When my mom passed away at age 61, I washed and dressed her in her bed, decorating the room with fabrics, flowers and candles. She had been adamant about not wanting to be in a dark cooling room with other bodies after her death. So I kept her on dry ice for three days, until the paperwork came through for cremation. I sat on my bed right next to hers, holding her hand, playing her songs on my guitar, writing in my journal, talking to her.
I wanted to make sure she was taken care of by me at every step of the way. I rode in the front of the hearse when we brought her to the crematory. I helped unload her and wheel her to the cremation chamber. I was the one pushing the button for the fire to ignite. It’s this immediacy that I craved. I didn’t just want to outsource my mom’s disposal. She birthed me and it was my place and my honor to be there for her death, every step of the way. Knowing I followed her wishes gave me great peace amidst all the sadness.
For thousands of years, we experienced death naturally at home, surrounded by family members and friends. The traditional “Home Wake” or “Home Funeral” afterwards included the washing and dressing of the deceased by family members and the decorating and “laying in honor” of the body at home, for up to three days, before burial or cremation.
The family had this extended period of time to come to terms with the passing. They could sit with the deceased for hours, hold their hand and sense with their entire body the change that had occurred. After this intense period, the family members had completed a significant portion of their grieving process. They were ready to let the body go, while they had reconnected with the spirit of the decedent, whose presence they could still sense. Most funeral homes claim that the body of a decedent has to be picked up within 2 hours after death and that embalming is “necessary” to keep the body sanitary. Some even claim it’s illegal to do a Home Wake. None of this is true. In California, the body can be kept on dry ice at home, even for three days, if the family wishes. There is nothing unsanitary about it.
In our current society, about 74% of us die in hospitals or care facilities. Rarely are the family members present. If they get to see the dead body of a loved one at all, it is often at the mortuary, in a highly cosmeticized, embalmed and unnaturally looking state, sometimes even behind glass. Don’t touch! The slow and gentle coming-to-terms process our body experiences while touching the body of the deceased cannot be completed. After an hour in the mortuary viewing room, where people act subdued and self-conscious, most people bawl their eyes out on the drive home and wonder: how can I ever get over this loss?
Dr. Mardi Horowitz at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco conducted a study on grieving and found that the traditional Home Wakes might be the most effective way to deal productively with grief and substantially shorten it’s debilitating phases. Without sufficient time spent with the body to say good-bye, people might become “frozen”, meaning their grieving process gets stuck in extensive sadness or anger, which might linger for years.
In the normal course of grieving, the research indicates, the emotional turmoil just after the death is often channeled into a persistent wish to ”do something”, to protect or please the dead person. This desire might be served, for example, by getting actively involved in the care for the body, sitting bedside and helping to arrange the funeral. It is a healing experience to be surrounded by the closest family and friends who come by and participate in the wake.
In my work as a death midwife and funeral director, I have recognized first-hand the trauma experienced by family members if the body of their loved one is carried off after a short time by strangers from the funeral home. For that reason I suggest a Home Wake whenever possible.
After the transition occurs at home, I often initiate a simple ceremony in accordance with the family’s belief. We are creating a sacred space together that honors the immensity of what has just occurred. Together we then wash and dress the body and set it up on a bed of flowers, decorate the room and ready it for a viewing. The family can experience the first wave of grief in the comfort of their own home and take their time to say good-bye. Sometimes I am called into the ER or a hospital room to perform just before the death of a person, to support a family with the same service. Most hospitals allow us to occupy the space for a maximum of two hours, but they don’t allow candles, incense or decoration. Oh well… we always manage to create a sacred and human atmosphere in the midst of a sterile hospital setting.
In my opinion the dead belong with their family and friends. Hospitals and the modern funeral homes have all but disenfranchised the families from their direct experience of death. Sometimes they even send the family out of the room to shelter them from a “painful experience”. I believe we need to take back these sacred spaces. No hospital or funeral home should be allowed to determine or limit the level of closeness or the amount of time a family gets to have with their dying. Like birth, death creates a sacred energy and heart openings within a family that are essential to the human experience. Death should never be reduced to a playing field for big business.