Leading The Way Back

In Memory of Purification Dorado Pisano, February 2, 1942 – February 7, 2018
by Rochelle Martin

February 12, 2018

For the last number of years, as a volunteer, I’ve taught community and professional groups about do-it-ourselves after-death care and its ecological (doesn’t pollute or poison!), financial (costs almost nothing!), and psycho-social-spiritual benefits (this can actually be meaningful, folks!).

Generally, in my experience, people are curious about the idea of caring for our own dead. They didn’t think it was possible, legal, or safe, and when they find out that it is, they are intrigued, if still hesitant. There are religious and ethnic communities in my city of Hamilton, Ontario who still care for their own, but most of us have been hoodwinked by the funeral industry, for a couple of generations now. We think we require their services – that public health or legislation demands funeral director involvement after a death. We’ve actually forgotten that our dead loved ones our “ours.”

This past week, my friends Steve and Emma led the way, back to more responsible and compassionate care of our dead. They did something that was simultaneously very brave, and also no big deal, as they cared for Emma’s mom after her death, at home. They asked me to tell their story, wanting others to hear about what’s possible – and I’m glad they did, because it would have been hard not to share!

To begin, we must note that Steve and Emma had already been leading the way, prior to Emma’s mom’s death, in helping us imagine how we might care better for our elders. Emma‘s mom had been living with them since she came from the Philippines to join her daughter in Canada, 22yrs ago. Already coping with significant mental and physical illness at that time, Emma and Steve managed Emma’s mom’s increasing care needs at the same time that they were raising their own children. I first met Steve and Emma when our sons started kindergarten together. For 11yrs now, I’ve observed their forbearance in caring for an ailing parent and young kids, with a remarkable combination of practical “you gotta do what you gotta do” attitude, and an obvious gratitude for the chance to have children and Emma’s mom in their lives. They didn’t make it look easy, but they made it look important. I think many who have known them have been inspired to think differently about what’s important, and what’s possible.

As Emma’s mom’s health continued to decline in the last couple of years, I’d talked with them about at-home deathcare options. But it was only a few months ago, when doctors indicated that her death from cancer was imminent, that Emma started to make specific plans. “If she could just hang in for another month, until her birthday,” Emma said, “that will give me enough time to get funeral plans organized and host a big birthday party for her, so people can say goodbye.”

And indeed, her mother cooperated, looking forward to her birthday cake, the 30lb. roast pig, and the house full of guests that they had, to celebrate her 76th birthday. I was fortunate to be there to see both Emma and her mother glowing – so pleased that they’d made it to this day. There was a beautiful birthday altar set up, with Jesus (statue) presiding over so many flowers and desserts and birthday cards, next to Emma’s mom’s bed in the living room. She got up briefly, with her oxygen tank, to blow out the candles on her cake, but on second thought, they skipped the candles, deciding to forgo the possibility of a big oxygen-fueled explosion! They helped her cut the cake, instead.

Emma’s mom died four days later, in the same room, with Emma and Emma’s daughter by her side. She’d just asked for ice cream, and enjoyed a spoonful. Emma said that the moment of her death was so undramatic, they weren’t sure for a while that she’d really died. Her birthday altar turned naturally into a memorial altar, still full of flowers. Emma wondered aloud about the birthday balloons still tied to her bed. “We should just leave them up!” she decided.

They cared for her body after death in the same way that they had cared for her every day, in the last weeks of her life. They changed her adult brief, cleaned up some vomit, changed her dress and bedding, put some techni-ice packs under her, and tucked her into her bed in their living room. Emma’s brother and sister were there to help with this, and it was done with love and familiarity – uncomplicated, unceremonious, uncontrived.   Soon Emma and Steve’s kids would come home from school and greet their grandma’s body, as they had when she was alive, “Hi, Lola.”

And you must know, Emma’s mom was *radiant* – no makeup, no fuss. (Though to be fair, she was a beautiful woman in life!) Until you’ve seen someone who has died, and hasn’t been assaulted by embalming and jaw-wiring and waxy make-up in a funeral home, do not doubt how beautiful people can be, after death.

Steve and Emma’s family is Roman Catholic, and they asked our priest to come to their home a few weeks before she died, to offer Emma’s mom the Sacrament of the Sick. He returned the day after she’d died to say prayers with the family, as Emma had planned. They described these religious rituals as warm, intimate, and meaningful.

Three days after her death, a direct cremation company came to pick up Emma’s mom’s body. The attendant who came to pick her up was moved to learn that they’d cared for her at home for a few days after death, saying she’d never encountered that before. Steve and Emma told her they couldn’t imagine doing it any other way – that the last few days had been so important in the process of saying goodbye.

Having been interested in home funeral care for 25yrs now, I’ve read a lot of home funeral stories, and seen some beautiful photos and videos of at-home deathcare.   There is plenty of talk within the home funeral movement about what to include in an after-death care kit, techni-ice vs. dry ice, and ceremonial washing of the body, etc. Although there are lots of little “deathcare hacks” that might feel empowering to know (how to prop up the jaw so the mouth doesn’t hang open!), and unlimited options for ritualizing the care of our loved ones after death (poems and candles and essential oils!), Steve and Emma’s care of her mother was simple, and intuitive. They didn’t really need any of that.

I’m not sure it would be fair to call it “easy” – certainly Steve and Emma’s care for her mom over the years and through her death was no small achievement – but they did this with “ease” in a way that inspires me deeply, and I hope inspires others. When it comes to care of our dying and dead, we are capable of, and have access to, so much more than our prevailing culture might prescribe. It doesn’t need to be complicated. People have been having babies and caring for their dying and dead without much hoopla, from time immemorial, in varied and deeply meaningful, human(e) ways. Thanks, Steve and Emma, for leading the way back to this, in our community.

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