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Tending the form, but mourning the spirit

My View • Family funerals are naturally bringing the end of life back home
by: L.E. BASKOW, A River View Cemetery caretaker puts fresh soil on a new grave. The cemetery is now open to “green” burials.

Thank you for the information provided in the Tribune story, 'Portlanders shall rest in green peace' (July 8). David Noble and River View Cemetery are to be commended for blazing a much-needed trail into rethinking how we manage death in America. Cynthia Beal also deserves recognition for her tireless efforts on behalf of green burials (see also 'Greening the grave,' Aug. 14, 2008).

Making funeral arrangements, like all responsibilities, is about choice and I like to think most Oregonians will choose green, natural and holistic if they know it is available.

An option that complements green burials and has gained attention among green-minded citizens is the choice to create a home funeral. While it has always been an option to care for your family at home after death occurs, it has been a right little exercised over the last several decades - until now. It seems the ubiquitous baby boomers who led the resurgence in home births are doing the same in dying; they're bringing it home.

Home funerals are a natural extension of home hospice, as well as a meaningful choice for any family that does not wish to be excluded from the care of a loved one after the person has died. Washing and dressing the body is an ancient ritual rich with meaning. When family and friends care for the body and conduct a personal ceremony in the home, coping begins immediately because the death simply cannot be denied or stuffed under layers of avoidance. What cannot be avoided is managed in the present moment, which is fitting and conducive to healing.

I certainly understand if you think handling a body sounds scary. It did to me too before I became a family funeral assistant (aka a home funeral guide). I became interested in this service after the death of my parents, which led to the unsatisfactory (although perfectly proper) conclusion where I turned the body over to someone else and they removed it from the home. Why, I asked myself, does this feel so wrong if it is the conventional practice?

In a search for alternatives I discovered there are religious beliefs (Jewish and Muslim for instance) whose followers participate in death care as a natural occurrence. And, then I discovered a class that teaches the craft of home funerals and learned a dead body isn't really scary … it is just lifeless. As you care for the body you become very aware that the person you love - your mother, father, husband, wife, child, friend - has moved out of this form that served him or her in life.

The body becomes a sacred reminder of an intelligence that is no longer present in physical form. We tend to the form, but we mourn the spirit that has left us and moved on.

If this alternative sounds interesting to you, I suggest you do some Internet surfing, which will yield an abundance of information. And, if you should find yourself in a position to participate in a home funeral, I hope you'll do so. Remember, it is simply something old that is new again.

The joy we experience in welcoming a new life into our family or community makes it an effortless event to commemorate. However, the sadness evoked in caring for a loved one in death reminds us that endings are every bit as sacred as beginnings.

Nancy Ward is a family funeral guide for Sacred Endings, assisting and educating families in the death and dying process, end of life services and burials. She lives in Scappoose.