So, a late October Saturday afternoon, a lovely rainy day, I was a dead body for about 30 minutes.
And it wasn’t all bad!
I’m lucky enough to live in a very progressive area of Texas, home to Sandy Booth and Donna Belk, two amazing, positive women who are passionate about making home funerals accessible and a reality for as many folks as possible. To that end, they lead home funeral workshops, run a monthly meetup group, and are available as guides and consultants for local home funerals as well. The workshop I attended was held in the community room of a local library, and drew folks from all over Texas, even people who drove hours and stayed the night in Austin just to attend! (So thankful I’m close enough to just drive up…)
My Final Hour
Sandy and Donna started the workshop off by letting us introduce ourselves. I was startled by the efforts some attendees had made to attend this workshop! Here I thought I had it rough, having to make the 35 mile drive out to Lakeway, but I was nearly the only ‘local’ in the class–some had driven the three hours in from Houston, or Dallas, or even further, Huntsville! It’s shocking to me, and maybe sad, that in such a large and independence-loving state like Texas, there are so few resources available to help folks with this last act of caring and self-reliance.
After introductions, we spent the first hour of the workshop learning about the process of doing a home funeral, viewing slides of previous clients’ arrangements, and talking about the legal issues and regional peculiarities of the process of caring for your own dead at home (who knew that registering a death and getting a death certificate issued could be such a burden?!) I was fascinated by Donna’s assertion that their primary role during a home funeral is breaking the barrier–that we, as Americans detached from death, have a built-in aversion to, a fear of touching a dead body. Donna explained that she makes a deliberate point of touching the body first, using the caring motions and actions that the family will be performing, and in that way smooth the path for the others to touch as well.
I was also heartened to hear that having a home vigil (even if you let a funeral home do the body preparation) is legal in all 50 US states–who knew?
After a brief break and some specific logistical questions answered, we moved into the hands-on portion of the workshop, where Sandy and Donna led us through actually caring for a body. And here’s where I got to play dead!
I’m sure I wasn’t their first choice, as I would come to realize, seeing as part of the process was learning how to safely transport a body (and I’m tall and sturdy, to put it mildly). But, since I was the only volunteer, up on the table to die for me!
Sandy started by explaining how to clean and dress the body, including how to manage a dead-weight object safely to access the bottom side for cleaning. I was dutifully patted and ‘washed’, dressed in a lovely pink and purple muu-muu gown, and draped with beautiful textiles–the entire time having my care explained in detail, my caregivers being warned that I might drool, or may need my bottom sheets changed. (A girl could get used to the attention!)
Next up, logistics. Sandy explained in detail how to plan for hand-transport of a body, what to look out for in terms of navigation of doorways and such, and why just picking it up singly like you would a sleeping child wouldn’t work.
I’m fairly certain none of the folks who attended–all my age or older, no one a body builder as far as I could tell–had planned to carry over 160lbs of body as part of their day, but before we all knew it, I was being gently and carefully motored around the library, every one of my 9 bearers taking extra care to keep my head up, not to let my body bang against things, and to ensure I felt safe. After our jaunt, they returned me to the preparation table, and we talked about various vessels that they could use to bury me, if that was their choice.
And just like that, my stint as a corpse was over!
After our hands-on caring exercise, we debriefed the experience. As part of it, Sandy asked me how it felt to be the corpse. I had to tell them, and I have to tell you, it was very intimate, very caring. Each participant was clearly there with purpose, intent on practicing and learning the skills they would put to use with their loved ones–and I definitely felt that passion, that loving intentionality. Even though we were all strangers before that day, there was a gentleness and a deliberate caring that was palpable, and was very comforting.
Our workshop debrief, and the workshop itself, ended with folks sharing about their experiences with death of loved ones, and their personal motivations for wanting to explore caring for their own dead.
It was interesting to listen to the diversity of the reasons for attendance at the workshop, as varied as the participants themselves–but what we all shared, underneath our concerns about cost and timing and such, was love. Each of us spoke of the loved ones we were seeing on the table, wrapped in pretty silk, lovingly bathed with a cloth, carried gently to the resting spot. I came to understand that that love and caring that I felt from strangers as they prepped and ferried me had nothing to do with our short, temporary bond, and everything to do with who I was for them–not just a corpse to clean, but Mom. Or Grandma. Or Abuelo. Or a beloved friend.
And that, on my drive home, was what stayed with me. Home funerals have a cost advantage, and can certainly be spiritual and healing as well. They’re the easiest route to a green burial, certainly.
But at their core, they’re the last, greatest caring you can do for someone you love, breaking the modern societal barriers and taboos to embrace and attend to your loved one’s final needs, making sure the job is done with love, rather than just respect and efficiency.