Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shrouded in Mystery No More: How My Sister Lived through her First Home Funeral

Dear Readers,

Let me begin by saying that this whole post is dedicated to my sister, Denni, who managed somehow to get outside of her fear and disgust with all bodily secretions in order that she might help me with Kate's home funeral.  All her life, Denni has avoided the sights and smells of what comes out of our orifices.  I can still see her fanning the air vigorously while changing one of her children's diapers; gagging over the sight of blood when someone got a scrape; running at MACH speed to avoid someone in the process of vomiting.  Me?  I was captivated by it all, and still am.  These are signs of LIFE!

On July 8th, we had been in Hickory, North Carolina all day visiting our father who was declining rapidly.  I absconded for an hour or so to go over and visit with Deloy and Kate, friends who I had been companioning since November when Deloy called me and told me Kate's breast cancer had returned.  "Sara," he said, "I expect I'll be needing a home funeral guide at some point.  Will you help me?"  

Clearly, on this day, eight months after that first phone call, Kate was actively dying.  Deloy had been a vigilant caretaker, and as a physician could often make suggestions to Kate's medical team.  I sometimes wondered if Kate would ever grow tired of the additional radiation and chemotherapy, or the feeding tube, but she never faltered.  Not until the last couple of weeks when the metastases were just hell-bent on having their own way.

I had grown so fond of visiting them both, and it was easy enough to do because their home was only about 15 minutes from Dad's assisted living facility.  So we grew in our comfort and friendship, even when that meant discussing Kate's eventual death and what she wanted to happen.  Kate admitted that the first time she met me she didn't know what to think, because my "energy" was confusing (!).  "Then I realized you just had a big ole' heart and wanted to genuinely help."  Thanks, Kate, for putting your trust in me, and for the gift of your friendship and allowing me to care for you.

Denni and I returned to Winston-Salem, an hour away, after my brief visit with Kate and our visit with Dad.  We decided to go have dinner and unwind, thoroughly relaxing over our fabulous food and wine.  Once back at Denni's house, my phone rang.  I could see it was Deloy calling.  "Sara, Kate just died" he told me.  It was about 7:30pm, and I asked him if he wanted me to come now or wait until the early morning.  "I really want you to come tonight."  So I told him I would be there in a little over an hour.  

"WAIT!  I WILL GO WITH YOU!"  Denni said.  (was I hearing things???)  "You can't go back by yourself so I will go with you!"  Is she serious?  She wanted to accompany me on this home funeral?  My little sister who really isn't quite sure about what I do, but knows enough to stay pretty far away and not ask questions?  

Then I remembered.  I remembered how this is what happens with home funerals.  People come together, work together, love together.   And my sister---the one who can't abide even thinking about bodily fluids (you know...spit, serum, snot and shit)---she was the one who was a force of love that night, even though she had  no idea what to expect.

When we arrived, I hugged the heck out of Deloy and he led me back to their bedroom where I had seen and spoken to Kate just hours before.  I had an immediate epiphany about how to capture in a photograph what I wanted to share with the WORLD.  See, people?  ANYBODY CAN GET READY FOR AND DO A HOME FUNERAL!!!  

Heres what I saw when I arrived, and you can see how easy and simple it was to freeze water in bottles to act like dry ice until you can get some dry ice in the house (or better yet, order some Techni Ice ahead of time).    

And so we began...Kate's loving community:  Deloy, his two sons Cory and Brandon, Celia and her husband Jose, a part of this family for so many years, and neighbors Kim and Martha. 

And there was Denni, all the while at the bedroom door's threshold, taking pictures and videos with her cell phone.  I will include one of my favorites here because it shows Celia reaching out to Deloy as they are anointing the body of their beloved Kate.

Everything else was just as beautiful...family and friends working together in love as we prepared Kate to lay in state for three days so other family and friends could come be with her in a home setting.  There was laughter; there were tears; there was so much love in that house it was palpable.  

And there was my sister, capturing it all, who would tell me later as we drove back home how this had been a life-changing event for her.  

And I think really that's what it's all about.  How we reach out and educate our family and friends, however "gross" they may perceive this work to be, one home funeral at a time.      

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Moving Finger Writes; and...YIPES!

