Guest blog by Patricia Eagle. Patricia is a Funeral Celebrant, a Home Funeral Guide and a dedicated explorer of what there is to learn in her life experiences.
Learn more at Horizon Ceremonies.
My friend Rusty had about eight to twelve months to live, according to his diagnosis of stage four ampullary cancer.
“It’s rare,” his wife Cece told me, “A combination of liver, pancreas, and small intestine.” Her voice quavered. “I never thought I’d be a widow in my fifties.”
Two months earlier, Cece, Rusty and other Austin friends had visited my home in Alamosa, Colorado. I was full of talk about death, after my fifth training as a Home Funeral Guide. Days earlier I had also experienced an open-air pyre cremation in neighboring Crestone. My friends were politely curious about a topic most wouldn’t bring up at dinner.
With no recent diagnoses or deaths in our lives, it was easy to banter about death.
“We have choices about where and how we want to die,” I pontificated. “Dying and death can be sacred experiences, and even happen in the comfort of our homes.”
Rusty said, “I don’t doubt you are right about this, PJ, but I just can’t wrap my head around this illuminating subject yet.” I looked at my dear friend, noticing unusually dark circles under his eyes.
Rusty and I met in 1970 at the University of Texas’ freshman orientation. By chance we bumped into each other that day, but our friendship was by choice for 46 years. He was like a brother to me, and Cece had become a very close friend as well.
“Can you help us navigate this?” Cece asked me that night on the phone. “Rusty doesn’t want to die in a hospital.”
Without a doubt, I assured her, I would do whatever I could to support them.
I overnighted Texas’ advanced directives from Compassion and Choices, concerned that Rusty didn’t have Medical Power of Attorney.
While there were other matters about the dying process and death to broach, my friends were now in shock, and their attention quickly shifted to hopes for cures and survival. The package I sent with information on advanced directives sat unopened as they researched treatment options. They pondered how they wanted to proceed in the coming months: accept the diagnosis and eight to twelve months of life without treatment––or dive into challenging chemo regimens that could add months to Rusty’s life.
They chose chemo. And Rusty had made it a full year before learning his weakened body could take no more treatments. From there, the cancer took two months to drain him of life.
My husband and I visited two and a half weeks before he died. Rusty was now on hospice at home, and had asked if I would meet with the hospice social worker and chaplain during a home visit. Self-administering morphine from a recliner, Rusty circled closer and closer to the elephant in the room: talking about death, and what dying at home could be like.
I thought of our dinner over a year ago where I had prattled on about dying at home or in a hospice, then describing home funerals in enthusiastic detail. But after he finally completed the advanced directive information, we delayed talking about a home death or a home funeral – the full focus was still on survival.
With the help of the hospice social worker and chaplain, we explained that Rusty would be kept comfortable at home during the dying process, and what could happen after he died and before his body was taken to a crematorium.
Although I said the words ‘home funeral,’ newly indoctrinated home funeral guide that I was, I realize now that I did not effectively explain that meant two to three days of a home vigil immediately after the death, when friends and family would come to help, visit and share.
We left in the morning, planning to return to be with Rusty as he died, for his ‘home funeral,’ as we continued saying.
I stayed in close touch as his energy dwindled. I began to get prepared, still on the path of helping prepare his body to lie in the home for a few days. My home funeral teachers had taught me well: I had already amassed the necessary materials from cleaning supplies, essential oils, large ice packs, sheets, towels, pillows, covers, and even a massage table. I had carefully read, reorganized, and reviewed guide sheets from several trainings. I felt ready.
But it’s impossible to predict just when someone will die, so I waited, wondering if and when to reschedule other things on my calendar.
Rusty was only eating Ensure popsicles. A hospital bed had been delivered to their bedroom. He was still interacting, but needed help getting up and had fallen several times. I worried about when I should join them.
I asked Cece again if she wanted me there, and if she still wanted a home funeral.
“Yes,” she answered, “but I can’t tell you when to get here.”
At this point I began to wonder if Cece thought a home funeral simply meant ‘one dies at home’ and I needed confirmation. She had everything organized for a comfortable and caring home death for her beloved. It had been 16 months since the dinner at my home when I had chattered on about what a home funeral was, before Rusty’s diagnosis. I had shared bits and pieces about home funerals in random conversations, and during the awkward discussion with the hospice people and the three of us. But I hadn’t laid it out as clearly as I needed to.
