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Friday, January 19, 2007

The Benefits of Caring for Your Own at Death

It's hard to image being able to muster the will or energy to conduct a home funeral for someone you love when death comes calling.

Beth Knox had the same thought. Readers of Grave Matters know Beth as the "deathcare midwife" and director of Crossings who in chapter six describes the home funeral she conducted for her seven-year-old daughter, Alison. Recounting how she learned of Alison's death from a low-speed auto accident, Beth admitted to participants in one of her recent deathcare workshops that she'd have expected to want someone "to give me a tranquilizer and wake me up in five years."

In fact, just the opposite happened. "When it happened, the last thing I wanted was anything clouding my consciousness," Beth said. "I wanted to be nowhere else than at my daughter's side and to care for her myself as I had always done" when she was alive. Over the course of three days, a period she calls both "terrible and beautiful," that's just what she did.

Beth's workshops make the idea of the home funeral easier to contemplate, and then actually pull off. For a full afternoon, Beth gives participates the nuts and bolts of post-deathcare -- how to wash and dress a body, buffet the remains with dry ice to enable a home wake.

Sure, the work isn't easy, the engagement with the deceased intense. Still, for Beth and others I interviewed, the challenges proved well worth the effort. "There are rewards from having a home funeral," Beth told me. "There's a comfort and healing that comes from physically caring for the dead and from spending quiet, private time in the presence of death."

I thought of Beth's comment this week when I read a new Johns Hopkins health policy study on the benefits that accrue to family and friends who care for loved ones in the final stages of life ("End of Life Care," Jennifer Wolff, Archives of Internal Medicine, Jan. 8, 2007). While reporting that the endeavor caused emotional, physical and sometimes financial strain, a full 2/3rds of the caregivers said they nonetheless reaped significant rewards as well. Nearly 70 percent, for example, said that the experience "ma[de] me feel good about myself" and "enable[d] me to appreciate life more." More than 3/4ths said their role made them feel useful and needed.

No one, to my knowledge, has as neatly quantified the benefits to the living that come from conducting a home funeral for their dead. Yet the rewards must be similar to -- and a continuation of -- the very ones that begin with caring for loved ones in their final days.

Note: The photograph above was taken at one of Beth's home deathcare workshops. For information on upcoming workshops, contact Crossings ( E-mail:


Anne Coleman said...

This is all so fascinating and, I admit, something that I had not given thought to before my own father's death last May.

I am not sure that I could care for a loved one post-mortem, but it has made me think of how things must have been done for centuries before the modern-day choices.

I'll have to pick up your book!

Anonymous said...

The more I introduce your book to friends - the better I feel about protecting our loved ones after they are have made a difference.

Emily Brown said...

You can read Patrick Palmer’s books, he wrote these books on caregiving after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. His books are a Must-Read Books for Caregivers.

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