A Home Funeral Is Never What You Expect It To Be

By Barb Phillips

I am going to share a story about supporting an individual and their family through after death care, vigil and transportation. I think this remembering may help others to be clear of our roles as deathcare practitioners and being good communicators as to what those roles would be.

The family, who I will call Betty and John, lived in a country home away from the hustle and bustle of town life. In the early discussions with Betty, John’s wishes were to die at home and have Betty support him from the beginning to the very end of his living. It was Betty’s idea to complete his post death care herself. Betty was vague about what she envisioned as her part in the family-directed body care after his death. She hadn’t decided if she could emotionally be with a dead body over an extended period of time, but in her heart, really wanted to do this for herself and John.

So while John was at home actively dying over a 5 week period I was in constant contact by phone, email and occasional visits. After numerous conversations I invited Betty to make a decision about what she wanted to do re: a home funeral. The learning in this was recognizing the need for give and take. At times Betty got confused about what my role would be and resisted imposing on her friends to commit to their help with the after death body care. There was a confusion in explaining different scenarios as the time of John’s death was nearing Christmas time and increased her anxiety about ” what if he dies Christmas day?” What will we do?

To add to this anxiety, Betty was overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for John at home while he was alive. PSW’s not showing up for their shift, medication errors and coordinating with a system that is broken, took Betty’s emotional stability to another precarious level. She was unwilling to hand part of this responsibility to anyone else.

Once my contract was signed ( and this took over two weeks to complete) and my explaining in detail what I would and wouldn’t be available for, we set about making plans and organizing items that would be needed at the time of John’s death. Putting things in place took some time and again being sensitive to the dying process and what was unfolding in their home. Committing Betty through written confirmation and discussion of doctor involvement was challenging, but necessary.

As it turned out John died the morning of December 24th and as always you are never prepared for this reality. As her home funeral guide, I had the responsibility to envision the many scenarios that could arrive as we went along. So I contacted all the people who were going to be involved in completing paper work ahead of time to see where they would be over the holidays and asked permission if I could call them in the likelihood this was going to happen over that time. I was able to be there for Betty and her friend as they enacted the body care and Betty made a beautiful space for the vigil she was planning to hold on her own. The reality was nothing was open over the holidays, so she had to make a decision or choice to be with him in her home or call the funeral home. She didn’t believe she could do it and I reassured her that I would be around supporting her process and allowing her to express her grief in whatever way felt natural for her. She so appreciated this and kept him for 4 days basically because if you remember this happened over a weekend. Her extended family came 3 days later, but interestingly didn’t stay to help with the transportation and final cremation. Betty’s friends came forward and helped with the final leg of her journey with John.

So my message is this. So many things happen that are out of your hands and in many cases never expected, ie: freezing rain storm coming before we drove to the crematorium. Solution.. change our plans and everyone involved got on board to make this happen.

Your capacity to problem solve on the spot will be necessary, so the more time you spend creating and establishing relationships with other death providers, the more resources you will have to draw on in your hour of need.

Barb Phillips can be contacted at whisperingpinesstudios@gmail.com

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