So I remember back in the summer of 2014, when I was plotting how to begin a Death Cafe in our quaint little city, I came across the funniest stories about the use of the name "Death Cafe."  People apparently didn't cotton to it all the time, thinking it cast "doom and gloom" on any social atmosphere. Like, how were you supposed to be convivial and congenial with nomenclature like DEATH defining your surroundings?  Wouldn't it boost attendance if you took the word "death" out of the name?  Or, how about people interpreting this to mean that the particular coffee shop/tea room/diner/eatery where you would be meeting had big health and/or sanitation problems and that people who came in and ate or drank there DIED. Or even (seriously) some asking whether this was a club for people with HEARING problems? (DEAF Cafe!!?)  But the semantics coup de grace was to encounter something so bizarre and so radical that I had to do a double-take and then go back and get a picture!  This was my second time hosting a Death Cafe at a local CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Community) with a group of really engaging and inquisitive souls, and I am quite sure that it was NOT one of them who reserved our space under the name....(are you ready???)....DEATH SQUAD!!!!! But there it is, on the reservations diary, for all the world to see.  I only wish I had taken the picture before our meeting, and not after, since apparently you get "stricken" to show meeting has already occurred.  Death Squad!!!??  That must be the ultimate in cultural aversion tactics!  Clearly, a lot of work remains to be done as we carry on these conversations and engage in musings on our mortality.  Which reminds me...I am available to come talk to your group/organization/crowd/crew...or dare I say SQUAD whenever you are ready!!!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Who's Taking Out the Trash??!!??

Recently I heard the NICEST married couple proclaim that they were DEAD SET on going out of this world anonymously.  They loved the idea of donating their bodies to medical schools first and foremost.  But if for any reason that would not work out, they were choosing to have a green burial.  And they needed me to make sure that the cemetery they had in mind would bury them without any sort of marker.  "We just want to be thrown in the woods!" Well, as it turns out, said cemetery is happy to oblige.  They *can* be buried without a marker, and the administrative office will always keep information on their plot whereabouts in a file should anybody ever want to go visit. Grave sites are GPS'ed anyway as well.  (that's hi-falutin' talk for Global Positioning System)
But honestly...that declaration of the old marrieds made me SAD.  How could anybody want to leave this world without thinking a little bit about the family and friends they were leaving behind?  What of THEIR needs...to remember, to ritualize, to ramble or rove to a marked location as they work through their grief?  And oh yeah.  Had they thought about generations to come after them? How they might like to visit a marked grave full of familial pride after having done genealogical research on their great great (or even more greats!) grandparents?  And extra credit for anyone knowing what a taphophile is!  How can they enjoy their hobby if you're in an unmarked grave? Just sayin'...
The simple truth is, somebody is left behind with the task of disposing of your body---"taking out the trash," if you will (thanks, Anne Weston for this great line!!),---and just throwing you out to the woods, leaving no trace of your life and legacy, seems a crime.  
My desire is to put one big honkin' angel on my own grave.  She might be weeping (I'm a lot to worry about!!), she might just be standing tall and beautiful, keeping haints away from me and my other cemetery buddies. The point is, I am happy for my family and friends to know exactly where I am so they can throw a shindig at the grave every year on the anniversary of my death.  So my grandchildren and future grandchildren can find "Berry's" final resting place and remember me with peonies and poems.  Lavender and laughter.  Yes, remember me...as I will remember you.

Image result for big angel in cemetery

Friday, December 16, 2016


It's the post-Thanksgiving holiday season...time of angels and angst; beauty and the blahs; carols and crises. We came to the table to give thanks last month, and if it was anything like my day, things were so rushed I couldn't even get the luncheon guests to say a blessing.  Also on my mind were the memories of Thanksgivings past and all those precious loved ones no longer at the table with us.  Our blessed ancestors.  To honor these beloved deads, there is a tradition in many cultures around the world of setting a place for them at the table. Holding space for grief and remembrance.  In the dark season, offering up a prayer in the tradition of those very ancestors to persuade the return of the light.
A friend from my local Death Cafe shared with me his family's new tradition, and I was so impressed I vowed to John that I would share it on my blog.  And so...in his words (almost all!!) and with his picture, read about how we can pay homage to all those precious people, passed on, but never forgotten.