So I carefully composed an email, borrowing lines from the National Home Funeral Alliance
“Cece, I want you to fully grasp what ‘home funeral’ means. It is like an extension of hospice, sort of ‘hospice’ after death, where the family is able to stay connected to the care of their loved-one, through personal involvement in the after-death care, so the after-death care occurs where the person has died rather than in a funeral facility.
The term ‘home funeral’ can be misleading as people focus on the word ‘funeral,’ and associate it with some sort of service as in a religious service. It is really a rite of passage or ritual created by the family. The ‘home’ aspect is synonymous with ‘family-led,’ where the family is caring for those they cared for in life.
At some point we can do an intimate, casual service before the crematorium we have chosen is called. We actually have days (2-4) if you choose, as a cleaned body on dry ice in a cool, dim room, 70 or lower, will not be unpleasant at all.”
Then I mentioned how this would give time for family and close friends to gather, and how, with her permission, I would like to arrange for some help from different people close to her for arranging things (a cool room, dry ice replacements, backboard).
I pressed SEND around 11 p.m.
The next morning I had a text: “Actually, Patricia, we won’t be doing a home funeral.”
Like I suspected. I had not been clear when I should have been. Rusty would die at home, and the crematorium would be called. Those were their wishes and now my intentions were to assist his family in making my friend’s death at home be as comfortable and as lovely for him and his loved ones as possible.
I booked a ticket for the next day. I no longer needed to take my home funeral supplies. I grabbed a stack of Threshold Choir music, precious oils, and clothes for five days.
It had been two weeks since I had seen Rusty, and his transformation was startling: yellow/gray skin, extremely thin, barely able to move, unable to talk or open his eyes. Cece had created a comfortable space for her husband. After watching her carefully monitor his pain meds for hours, I suggested that we take a short walk, and how this might be her last opportunity for days.
“I think that would help,” Cece answered, slowly shifting in her seat.
Suddenly Rusty’s arm swung over Cece’s shoulders, pulling her to his chest and pinning her to his bed. Even the dying don’t always know the moment of their death. Rusty knew he wanted Cece close by for whenever his would be.
For the next two days their two large families and many loving friends spent hours around his bed, singing, passing books of poetry, telling stories and sitting quietly. I set a scented, slow burning candle by the bed beside family photos and a bouquet of wildflowers. We took turns massaging Rusty’s feet and hands with fragrant oils.
Monday evening, we carefully moved him––this botanist, birder, and astronomer–onto the deck, describing everything we saw and heard as the sun set and the stars rose, as though his closed eyes and immobile body were seeing and hearing it all through our eyes and ears.
Rusty and Cece’s home was full of family, friends, children playing, smells of food being prepared, and Rusty’s favorite music. At dusk Tuesday, I saw a curious, tiny face pressed against the outside of the bedroom window––Rusty’s four-year-old grandniece taking in this sacred, candlelit scene.
A brother-in-law and I passed that Tuesday night sharing life stories as we sat on each side of Rusty. It was as if all three of us were engaged in lively conversation. I imagined Rusty playfully asking, “PJ, is this a home funeral yet?”
And it was, but not as I had imagined. Cece had watched his disease progress over fourteen months and may have intuited how his dying experience could be slow and possibly long. Maybe Rusty just wanted to be alive at his ‘home funeral.’ In retrospect, it had already been an intense and exhausting three days, and if we had continued by having a home funeral for several days after his death, it may have been too much.
With Saturn brilliant in the night sky, Rusty died at 4 a.m. on Wednesday. As his silent body began to cool, those of us there at this early hour quietly left the room, allowing the family time and space to be with their departed, just as a home funeral allows.
Soon Cece appeared and asked me, “What should we do next?”
“There is no need to rush,” I assured her. “Let me call the mortuary and arrange a time. How does 11:00 in the morning feel? That will allow plenty of time for others to come by, and allow us to have a private ceremony, if you’d like.”
Making time and space for close friends and family to visit after death is another characteristic of a home funeral. This was turning into a home funeral after all, even if it wasn’t planned out ahead of time or in the exact way I had been trained for.
Cece was open to everything. After calling the mortuary, I stepped into the room where Rusty lay and where people were quietly sitting and crying.
