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Home Funeral Vigils

A View of a Home Funeral 

art11_HomeFuneralRobert lies peacefully on a draped massage table in the downstairs room set aside for his vigil. Burning candles encircle his body in a ring of light. Bright yellow forsythia and cherry blossoms from the garden grace a table behind him, where pictures and mementos from Robert's life are lovingly displayed. Tulips, daffodils, and roses, brought by friends and family, offer warmth, vibrancy and color to the stark hues and textures of death. Arlo, Robert's dog, lies loyally beneath his master - an ever constant companion.

The room is quiet and inspiring. Those who enter, if ill at ease about seeing Robert's body, soon visibly relax and breathe out again, held and nourished by the beauty and power they encounter there. Someone is meditating in a cozy corner. Another is writing memories about Robert in a journal that will be passed on to others to share their stories and feelings.

Robert's wife Jenna sits by his side, holding his hand in hers, reading aloud his favorite poetry. She is comforted, feeling that she is continuing to care for her husband in his transition, knowing she has enough time to say a true good-bye. Their 10-year-old daughter Alice has slipped a jaunty daffodil between Robert's fingers and laid moss and pretty stones on his heart, along with a little note: "I love you, Daddy." She's now in the dining room with her aunt, singing a song with other children and adults as they lovingly paint Robert's cardboard cremation casket in bold bright pictures and messages of farewell.

Upstairs in the kitchen, a kettle whistles and someone takes fresh brownies out of the oven. A table laden with good nourishing food offers a welcoming grounding place to gather and be together. A cousin tells a story about Robert and the room swells with voices and laughter. In a bedroom, Robert's sister Mary breaks down and weeps, and a friend leaves the kitchen to be with her as she grieves.

Every emotion is welcome here - the atmosphere of normalcy and acceptance of death encourages people to explore their own feelings about dying, to be themselves, to feel safe and connected as they experience the loss of Robert's presence in their lives. Here, death takes its natural, rightful place in life again; interwoven in ways we have forgotten, in ways we are now remembering. Here, in this home, a man's life is celebrated, and his death made holy. This is "a sacred moment."

Benefits of Home Funeral Vigils

Home funeral vigils are an increasingly popular option for families - especially those like Robert's family who, helped by hospice, lovingly cared for him at home during his illness, were braced as much as possible to face his death, and naturally wanted to continue their care for him afterward. Others - who may have had a good experience with home births back in the seventies - likewise want to bring death "home" as they face their parents' mortality and increasingly their own. In choosing a home funeral vigil, families might be motivated by rising funeral costs and environmental concerns, but they also simply want familiar faces and a supportive place to grieve and come to terms with the death. Families and communities, in choosing a home funeral vigil, are reclaiming their right to be in control of the circumstances surrounding a loved one's passing. This is a natural and very empowering choice to make.

Here are some other gifts and benefits of a home funeral vigil:

  1. Family and friends can grieve their loss together in a private non-institutionalized setting. A family-directed funeral promotes healing and closure by providing a safe, loving container where emotions can be expressed and held, and where death's mysteries can be explored with others.
  2. Home funerals create the spirit of community as family and friends gather together for support, grieving and life celebration.
  3. A vigil lasts as long as the family wishes - from a few hours up to three days. This allows those grieving more time to come to terms with the death, find a sense of closure and create personal and meaningful rituals of farewell with others.
  4. Freedom of spiritual expression is available in a home funeral vigil. Whether it is a Christian family singing Amazing Grace over their mother's body, or a Buddhist community chanting prayers to accompany their friend's consciousness after death, vigils provide the space and time to create exactly what the departed person, and those left behind, really need.
  5. Home funeral vigils create an environment where children can experience death as a natural part of life. Often children lead the way in this endeavor, especially if parents are comfortable with the process themselves. Fears are often replaced by a healing sense of participation in a loved one's departure.
  6. Home funeral vigils encourage active, creative and healing expression, such as building or decorating the casket, or creating special rituals of remembrance. Such direct physical and spiritual connection to the reality of death can deeply aid a person's journey through the stages of grief. Those who participate in home funeral vigils often go on to prepare their own end of life arrangements, knowing how helpful this is to those left behind.
  7. Home funeral vigils are much more cost-effective than conventional funeral options, and can be shaped to fit a family's lifestyle and budget.
  8. Home funeral vigils use dry ice and refrigeration to preserve the body, instead of embalming. Families can choose cremation, green or conventional burial as disposition. The opportunity to not embalm goes hand in hand with green burials, making home funeral vigils a natural and sustainable death practice very needed today.

Returning to Natural End-of-Life Choices

To care for one's own loved one after death, and to do so in a familiar environment, has been, throughout history, humanity's natural response. Modern funeral practices - where the body is taken immediately to a funeral home or morgue, and where care of the body happens behind closed doors without the participation of family or friends - only began in the mid 19th century in America.

During the Civil War, the process of embalming gained popularity as a way to preserve dead soldiers making the long trip home for burial. The choice to embalm became more common after the war, as the modern conventional funeral industry took shape and the practices of death care became professionalized. Death care gradually left its traditional context of home and family and became the property of undertakers and funeral directors. Such changes have helped create in people today a profound sense of disconnection and dread of death and dying. Most people go through life ill informed about their choices, which is disempowering, and can foster fear, denial and avoidance. It is little wonder that families, suddenly faced with death, grief and loss, hand over all their choices to the funeral industry. This can be a very costly decision - financially, emotionally and spiritually.

Laws surrounding death care vary from state to state, but no state requires that a body be embalmed - a preservation practice involving formaldehyde and other invasive toxic chemicals and procedures. Embalming is rare outside the United States. Washington law requires only that the body be "refrigerated" within 24 hours of death and the use of dry ice is legally accepted as refrigeration. Home funerals involve this "green" option of placing bagged dry ice beneath blankets where a deceased person lies in state, and replacing it as needed during the vigil.

Choosing how a body will find its final disposition can also be a natural choice. When burial is desired, there are now "green" cemeteries allowing the body to return to the earth naturally. Instead of metal or heavily treated wood caskets encased in concrete liner vaults - the conventional burial method - the un-embalmed body is lowered into the ground in a cloth shroud or simple casket made of untreated wood or woven reeds.

Currently the green burial movement is catching on throughout the country. In Washington state, there are three certified green burial cemeteries: White Eagle Memorial Preserve near Goldendale; the Meadow in Ferndale near Bellingham; and Woodlawn Cemetery in Snohomish. With demand growing locally, some conventional cemeteries are offering designated green burial plots. It is also possible for land, otherwise slated for development, to be set aside or donated as a green burial cemetery, thus creating ecological conservation projects that are sustainable and renewing.

A choice for a green burial is actually better for the environment than cremation is. According to the Green Burial Council, the cremation process emits over 100 pounds of harmful greenhouse gases per body into the atmosphere, and is dependent on fossil fuels. Mercury is also emitted when bodies of people with amalgam dental fillings are cremated. Although cremation is a more sustainable choice than conventional burial is at this time, developing alternatives - like bio cremation, resomation and promession - is imperative if we are to protect the earth for the future.

A Sacred Moment is one of the first licensed funeral homes in the country to offer home funerals and green burials as a central vision and purpose. It is now a full-service funeral home, offering direct cremations and conventional burials, along with memorial and funeral services.