This was our first year without my mother at the table.  With that as a starting point we began to think of so many previous Thanksgiving meals with family and friends, especially around my mother's table.  She was always ready to set another place for the social strays in our midst.  Who would we invite, if time were not such a limiting factor? 
Our daughter cut a stack of 3"x 3" cards from watercolor paper and creased them for folding, and brought along the colored pens and pencils.  While dinner was cooking, we gathered the gathered around the table and explained the idea.  
To be honest, it got off to a slow start - people seemed hesitant for fear of doing it 'wrong.'  We are making it up as we go!  How can it be wrong?  That reluctance was soon overcome and pens were flying!
Something that surprised me was that I still wrestled with those folks that I should invite, but didn't necessarily want to.  That happens, you know.  Time threw a wrench in it as well.  Among the dead was a gentleman that we had the pleasure to know for a number of years, as well as his first partner and his second partner (all dead now).  I invited all three.  I figure it was up to them to sort that out!!  I would have done the same in life, I guess. 
The value of the exercise was in the doing, and in the conversations over the crayons.  Next year we will start with blank cards again. 

Ancestors.  I always try to remember that I am because they were.  They live on in my bloodstream.  Wherever I walk, they walk beside me.  Even when I am alone, I am never on my own.  

Write this always on your heart.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Man Who Cried (for) Wolves

One morning earlier this year I received a phone call from a woman named Alisa.  Less than two minutes in to the conversation I knew this was the person associated with the Abundance Community in Pittsboro.  She and her husband had managed to get Stephen Jenkinson to come down for a public speaking event.  I remember nearly passing out in the bakery when I espied the poster for this event, thinking THE Stephen Jenkinson??? In a little church in PITTSBORO???  As I had just finished reading Jenkinson's "Die Wise," I was eager to hear him in person.  When I had called to inquire about attending this event and just happened to mention that I was a home funeral guide, Hannah from their office told me about a woman who may be interested in what I did because her husband was dealing with ALS.  So when Alisa called and began telling me a little about her situation I realized this was precisely who Hannah had told me about.  Alisa said that they would be in need of a death midwife at some point over the next few months. She was beginning to feel the sturm und drang of her beloved's diagnosis with the dreaded ALS.  Would I come out to meet her and Chris and paint a picture of what a home funeral would look like?  I called Jenny, sweet friend and mentor, and within the next couple of weeks we drove out to their farmhouse to meet them both.  It was sort of an instant girl crush for me.  Alisa was a brilliant, creative force.  In fact, as part of the staff of Abundance NC, "Creative Force" is her title!  What couldn't this woman do I was thinking while I observed all the animals on the farm, her gardens, her rescue animals, her handmade soaps, her felted wool booties, her book collection, her home schooled children! Well, there was the fact that she couldn't take care of Chris by herself as she faced the future of his steady, certain decline and eventual death.  We talked openly with Chris and Alisa. Chris used an iPad-like device to talk since it took so much effort to speak.  At one point, one of their Boston terriers jumped up on the sofa beside me.  Chris held up the screen for me to see with a big wide grin on his face:  "Be careful....he's gassy!?"  I couldn't stop laughing! God, it is so good to have humor when talking about death and dying!  Jenny and I asked a round of questions about their expectations of and plans for home funeral guides.  I know I left with a sinking heart to see this beautiful family now facing the future without their husband and father, a man who had dedicated himself to the restoration of the red wolf in eastern North Carolina.  This meant years and years of crawling through huge agricultural fields which had been sprayed with pesticides, something which Alisa was convinced had poisoned Chris and led to his ALS diagnosis. BIG AG...I was totally sympathetic.   Wondering if Chris would like us, I didn't worry for very long.  As we left he flashed the biggest, brightest smile and told us we were welcome any time.   On a subsequent visit, we walked around the woods while Chris followed in his high falutin' motorized wheelchair.  We observed Chris and Alisa's neighbors and friends digging the grave for their best friends' son who had just died from heroin.  Death lurked here, we all felt that.  At one point Jenny managed to ask Chris which spot he liked for his own grave.  He pointed between two pines, then his head slumped while tears fell from his eyes.  Six weeks later, on June 4, I got the call from Alisa at 4:00 in the morning that Chris had died.   I scrambled to get dressed, grab my essential oils and "Home Funeral Ceremonies" book, and started dialing Jenny so she could meet me.  Ring. Ring.  Ring.  No answer.  Ring. Ring.  Ring.  (we learned later that Jenny's ringtone is so delicate she never heard her phone!  she made sure to change it the next day...to a much louder ringtone! we are still laughing about this!)  Forty minutes later as I approached the farmhouse I knew I was going to have to fly solo for this home funeral.  Alisa met me in the driveway so we would not wake the children.   We hugged each other so tightly.  And then she told me about her Nana's cat....how at precisely the moment of Chris' death the music from this old ceramic cat had started playing, a sure sign that Nana was waiting for Chris on the other side of the veil. Alisa, her sister, her father and stepmother, and Chris' best friend all washed and anointed his body while I read from the book and guided them in their delicate ministrations. Until you witness and take part in a home funeral, no amount of my attempts at describing this event can do it justice.  RIP, Chris Lucash!  You continue to inspire me every day. 