I brought his arms up and put his hands together across that belly that had been so painful the last 14 months. His body was cooling but still pliable. I pulled his lids down and held them until they stayed shut. Using the sheet for cover, per my training, I knew to check his adult diaper in case any cleaning was necessary. Rusty had not eaten for days and had received only drops of water; he was totally dry.
I noticed how family and neighbors stayed at a distance. While Rusty was still alive, people had sat closer to him, but now they gazed from several feet away. Few had attended a home death or home funeral before.
This was my first home funeral experience, and it was for one of my dearest friends. Looking back, I wonder how I could have encouraged family members to participate in this beautiful ritual. But my inexperience, along with my intuitive sense of where the people were, kept me from taking a stronger position to encourage them. Sensitive to Cece’s need – and right – to lead the way, I tried to stay attuned to her desires.
I laid Texas wildflowers people had brought across Rusty’s body, then positioned two bright red Turk’s cap flowers with flag-like leaves on each of his shoulders like the wings of a new angel.
I checked in with Cece and asked if she had anything in particular she would like Rusty to wear as he left home. She selected a favorite tee-shirt. “I think I’ll get his moccasins. I put them downstairs because they stink so much.” Cece looked up and smiled weakly – this is a stink she would miss.
I asked if she would like to dress Rusty or have me do it. What she needed, she said, was to be with her kids, and went to check on them.
We decided on an intimate family ceremony at 10:30 a.m., just before the mortuary arrived.
“They’ll be shrouding Rusty and placing him on a backboard to carry him out, Cece,” I explained. “If it’s ok with you, I’d like to be in the room. You can be, too, if you choose.”
She understood, but declined. We made a plan to have family and friends line the stairways as the body was carried to the mortuary’s van.
With a damp cloth, clean shirt and smelly moccasins ready, I looked upon my good friend. I pondered the many years I had known this man, and what he meant to so many. The last few days flashed across my mind, and I considered what the next few hours would hold.
“Let’s get you ready for this final leg of the journey.”
I pulled the sheet off slowly. His arms were now rigid. With care, I rolled my friend’s body onto his side and cut off his shirt. His back was damp and warm, and although I remembered this from my training, it was still startling. I took the wet cloth, and wiped it across his back and shoulders, knowing this cleaning didn’t make a bit of difference, but I did it anyway.
“I got your back, buddy,” I whispered as I rolled him down, surprised by his heaviness despite his now thin frame. I cut the back of the clean shirt, then slipped one hand and arm through at a time, pulling it up onto his shoulders and tucking it down both sides. His back was now the only part of his body with any warmth, however that, too, was dissipating.
One of Rusty’s eyes was peeking at me, so with a fingertip, I held it down until it stayed shut. I brushed his hair with my fingers, then lightly moved the cloth across his eyes, nose and cheeks.
“You’ve given us all such an incredible experience.”
I took a sheet and laid it across his body, bringing it up underneath his arms, then tucked four fragrant gardenias into his folded hands. Holding one stinky moccasin at a time, I slipped each onto a foot like glass slippers that fit perfectly.
It was now time for the family ceremony. I opened the door and family began to come in. Amidst moments of silence, the candle’s glow, and the calls of morning birds, we wove the tapestry of an intimate home funeral with love, poetry, prayer, tears, and music.
The doorbell rang as the last song finished. The men from the mortuary had arrived.
Family left the bedroom and I mentioned to the men I would be staying. Again, I now know how meaningful this step of the process can be for others, and next time I’ll attend to that.
They took the sheet off Rusty, and slipped a heavy material underneath him. I sprinkled the wildflowers that neighbors and family had brought across his body, securing one gardenia behind his ear, as Cece had requested. Then they rolled him as tight as a tamale in the shroud and moved him onto a backboard. I pulled the material at the end of the roll off Rusty’s moccasins.
We were now ready to process to the van. I had been singing and continued as we stepped through the bedroom door, the two burly, wet-eyed guys carrying Rusty’s draped body, those worn moccasins standing tall at the foot of the backboard.
We walked slowly and with dignity to the van. The men opened the van’s back doors, pushed the body within––those upright moccasins being the last sight of my friend. A faint sweetness from Rusty’s nearby gardenia bushes lingered in the air as the van drove away.
It was silent. My legs wanted to buckle – I was drained and exhausted like others from these last days of attending to the journey of his dying and death. I took in a deep breath of perfumed air, slowly turned, and saw Rusty’s much-loved friends and family respectfully lining both sides of the porch and outside stairs, faces wet with tears.