The Lost Art Of Caring For Our Dead

Often, when we bring someone into our care who died at home, they are still warm. This startled me the first time I supported a woman’s head.

There seems to be militant urgency in getting the funeral home in to remove the body. Families appear visibly relieved when they can turn their attention to paperwork. Or start to clear up the room that was disrupted by grandfather’s cot. 

Death is overwhelming, yes. But sometimes life rushes in a little too quickly to fill the emptiness of it. 

What if we’re cheating ourselves on important closure?

I had the pleasure of speaking with hospice volunteer and certified death midwife Sharon Stewart of Brooklyn, WI who specializes in family-directed home funerals

She affirmed that in many states, Wisconsin included, there is no legal need to involve a funeral director in the care of your loved one.

Under her guidance, families are gifted several final days at home with their loved one.

Widows are able to curl up beside their soulmate. Children can paint Nana’s fingernails.

Family can bless a body with oils and flowers while singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” 

These are gorgeous moments that are entirely foreign to Western society, where death is kept separate from life. 

This used to be the only way. And for many cultures, it is still a sacred way. 

Consider how sanitized a funeral home feels to a Muslim family, who ritually wash and drape their dead in yards of cotton before a mosque service and burial.

Imagine how abrupt a direct cremation feels to a Hmong family, who take 3-12 days to honor their dead, including guarding the deceased’s casket from harm as the soul transitions for rebirth. 

People on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island go so far as to dig up their dead every three years, clean them, and dress them in their favorite clothes to honor their spirits. 

Funeral homes play a vital role, of course. But I can’t help carry all of this inside of me as I walk softly across a carpeted floor to collect Thomas or June who died mere hours before. I think about their families months down the line, wondering if they’ll get what they need to move forward.

Often, when we bring someone into our care who died at home, they are still warm.