Claire Turnham shares how she hopes to change death care gently, one family at a time.
Home-based death care is not a new concept. Not long ago, death, like birth, was seen as a natural part of life. When a loved one died, families, friends and neighbours gathered together to care tenderly for their own at home, to support and help each other and to make arrangements for the funeral. Families were responsible for washing, dressing and respectfully laying out a loved one’s body in the front room or parlour.
This approach was considered a normal way for families to connect, grieve and deal with death. Nowadays, it is more likely that when a loved one dies their care is hurriedly handed over to strangers and for professionals to lead and direct the funeral.
But times are changing and there is a growing resurgence in home funerals and home-based family-led care. Increasingly more and more families are recognising they are the best people to care for their own loved ones and are taking responsibility to lead and arrange part or all of the funeral themselves.
Reclaiming death care
The mission of the contemporary home funeral movement is to support families to reclaim their right to home based after death care. Whilst I acknowledge that not all families may feel comfortable in being so actively involved, I believe it is important for everyone to be fully aware of the options available so they can make informed decisions in accordance with their loved one’s beliefs, values and wishes.
Home funeral ceremonies
Just as individuals, families and communities are all different, there is no “standard” home funeral service – they are as unique as the lives they honour. The family are able to choose whatever feels right for them and create a personal ceremony which reflects the true beauty of their loved one’s life.
Why consider a home funeral?
Lower cost, higher value
While there are many advantages to home funerals, being substantially more affordable being a significant one, it is not necessary to spend money on funeral costs you do not want or need. Families also have the freedom and flexibility to be more involved in doing things their own way in their own style and using their own resources. They can choose to keep things as simple as they wish.
However, I believe that the true value of a home funeral lies in the extra time spent in caring for your loved one. Slowing down the process allows all involved to accept and absorb the death at their own pace. Friends and family have more time to sit and be with the body, to grieve and do things in their own way and to say goodbye.
Home funerals keep everyone involved and connected in the spirit of community. Caring for your own can be a very tender, last act of love and ensures loved ones are only touched by known, loving hands. Family- led death care is more intimate, more meaningful and ultimately allows for greater healing.
For those families whose babies are miscarried, stillborn or die in the hospital the benefits of these few days together may be even more precious and profound. For some, it may be the only time they have. By taking their baby home, parents, siblings, and grandparents can simply welcome and make life-lasting memories with each other, before having to say goodbye.
Home funerals too may help children understand and accept the death of a loved one more naturally, especially when they are sensitively supported and death is explained in a simple, honest and age-appropriate way.
When children can see loved ones continuing to being cared for at home they may feel more love and less fear. For those children who choose to be involved, they may feel more valued and included in the process. This helps children learn to grieve in a healthy, natural way.
Home funerals are kinder and more respectful of the environment. In most cases, embalming is not necessary and your loved one’s body can be kept, or brought home to be safely cared for in the few days between death and the funeral ceremony.
Family and friends are encouraged to support each other, use their own resources and help with practical tasks. Emphasis is placed on personal engagement rather than expensive professional services.
Participating in this way helps families and friends to honour their own relationship with their loved one and the love they shared, in a way which nourishes and sustains them always.
When my Dad died I knew intuitively I did not wish to hand over his care to strangers. As his only daughter, I had been lovingly caring for him since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Perhaps because of my personal experience of being a home-birthing and home -educating mother, the idea of now continuing to be him at home just made sense. It was a very natural, instinctive and life -affirming decision.
With the support of my family, friends and the local hospice, I devoted my time to caring for my Dad before he died in his own home. Knowing that death was not far away made us appreciate each moment. We shared much love, laughter, tears, memories, life stories and wisdom together. It was an incredibly precious and special time and we found joy in simple family moments. With each passing day we became more attentive, more caring, savouring every moment, making it last. We lived totally in the moment until he died gently cradled in my arms, surrounded by us all.
My dad’s death was calm, beautiful and like nothing, I had imagined it would be. After keeping a vigil with him similar to that during a birth, my dad died consciously, without fear and most importantly, knowing how much he was loved. It was a loving, awe-inspiring time and he died with my blessing, without pain, and in peace.
At the time of Dad’s death, like in life, I felt as his daughter, it was natural for me to continue gently caring for him as I had in life and we kept his body at home for 5 days until we led his funeral. The children were fully involved, too, and each took on their own role by choice. Poppy (14) wrote poetry and helped with gathering photos and music, Celia (12) helped dress him, Theo (7) drew pictures and Fern (4) talked to him.
I had always felt very safe with my dad and I remembered fondly how as a child he had lovingly held my hand. When he did so I felt secure and protected. After he died being able to hold his hand again was very important to me. When the time finally came to let his body go I was able to still feel the imprint of his hand in mine and I still feel it to this day.
With the help of family and friends we celebrated Dad’s life with a beautiful and intimate funeral ceremony in his own much-loved garden. For my Dad, it was perfect and I feel hugely privileged and proud to have honoured his life in such a loving, simple and meaningful way.
For me, this experience was life-changing and transforming.
01865 362984/ 07881641583 email@example.com Claire is Mother to four children and lives near Oxford. As a family death care educator, independent celebrant, funeral arranger and home funeral guide, Claire can undertake all aspects of a home and family led funeral. Claire is passionate about sharing her skills, knowledge and experiences to help others. She is also a regular death cafe facilitator and OxBEL volunteer.
This article was first published in Juno Magazine September 2014
This article was also published in More to Death, the official magazine to The Natural Death Centre.