Lee Speed remembers her son’s home funeral.  Watch on Vimeo.

A Home Funeral

Jane
by Deneen Fowler

Saturday we sat on the Doorsill with Jane.  Apparently, she had summoned each of us up through the silence, to keep the vigil for her. We circled around her, knowing she would cross over that doorsill soon, alone, turning into the mystery. We knew that we would be staying behind for a while, on this side of the threshold, grappling with the usual conundrums of living. Digitized numbers became the runes we read as we sought to know the exact time that Door would open before us. Vigilant, we watched for signs of the door opening while Jane, the fierce Olympian, carried the torch unwaveringly toward it, her breathing heavy with its weight.

After a while, mist spiraled like smoke out of Jane’s face and formed a cone made of the substance of luminosity, round and open above her head.  We watched together and alone at the doorsill of death. As we watched, Jane’s face changed. Now, she had taken on the ancient profile of a Roman senator, cheek- bones high, patrician nose jutting with precision into the air where the mist had curled moments earlier. Her face was changing form. She was wearing the features of death. Cissy came in, dressed in brown and black.  She needed no digital runes. She knew the language of pulse.  With measured tones we were told what the body’s pulse had whispered privately to her. “Jane is no longer associated with this body.”

We watched together and alone at the doorsill of death. As we watched, Jane’s face changed. Now, she had taken on the ancient profile of a Roman senator, cheek- bones high, patrician nose jutting with precision

No one was surprised to see the brown and black butterfly peering into the window of the heart tower, three stories up, on an April afternoon, shimmering behind Cissy’s form. The butterfly flew away. Cissy left. We returned to our vigil. We continued to consult the light of the digitized runes. We worked to extract Eternal Wisdom from mechanical light. But now, the room was full of fresh energy. The Enormous had arrived. Is it that Jane herself, had diffused in order to cross the doorsill? I know this has to be what camels must do before passing through the eye of a needle. Did the Enormous arrive to escort Jane across that doorsill into the luminosity?

Yesterday, Jane’s body lay in state at Ruth’s house. No more Roman Senator. Jane looked like a Buddha. Intensity of focus suggested she was learning to walk or fly or swim the channels of light, while the vigil of the living continued around her. Serenity was sprawled all over Ruth’s home like a blessing.  I saw that Serenity, Herself, had Sandra wrapped in her arms. The strawberries by the path lounged in the afternoon sun, speaking together of ripeness.  Ruth’s roses, orange magnificence, glowed on the window- sill as beacons, guiding Jane’s transition.

Inside me someone said “My body will likely lie there under that lace one day, while the garden continues to ripen and then decay, while the beloved companions keep the vigil, breathing and speaking of love, and simultaneously considering the conundrums of living.

Caroline came in from the porch.  I was unprepared to see the clarity, the compassion, that unwavering depth in her eyes. Inside me someone said “My body will likely lie there under that lace one day, while the garden continues to ripen and then decay, while the beloved companions keep the vigil, breathing and speaking of love, and simultaneously considering the conundrums of living. The luminosity will again, have gathered substance. Serenity will again provide a wrap for the living to wear as they say farewell to a body, to that diffusing Enormity crossing the doorsill. After a while, they will pass through Ruth’s doorsill and walk back by thez strawberries as they return to the world of living form.

——-

Aunt Fran
by Dawn Young

This is an Appalachian story because it is about resourceful people taking care of their own with little trust in institutions or reference to societal expectations. It is also an Appalachian story because it is about people with no money circumventing the status quo and experiencing equal measures of grace and awkwardness. It is also a universal story because it is about preparing a dead human body that you have loved, in this case the body of my aunt, Frances Barbery, in this case at home and with our own hands.

What we did was the difference, for my family, in incurring debt and remaining solvent, and in saying an intimate goodbye in a language we all understood, as opposed to saying goodbye in the mortuary chapel of kindly paid professionals.

What we did was at Aunt Fran’s request, made possible through the help of a family friend, Julia Hunt, who was Fran’s hospice volunteer and Home Funeral Guide.   What we did was the difference, for my family, in incurring debt and remaining solvent, and in saying an intimate goodbye in a language we all understood, as opposed to saying goodbye in the mortuary chapel of kindly paid professionals.

Other than my maternal grandmother, Aunt Fran was the poorest person I have ever loved. Her years of managing convenience stores, traveling with a carnival, selling plants in flea markets, and working in a resort laundry left her with no income in old age other than a Social Security check of six hundred dollars and change. She had cancers, and as they multiplied, she bought an insurance policy that would pay towards her funeral, but the primary expenses, she knew, would fall on my father and my mother, who had taken care of her in the months since she had become bedridden.

Because she had just buried her second husband a few months before, Aunt Fran was aware of the cost. Fran was congenitally independent, and so she was as delighted as a dying woman can be when Julia offered to guide my mother and Fran in the time leading to Fran’s dying and in the death itself.  Aunt Fran, my mother, my sisters, Julia, and I all agreed that we would prepare Aunt Fran’s body for cremation in the small bedroom where she spent her last months. Julia told us what to expect and that she would lead us through it, and my youngest sister, Camille, who rehabilitates wild animals and has a gift for treating the injured, agreed to be her right hand.

