History of the NHFA

How the NHFA Was Formed

Recounted by Elizabeth Knox

Beth Knox
Beth Knox

During the Vermont Board Retreat in October of 2014, the following history was recorded as part of Elizabeth Knox’s “honoring of the ancestors”. Beth was retiring after 6 years of involvement, two of which were as recent president. Beth writes:

First came our predecessors: Jessica Mitford, Ernest Morgan, William Wendt, Lisa Carlson, Nancy Poer, Tamara Slayton, to name a few. Thanks to their guidance and mentorship, Crossings and Final Passages started offering trainings and workshops around the country starting in 1996/1997. For 10 years, all those trainings had produced many who were deeply interested in the work. Crossings decided to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2008 (a few months later than the actual anniversary). People from all over the country were invited to come. We really saw it as a first chance to gather all those who were taking up home funeral care to meet, network, and celebrate our shared mission. Mark Harris was the keynote speaker, Nancy Poer, Char Barrett and Karen Van Vuuren all attended, along with about 40 others. It was held at Seeker’s Church in Takoma Park, and afterward there was dinner at Beth and her husband Bill’s home that the Crossings Board orchestrated.

Karen, whom Beth had known through Waldorf, and then through having taught a workshop in Boulder from which Natural Transitions was founded, had tremendous enthusiasm for the 10th anniversary. She shared in the goal of gathering home funeral advocates together, and offered to do hold a follow-up event the next year in Boulder, CO. In the spirit of “getting organized with a capital O” Karen had the brilliant idea to invite facilitator Patty Beach, and to this end, invited people to stay on Sunday for a brainstorming session. At the event, we divided into two groups – one group who wanted to participate in the leadership team, and the other group to say what they wanted from an organization and a leadership team.

Organizational Meeting of the National Home Funeral Alliance, October 2009, Boulder, CO
Organizational Meeting of the National Home Funeral Alliance, October 2009, Boulder, CO

Out of that meeting came a leadership team of 13 and we worked on things such as our name, our logo, getting incorporated, mission, etc. Karen secured a web domain. Char was voted as leader because she was both a professional funeral director and a leader of the home funeral movement, and it was felt, lent us credibility. By the following year, we became a board of directors that included Jerrigrace Lyons, Nora Cedarwind, Kelsey Ramage, Dave Robles, David Haisman, Peg Lorenz, Donna Belk, Char Barrett, Cari Leversee, Marian Spaddone, Beth, and Karen. Char agreed to be the president for a two-year term. Karen & Beth were co-vice-presidents. (Karen later had to drop out because of illness of her husband). Donna was secretary, Cari was treasurer.

It was at the first NHFA 2011 conference where we had the member meeting that Lee Webster volunteered to take notes, (which got some attention from those who were watching). One draw to the conference was Nora’s presentation about hospice work. Nora said to dress professionally, and know your stuff, but failed to mention how. Lee noticed this lapse, and so went home and created a presentation on How To Speak Home Funeral, which she offered as a presenter the following year. She also organized our next conference in Chicago with Donna. It was clear even to those who weren’t watching that Lee Webster had a lot to offer our movement. It needs to be stated that most of what we have accomplished in each year, Lee has done ¾ of it singlehandedly. She has been a tremendous gift to our movement. (And what Lee Webster in turn needs is for more of us to take up our parts so that she no longer has to take on as much).

It is the dynamic people that make the organization and keep it running and they must be acknowledged as well:

  • Peg Lorenz for coming forward enthusiastically with good ideas and being unafraid to say the hard things, no nonsense.
  • Donna Belk for her amazing web and facilitation skills, and especially for coming around for a second term as a board member.
  • Lynn Barnett for coming forward when we desperately needed a treasurer.
  • Merilynne Rush for her organizational skills and thoughtfulness.
  • Cari Leversee for her initial treasurer duties and amazing web knowledge.
  • Char Barrett for taking the brunt of the first run as president while also getting her own business thriving.
  • Jerrigrace Lyons for holding strong with us throughout our long process of forming.