Watch the trailer for the documentary on Chris' life here. 

Staring Down Fate

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Jenny and Sara Road Show!

The Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) hosted their "Wild Ideas for Getting Outside" Expo on March 9.  Jenny and I were invited to have a table at this event. Over 200 guests from all over the Research Triangle showed up to learn about innovative ideas for safeguarding clean water, protecting natural habitats, supporting local farms and food, and connecting people with nature.  I would be hard pressed to think of a more beautiful way to connect with nature than to "go green" at death!  I have been in conversation with TLC for almost two years now, holding out hope that at some point a beautiful parcel of land will appear which can be used for just this purpose.  
There was the usual full spectrum of reactions when people approached our table:  the "I see that, but it says DEATH on one of the books, so I'll just keep walking" or the inquisitive "what does that mean, 'green burial?'" to the shocked "is that LEGAL?" And I swear, if one more person had come up to us and said, "Have you heard that you can get buried and become a TREE??" I was going to scream!  Whether it's the burial pod, or the mushroom suit, or a coral reef ball, they remind me of PET ROCKS. What the heck is wrong with just going naturally...in a simple shroud or a plain pine box???  Mother Nature will take care of the rest!  
Time to hit the road again...

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Whew!  Who could imagine that North Carolina would be such a hotbed of activity where consumer funeral rights are concerned??!!  While I can't say my phone has been ringing off the hook, I have had a fair share of phone calls related to these issues.  Two came within a week of each other, prompting me to contact both the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) AND Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) headquarters.  Both concerned a daughter or son's rights to their mother's bodies at death.  
While one mother is alive and in an assisted living facility, the daughter was told that upon her mother's death, she would be required to use the services of a local funeral home for transport of the dead body.  In fact, the daughter has since informed said assisted living facility that they are dead wrong (pun intended), and that she will transport her dead mother herself to a funeral home located elsewhere within the state for final disposition.  That's right, folks.  There is no state law that prevents you from gaining next-of-kin custody and control of your dead loved one.  
Case #2 involved a major hospital which refused to release the son's mother to him because she had undergone an autopsy.  HUH?  Despite repeated encouragement from me that a)his mother's dead body had no doubt been "closed up" post-autopsy and posed no threat to anyone and that b)the several states he would travel through to get his mother home to her final resting place had no embalming requirements, the hospital kept citing a "policy" which forbid them to release his mother to him.  During his second attempt to reason with the hospital administration, not only did they never produce this policy, but they ended up calling the police on this grieving man!  In the end, he was forced to call a mortuary service to retrieve his mother, have her embalmed (!), and then pay for her flight to the state where she would ultimately be laid to rest.  This was a flagrant injustice, changing the son's ability to transport his mother without embalming and also delaying burial plans.  Again, both the NHFA and FCA national headquarters strategized on how to compel the hospital to change their practices and stop denying families the right to custody of their dead.  
Both of these incidents led to the creation of the following document, "What to Do When Families' Home Funeral Rights Are Challenged."  
So beware any attempt by hospital or assisted living facility officials to tell you that you cannot take your loved one when they die.  These folks may tell you that it's their POLICY, or try to insist it's against the law, but they will not be able to provide a legal statute number.  No policy trumps a family's right to take charge of their loved ones at death.