My part was to drive her body to the crematory. So that is how, on January 15th, 2009, I came to be driving Aunt Fran’s body from Euchella Cove to a crematory in Asheville in my tiny car as part of a small convoy, a convoy that would have fit seamlessly in a Flannery O’Connor story or a Jonathan Dayton film, a convoy that Fran would have enjoyed, maybe did enjoy, if any form of consciousness continues. Even though Aunt Fran was in a large cardboard cremation box crowded in the back of a Prius, the box did offer her the dignity of plenty of room for her five-foot frame, and she was wearing her favorite peach-colored satin pajamas, a gift from one of my brothers.

Aunt Fran, her sense of humor developed from a lifetime’s practice of turning pain into laughter, would have certainly laughed at the absurdity of this journey, at my seat pushed all the way forward and my knees jacked up gracelessly on either side of the steering wheel. She would have laughed at my back seats folded down to slide in her last conveyance, and at Camille in a contortionist’s position in the passenger seat, her cheek almost against the windshield in order to allow the hatch to shut. She would have laughed for joy that my mother’s back could begin to heal from long months of lifting and turning her to avoid bedsores. She would have laughed, too, when the entire parade — my mother, two of her siblings, four of her five children, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, and the amazing Julia — had to stop at the rest area on Balsam for a bathroom break for the grandchildren and to try to adjust the placement of Fran’s box to prevent permanent neck injury to Camille, already worn from helping to handle Aunt Fran’s increasingly incapacitated form that trapped her still lucid mind.

It was our knowledge of Fran’s mind that allowed us to do what we were doing on that frigid January morning, and that had allowed us to do what we had done since her death two mornings before.

It was our knowledge of Fran’s mind that allowed us to do what we were doing on that frigid January morning, and that had allowed us to do what we had done since her death two mornings before. Julia’s instructions to my mother and Camille had been to call her as soon as Fran died. My sister Regina and I were also on hand to begin, although we mostly watched as the beautiful as well as the unpleasant aspects of preparation ensued. The reality, and the reason this will not be chosen as a last ritual by many, is the obvious: the body is organic matter. At times, at the moment of death, bodily secretions will occur and need to be cleaned up. The body’s crevices are cleaned, and its limbs arranged decently before rigor mortis sets in. The cold weather was a blessing. With the bedroom windows open and frigid air helping to slow the decomposition that happens slowly over time, Camille and Julia, with Mom, Regina and I attending, proceeded to wash Aunt Fran with her favorite soap, shampoo her thinned strands of white hair, and powder her quiet body.

Bathing her arms and legs showed us her tan lines, retained even in January from a lifetime of gardening, and recalled for us her loves and passions.

Fran’s humor had always leaned towards the earthy, and the washing and powdering recalled her stories and jokes. Bathing her arms and legs showed us her tan lines, retained even in January from a lifetime of gardening, and recalled for us her loves and passions. Bathing her ears showed us her many piercings, and reminded us, for her generation, of her unconventional approach to beauty. Bathing her contorted hands reminded us of the terrible pain of her rheumatoid arthritis, the perseverance and determination she exhibited in doing for herself until she could no longer do. Bathing her feet and applying her scant makeup recalled her concern, until the very last moment, that she always be presentable, if not pretty. And when it was finished, when she was wearing those satin pajamas and her hands were folded in the classic pose of repose, she was pretty.

When friends and family came the following day to visit and pay respects, no one exclaimed with surprise that Fran “looked so natural” because she was in the bed where she had slept when they visited her over the past weeks, because she looked as she had when they last spoke with her. This was the Fran we had known. This was the Fran who taught us in those hours we prepared and transported her body that there is no better way to recognize the sacred in life than to love the body even after it dies.

And so this is an Appalachian story about pride, about my aunt’s pride, in life and death that prevented her from asking for help from institutions or welfare. But it is also a universal story, and it is about humility. Because one individual was willing to ask friends and family for help, her humility taught all those involved about the sanctity and dignity that are possible in death.

—–

Julia Hunt’s own experience with her mother’s home funeral moved her to seek further training with Center for End of Life Transitions.

Center for End of Life Transitions

***

828-318-9077 For Information or Guide On Call

***

Center for End of Life Transitions is a service project of 

Anattasati Magga, Inc. a 501-c-3 organization.

Your contributions are tax deductible.

One Response to “Testimonials”

  1. Jan Buchanan Says:

    I am completely in awe of the work that is being done to enable folks who have non-traditional ideas of how they want to be remembered, how they want their bodies to be cared for and the ways that they want to assist others in their grieving after they have died. This is definitely how I want to work through my own dying process when that time comes for me. Thank you SO MUCH for your work and the ways that you care for the dying and those who care for their bodies after death every day!!!

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