Looking Back

by Karen Van Vuuren, October, 2016

Karen Van vuuren
Karen Van Vuuren

At the Crossings conference, I spoke with a number of the movers and shakers about my desire to create a representative body for those doing human funerals.

I heard that this was “in the air” for a lot of people, and felt that Natural Transitions had the strength to try at least to make this happen. My board was then peopled with incredible “doers,” and I asked them if they were prepared to do the work to put on a conference. Patti Beach, a friend and skilled organizational development coach, agreed to donate her time after the conference to lead a session to talk about what this new organization would/could do, how it would do it, and to help us to form a founding board.

I really feel that much kudos goes to the Natural Transitions Board for making this happen — not my own persona. If I had not had such a stellar team to take on the huge work of organizing that conference, we would not be where we are today: Deb Dore, Patte Ward, Barbara Horn, Reva Tift, Sue Mackey, Will Reller. I want to make sure they are recognized for their enormous service to this movement. And there were other NT volunteers who showed up as well that eventful weekend.

I remember being in tears that day when Patti Beach had the new board members stand and be recognized. It was a moment of culmination.

Moving Forward

Summary prepared by Lee Webster

Lee Webster
Lee Webster

During formation, there was an intent to unify home funeral guides under one roof, to create a networking body that was mutually supporting, and that would eventually give a public voice to this work.

A corporation was formed and registered with the State of Washington, a bank account was established, and the NHFA was in business. Conferences were held, bringing guides and others interested in the home funeral concept together to explore myriad aspects of end-of- and after-life care.

Board Governance Structure
The more time the members spent together, the clearer their questions became about what each needed from the organization and from each other. Committees were formed at the Board level to address specific issues and areas, such as providing a clearinghouse of resources and educational materials, and members were invited to participate.

The Board chose a model of governance for itself called the Consultative Leadership Process rather than a formal, authoritative Robert’s Rules of Order style customary to a national nonprofit board. Instead, members wished to create a system of leadership by consensus that was thoughtful, deliberate, and inclusive.

Why a 501c3?
As the Board developed, it became clear that, for financial reasons alone, it was necessary to attempt to obtain tax-exempt status with the IRS. The question evolved into one of organizational identity. Did we see ourselves as a professional entity, which would eventually require providing all that goes with it, such as standard setting, certification, fee schedules and the like? Or did we see our primary function as one of providing educational resources to home funeral guides and the public, and of keeping the rights of families as our polestar?

It was clear that the NHFA could not do both simultaneously, and it was even more clear that until the public was aware of home funerals, guides would not be in a position to assert themselves professionally. Given the legal licensing constraints of the funeral industry, there was also a risk of exposing the organization and its members to potential legal action by pursuing trade or professional organization status, known as a 501c6.

Were the Board to have chosen this route, it would have meant the necessary development of regulatory actions and functions, such as required standards of care, certification processes and testing, and the added burden of monitoring and enforcing. The result would have been a top-down management paradigm.

The sitting Board instead chose to follow the process of becoming a 501c3, focusing on educational and charitable activities and, with minor adjustments, committees were realigned accordingly. An intention was set to develop a unified fundamental message while providing recommendations for guidance and educational resources first and foremost, with the expectation that home funeral guides were uniquely qualified to take up the challenge and lead the way.

By doing so, the Board sought to preserve the grassroots nature of the organization to make home funeral a household word again, forging ahead with initiatives intended to support rather than mandate, to inform rather than dictate, and to steer rather than regulate.

The NHFA also opened its doors to anyone—funeral directors, hospice workers, medical community members, and the general public—in addition to any persons choosing to call themselves home funeral guides, in concert with the spirit of inclusion invested at the start of the organization.

Anyone can become a member, participate on committees, access the Member Resources section on the website, and request mentorship. Members are responsible for approving by-law changes and nominations to the Board during the biennial meeting, scheduled to coincide with the biennial conference.t our long process of forming.