secured in place
-         ~ Be easily carried by the pallbearers
-         ~ Be biodegradable, and of organic fabric
I was used to creating all sorts of garments using my dressmaker’s mannequin, but realized that I now needed something different – a full body model.  At the local Goodwill, I was able to recruit two:  Mabel and Deceased Barbie (see earlier posts).  Finding a supplier of organic cotton fabric willing to sell me less than 100 yards came next.
An internet search turned up three basic types of shroud: bed sheet, sack, and burrito.   All left a lot to be desired, design-wise.  My two models were infinitely patient while I worked out and refined the details of an ideal shroud.   The final design is expandable, without being bulky at the head and feet, and the ties and carrying handles are elegantly integrated. If needed, a back board may be easily added.  Sara was thrilled!  Mabel and Deceased Barbie had no comment.
The body drape provides an ideal place for custom decoration.  Sara, who sees life as a journey, requested a personalized map and a pocket for her fresh lavender and rosemary.  The sheer silk veil was my idea, in part because I can’t sleep unless my face is covered.  More importantly, it allows the vigilers (vigilantes?) to have their loved one be emphatically present and unveiled, or veiled and at a slight symbolic remove.

I am proud to be part of the emerging movement to simplify and personalize burial.  The name of my business?   REMAINS TO BE SEEN!  (Sara snorted and choked on her Chardonnay.)

Pat's business card

Friday, March 6, 2015

Still Talking About Death...Hold the Sugar!

I am preparing to host our EIGHTH Death Café on March 25!  We have met monthly since our first Death Café in July, 2014.  The group continues to grow and is a diverse bunch of folks, especially on the age spectrum.  We have 20-somethings and 80-somethings!  We are composed of college students, a clinical psychologist, a family practice physician, a baker, a Veteran, an artist, an occupational therapist, hospice volunteers, cancer survivors, a mortician-in-training, a diesel mechanic!  We all love to talk about death and there is never a lull in our conversations.   
Rebecca, our baker, whipped up some fine skeleton cakes one evening for our enjoyment (see picture).  People just get in to this death stuff!
We read poetry.  We discuss articles on death and dying.  And once I dared to show the movie “A Will for the Woods” because people were so interested in green burial.  I soon learned from Jon Underwood that was verboten where Death Cafes are concerned.  You cannot have an agenda or sell a product or even have a theme.  Or show movies.  So we decided that we would heretofore refer to that particular meeting as a “Death Cafeteria!” 
I read that at the Atlanta Death Café, they always end their meeting by singing “Happy Trails” (the song made famous by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans).  So I printed off several copies and our group does the same at the conclusion of our meetings.  You would be surprised how many people love to sing (even those who can’t carry a tune!!?).  
I believe that the reason Death Cafes, like this one I facilitate each month in Mebane, are growing so quickly around the world is because a whole lot of people are ready to talk about death, dying and end of life issues.  When we let go of our fear of death and bring it into our ordinary conversation---without the sugar coating---we can live with greater passion and joy.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mount Rushmore Didn't Start on a Mountain!

Even though I can't identify the source for this quote, it makes sense. Every great artist, specifically SCULPTORS, use miniatures, models, maquettes to plan out their masterpieces!  That's a LOT of "M" words!!!!!!!!!!  Marvelous!
Pat is no exception.  When she began to think about how to create a shroud for me, she used her  "Deceased Barbie" to get things going.  In arriving at the design, she had many attendant engineering considerations.  
The things that make the design so special are the boxed and pleated head and foot sections that cocoon the body, simply and securely, and the drape with veil, which can be personalized, and which lets you have that feeling of comforting and protecting and tucking them in for the night (especially if you order it in velvet!).  Pat's stenciling talents are another gift...this expert can do anything to make your shroud truly and remarkably your own special work of art.
Follow Deceased Barbie, Designer Pat, and Not Yet Deceased Sara in their fascinating journey from the designing block to the uncorking of "dead reds" to celebrate!
Boxed ends for good fit and stability.

Closed outer wrap showing chest detail.

                    Back view showing board pocket, ties, and carrying loops.
             Time to enjoy "Skeleton" Malbec and "Hob Nob" Wicked Blend!