But death is real,
Comes without warning.
Will be a corpse
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Four Reminders
The American way of death—to borrow the title of Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of abuses in the funeral industry—has come to us relatively recently. For much of the history of the Western world, care of the dead was a family and community affair, and a seamless melding of sacred and mundane human activity. Until the turn of the last century, and even later in diminishing pockets of America, people dressed, waked, and bade farewell to their dead at home, and death had the chance to be seen and felt as a natural, inevitable part of life. But by the early 20th century, professional funeral directors had begun to “undertake” the job and spare families what was increasingly thought of as a difficult and unpleasant activity, one that couldn’t and shouldn’t be handled by people who were in mourning.
A gaping spiritual and cultural hole opened as our society began ceding its dead to the stewardship of a sequestered, for-profit industry, and the resultant attitudes and legislation around death that developed over the course of the 20th century keep that vacuum intact. Seven states (Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, Michigan, Utah) have made it illegal to keep a dead body at home or conduct a funeral without a professional funeral director; in most others, the permits and licenses required for disposition of a corpse nearly always require a funeral director’s participation. Embalming came into widespread practice after the Civil War, when it was employed as a technique for preserving the bodies of Union soldiers who fell below the Mason-Dixon line for the journey back north to their funerals. Today, most dead Americans, even those who will be cremated, are embalmed, one factor behind the $6,500 price tag on the average American funeral. Rarely do we ever see a body in the early stages of decomposition—the “resting” phases of a corpse during which people historically sat vigil. The phenomenon of institutionalized death has obvious implications for Buddhists, as we strive to accept and prepare the mind for death. For those of us who want to leave this lifetime in line with our convictions, and to support others to do the same, a more organic approach to death is needed.
As pioneering women have revived natural birth and home birth in the Western world, so have a handful of visionary women been working hard to bring home death and funerals back to communities that want them. People who have taken part in home funerals describe their transformative potential: the possibility to care for and honor the dead, to perceive the distinct separation of mind from body at death—and even to support the dying person as she or he crosses the threshold, away from life. Death, of course, takes every imaginable form. Home death often isn’t a possibility, and home funerals work only with collaboration, in many cases with the help of a “friendly funeral director” who can offer advice and facilitate the paperwork. According to the website UndertakenwithLove.org, a home funeral resource clearinghouse, a home funeral differs from the institutional version in its emphasis on “minimal, noninvasive care and preparation of the body, on its reliance on the family’s own social networks for assistance and support, and on the relative or total absence of commercial funeral providers in its proceedings.”
The home funeral also allows families and communities to reclaim the dying process, when possible, from hospitals, mortuaries, and other institutions. Nancy Poer, a Waldorf educator and home funeral advocate who has helped facilitate dozens of home funerals, stresses how the delicate trajectory of dying can best be borne out at home. “One of the reasons we took up home death in our family was to be able to get out of the [medical and funeral] systems, so it wouldn’t interfere with our own pace, our own choices at the end of life,” she says. “From a spiritual standpoint, the timing for when a person dies is extremely important, and it should be up to the dying person when and how that happens.”
Of course, home death is not always feasible, and there are many means to be present with and help a dying person in ways that benefit everyone. For Donna Belk, a home funeral guide and death “midwife” in Austin, Texas, we can avoid giving people “crappy deaths” by preparing for the hard work of dying as we would for other rites of passage. “I liken it to childbirth,” she says. “If you go into it with some education—you know about contractions, about breathing techniques—you can do a much more elegant job, and it’s not such a struggle. The same goes for death. If the dying person has some tools, so they’re not overcome with new thoughts or freaking out, it’s so much better for everyone. A good death can change a family’s attitudes about dying for generations to come.”
A part of that preparation, for both the dying person and his loved ones, often involves tying up loose emotional ends, which can free up the mind to concentrate on the work of the personal transition at hand. For a dying person, “it’s a great thing to be able to tell someone, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t do as good a job as I would have liked; here’s how I would have done it differently,’” says Belk. “If we can finish these thoughts, we are less likely to drag ourselves back into the ‘earth’ perspective as we die. It frees us to go across the threshold.” In hospice work, it is uncannily common to see a person near death hold on until an estranged relative or friend has been contacted. Even if the dying person is unable to make the call himself, the effort of reconciliation can offer release. For those at the bedside, the same approach is key: “Even if they’re in a coma, it’s such a gift to tell them, ‘I love you; nothing you have done has caused me irreparable harm.’ Those are good things for a dying person to hear.”
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