My father, the quirky, crusty, and surprisingly sentimental Don Collins, went to bed the other night and never woke up.
At 84 and in failing health, he was set to move to an assisted living facility in two weeks, never again to enjoy my mother’s cooking or daily attention. Instead, he slipped away on the sunny Thursday between my daughters’ birthdays, reluctant, it would seem, to ruin their days.
My mother, siblings and I quickly drove to St. Joe’s, where our initial grief was gradually tempered by quiet acceptance. A social worker suggested we each spend time alone in the room with him. His hand was still warm as I said goodbye.
My father had asked for cremation, which took place that night. Nine days later, after the rest of the family had flown in, we greeted friends at the church immediately before the funeral, where his tearful grandchildren and great-grandchildren placed flowers beneath the chest containing his ashes.
A brief military service honoring my father’s service in World War II was followed by lunch in the church social hall, where my mother and brothers told funny “typical Don” stories. Then some friends and all the relatives came to my house for the rest of the day.
There was no embalming, casket, or sad music in an unfamiliar funeral home. We seven Collins kids never agree on anything. But we wouldn’t have changed a thing.
There’s no one right way to handle a death, or anything else. But this felt right to us.
People facing the death of a loved one should know there are options, said Merilynn Rush of Dexter, who believes after-death care has been taken out of the realm of normal experiences.
“We’ve handed it off to undertakers,” said Rush, a consultant to families interested in after-death home care. “Whereas everyone used to take care of their loved one at home – they’d lay out the body in the front parlor and they knew what to do and were involved in it. Now people die in hospitals and the body’s taken away and cared for by someone else. That’s not the most natural way to grieve or handle it.”
It’s not for everybody, Rush is quick to say. But for some, especially those who’ve been caring for a loved one at home while they’re dying, continuing that care after they’ve died for a few hours or days seems natural.
“Funeral homes discourage public visitation without embalming for aesthetic reasons,” said Rush, a former home birth midwife. “And so caring for the body at home – as long as you’ve cleaned and cooled the body – allows out-of-town relatives to get there. They can come and say good bye in the familiar surrounding and comfort of a home, rather than having to pay for a viewing at a scheduled time.”
It also allows for more personal expression.
“You can place photos, flowers, mementos, make the atmosphere in your own home the way you want,” she said. “People can gather around and share stories, laugh or cry, share food. Kids can be around. It’s a very natural setting. Not a generic, impersonal environment of a funeral home.”
The funeral home personnel are required to sign the death certificate and transport the body to final disposition, either a cemetery or crematorium. The total cost can be as little as $700 for cremation, said Rush, comparing it to at least $8,000 for typical funeral home care involving embalming, a casket, and viewing hours.
So far, Rush has helped one local family with after-death home care.
“It was just so natural,” she recalled. “When the grandchildren came by, they were able to see the body and get it – that she had died. It wasn’t traumatic for them. They’d touch her, then they’d go out and play. It was familiar, and the family was all together.”
That family belonged to Sharon Bailey, 72, who died of bone cancer Nov. 2 at the Ypsilanti apartment of her daughter, Laura Bailey. Laura, along with her sister, Beth Barbeau of Dexter, had been caring for Sharon in their homes for several months.
After Sharon died, Rush gently guided Barbeau and Bailey in what steps to take next. The sisters washed their mother’s body, then applied fragrant salve and dry ice to strategic parts to help preserve it.
Over the next two days, friends came over, brought food, shared stories. Sharon’s body was in the living room, resting in the same bed she’d shared with her husband as a newlywed. The grandchildren wrote love notes which they tucked in her hands. The Threshold Singers visited, as they had before Sharon’s death.
On Thursday morning, the family finally felt ready to say goodbye.
“We looked at each other, and realized we’ll never be done grieving, but we don’t need her body to do it,” said Barbeau, a home birth midwife.
Because they didn’t want her body out of their care, they then accompanied the body to the crematorium two miles away. And stayed til the end.
A memorial was held a month later at the Webster United Church of Christ. Afterwards, friends and family gathered for a potluck at Barbeau’s natural family store, Indigo Forest in Scio Township.
The sisters agree the entire process was much more natural and healing than the death of their father eight years earlier in Illinois.
“By the time we got there, he was already at the funeral home, embalmed and naked under a sheet,” said Bailey. “It was so unnatural; so weird. It put it into perspective for me as to what I didn’t want for myself.”
Bailey said having hospice care for her mother meant home care after death was a natural progression, and she credits Rush for helping them through the grieving process, and knowing what to do, when.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Bailey, who works as a doula. “We didn’t know we were doing something so different that would affect so many people, but it seems to, and we’re really grateful.”
Barbeau believes that being with her mother’s body for a “winding down” period after death allowed her to come to terms with her passing.
“People think they’ll be protected from the rawness of death if they create distance,” she said. “But we were less hurt, less disabled from my mom’s death because we were so close.”
Merilynn Rush is forming a local support group for people interested in after-death home care. For information, contact her at her website. You can read more about the after-death care of Sharon Bailey here.
About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.