Real Funerals

A Home Funeral that was "Just Right"

Mother had been ailing for a long time. I started to grieve when she didn't recognize me over a year ago, so I was not overwhelmed when she actually died. We had gone on vacation, leaving her in the capable hands of caregivers and Hospice. I asked her to wait till her 99th birthday (July 31) and she said she would try.

While we were away I had a phone call from one of the caregivers suggesting we come home early, so we set out on Wednesday morning from the Thousand Islands in NY to home in Charlotte, NC.

We arrived about 5 pm on Thursday (July 23.) She looked as if she was hanging on by a thread - heavy, gurgly breathing, unresponsive. I sat with her and told her I was back and read to her from the book of psalms. Her nurse turned her on her side, which eased her breathing. My Dad (age 98) lay down next to her and rubbed noses. She smiled at him and took one more breath before she died. What a beautiful way to go!

We all sat with her for a little while and said a few prayers. My Dad cried a lot. The Hospice nurse was called to pronounce the death. We waited quite a while. She did her examination, and asked which funeral home was coming to get the body. I said none, and explained the home funeral concept, and she offered to help wash the body.

Then I went home (about a minute away) to get the kit I put together after the Crossings workshop. The nurse and the aide had already washed her by the time I returned - not even 5 minutes later! I was sorry, as I had not had a chance to use my beautiful ceramic bowl, or the essential oils, or even say a prayer over her. That part of it was a bit disappointing. I guess the nurses who wash patients all the time are just too efficient! They wanted to spare me, so I feel like I missed out on part of the experience.

Anyway, I helped dress her and put on a little make up - she looked beautiful. For 99 years old she looked wrinkle free, peaceful, and with a hint of a smile.

We used the Techni-ice dry ice that someone recommended recently. It really did not stay frozen for very long, so we went to the grocery store and bought dry ice. We didn't find any that came in pellets - that would have been great. My husband had a chance to get his frustrations vented by beating up on the huge chunks of dry ice! Some went in the pillow, some (in a pillow case) under her chest, some under her middle, a small bag on her abdomen, and another between her legs.

We had flowers in the room and that was the only smell. Later I added a bowl with lavender oil and flowers, and I kept a diffuser going all the time. My granddaughter has quite a collection of essential oils, so she got to use those. Everything remained pleasant.

That first night I sat with her and read and prayed. I dozed in the chair by her bed. That did not give me enough rest to do all the things I needed to do the next day. But I felt her spirit had not really left yet. The two following nights I put a cot in her room and slept there. The third night I awoke with a start at 2 am feeling cold, and with the conviction that she was really gone from that place and that body. Then I felt OK to go home and sleep.

My daughter plays the harp, and sat with her as much as she could. Friends dropped by and sat for a while. My Dad was in her room almost all the time, talking to her, crying, dozing, or just sitting quietly. It was so healing for him to have that time with her. I can't imagine what a mess he would have been if we had allowed a funeral home to come and get her as soon as she died.

We arranged for our older daughter to come from Connecticut. We called or emailed our friends and invited them to come and visit. We went to the National Cremation Society, where my parents had both prepaid years ago. They were to take care of the death certificate. We had already picked up a cardboard coffin, and the everyone decorated it with drawings of things important to my mom. Since this was Friday, we had to wait until Monday for the cremation.

We had a little confusion and tension over the death certificate, which had to be signed by the hospice doctor by the end of the day Friday for us to be sure of an appointment for her cremation on Monday. The National Cremation Society faxed it to Hospice, and we never heard by the end of the day whether or not they had received it back. All this meant we were held up putting the plans in the obituary page in the newspaper. By the time I decided to just put it in anyway, they were closed for the day also, and I had to wait and put it in the Sunday paper.

Our daughters went and bought the flowers, which we placed all over the house, and a memory book in which we invited friends to write a favorite memory of my mom. I also invited far away friends to send me their favorite memory of her, which will make a nice keepsake, I think. Neighbors brought food - so much I think we'll be eating it till Christmas!

People were a bit surprised to learn that her body was in the bedroom, and some did not want to see it. Those who gave an opinion were overwhelmingly thrilled with the idea, and wondered why they hadn't thought of it.

Meanwhile, our parish priest came by and offered to do a wake service at the house and a Funeral Mass after the cremation. This was surprising, as my mother was not Catholic, but we are, so I was pleased. My dad - who has been a fallen-away Catholic since 1945, decided to come back into the Church, which was quite a thrill. I am sure it will be a comfort to him.

People came and went all weekend. It was nice, because we got to sit and visit with people one or two at a time instead of the usual scene at a funeral home where it's a receiving line. Some stayed a few minutes, some stayed a few hours.

By Sunday evening, when the wake service was being held, she was not looking as pretty as right after death. Her eyes had sunken in, her cheeks looked hollow, her color was not as good. It was not gross, or anything - just a hint of the decomposition that was happening. We turned out the lights and had a few candles lit to hide anything that might be disquieting. Our daughter and son-in-law, musicians, played as we sang some of Mom's favorite hymns and had a nice service. It gave my Dad great comfort. After it was over, her body was quite frozen (maybe we overdid the dry ice?) I was a little concerned about moving her into the coffin ready for the morning's journey to the crematorium. We waited until morning, and lined the cardboard coffin with Chux pads in case of any leakage which would cause the cardboard to break. There were pieces of wood in there to give it strength. We used the Techni Dry Ice instead of the real thing overnight. Then, in the morning, we kissed her goodbye, wrapped her in her sheet, and carried her from the bedroom to the living room where the coffin was waiting. Then we carried that out to the waiting van. (We had already checked to make sure the coffin fit.)

The whole family went along to the crematorium, and helped my dad pick out a container for her ashes. It was hard to leave her there - I found it easier to imagine her going into the light instead of thinking about burning,heat and fire. Later in the day we picked up the ashes and my dad was visibly better and relieved. He talked to her and I think he will continue to do that. It is an aspect of cremation that I had not considered; if you have the ashes you can feel as if the person is still with you. The crematory gave us a credit for the services we did not use - refrigeration and transportation mainly. That, the flowers, the dry ice and the obituary were all the expenses we had. What a difference from the average funeral!

I started going through some of her papers and found something she typed about death. In it she said not to grieve too much, as it hampers the progress of your loved ones as they delight in the joys that they have earned. Also she said that the heart stops beating because it no longer needs to knock on the door of life - the door is open.

Today (July 28 )we had the funeral mass, which was really lovely. All the family took part - the family musicians played, I did a eulogy, our daughters did the readings. The grandchildren brought up the gifts. My Dad received communion for the first time since 1945 and cried like a baby. Afterward the women's group had prepared lunch for everyone, which gave us another chance to visit with our friends.

My Dad is taking great comfort in having the ashes at home. We got an urn that was shaped like a couple of books (she was a great reader.) It sits on a table with a collage of photographs of her that my daughters made and our "memory book." My Dad talks to her there three times a day! It's like a little shrine.

The other thing I might add now - the fact that we were "open" all the time she was laid out at home was great, but it did not give us much quiet time. I think that maybe we should have kept some time for just the family.

- Rosemarie B., Charlotte, North Carolina