Before his death in 2012, Alice Toohey’s father let his family know that he wanted to be buried on his own land here in Maine. Because she was living in California at the time, Alice wasn’t closely involved in sorting out the details. Also, to be honest, even talking about death made her feel uncomfortable, but experiencing her father’s death and participating in his home funeral and burial had a profound effect on her.

Alice Toohey, Death Doula

It was very, very sad but also such an opportunity to love him and carry out his wishes in a way that felt so good. It woke something up in me and it got me curious about death and how we view death in our society.

Alice Toohey

Alice and her family sat with her father as he lay dying. No longer fearful, she said it was a privilege.

I felt like, okay, we were with him when he was alert and talking, we were with him when he was unconscious and sort of going in and out, we were with him as he took his last breath, and then we were with him after. There was no break in that and there was no need to stop everything and do something different. It was all part of caring for him.

Alice

Caring for her father also meant following his wishes to have a home funeral and burying him at the top of the hill on his land. It’s the kind of thing that families always used to do. Alice’s experience led her to want to help other people care for their own loved ones during the dying process and after death. She now has a certificate in the Art of Death Midwifery with Olivia Bareham and a certificate in Community Deathcare from Anne-Marie Keppel’s Village Deathcare Citizen Training. She is also a member of the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance and is on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance, all great resources.

Things you should know

You might not be the least bit interested in this topic, as was once the case for Alice, but if you are, there are some things you should think about ahead of time.

The first thing you should probably do, advises Alice, is make sure your family is aware of your wishes. Be specific. Spell out the details in an Advance Directive, and designate who you want to oversee carrying them out. If you’re wondering, it is legal in all states to have your loved one’s body at home after death.

You are also not required to have a funeral director make or carry out final arrangements. That said, it might be helpful when it comes to filing the death certificate and other paperwork, as well as handling cremation, if necessary, and transporting the body. If you think you may want to work with a funeral director, you should find one ahead of time who supports home funerals/burials.

If you want to have a home vigil and/or funeral service, the body does not have to be embalmed, but you will need to keep it preserved with refrigeration or dry ice. Generally, the optimal time for viewing is one to three days after death.

In order to transport your loved one’s body in any fashion, even if it’s just up the hill to the family cemetery, you will need a burial transit permit from your local town hall. The Maine-based website Last Things has good information about the paperwork you’ll need, among other helpful tips.

Start talking now

It may seem like a lot of work but the key is to have a conversation or several conversations early on. Do your research, make your wishes known, and do whatever prep work you can — checking laws in your area, what paperwork you’ll need, deciding if and how you wish to be laid out, where and how you wish to be buried, and if there are funeral homes that can assist you in any way, In some areas, there are funeral homes that specifically support home services.

You could also contact someone like Alice, who has the training to help people who are facing death and to assist them in putting together a support team. She can also help you prepare for difficult conversations or to deal with any unfinished business. In addition, she can help you prepare your advance directive, and advise you and your family on how to plan a funeral or vigil at your home or spiritual center.

An example

I asked Alice to describe what taking care of someone at home after their death might entail. If you are with your loved one when they die, she says it’s important to understand that their death is not an emergency situation. You do not have to jump up and do something. Instead, everyone should simply pause.

Just take a breath right there. There’s a tendency to act because we don’t know what to do in that space, and it can be a very intense space when somebody has died. So, take a little time to slowly start to work out what needs to happen next.

Alice

There are certain timelines you’ll want to be aware of. For instance, if you want to change the person’s clothes, to dress them, it should be done within the first several hours before the body becomes stiff. You may also choose to wash your loved one’s body.

It’s really up to the family or the community as to how they want to prepare the body, but you could dress and bathe them and maybe place your loved one’s body on a bed or another surface.You can put flowers or things that mattered to them around them.Things like that.

Alice

For a vigil, you could designate a space in the home where people could come over to spend some time and perhaps share food and memories. Some people prefer doing that for a short time, say 24 hours, and others for up to three days. Whatever you are comfortable with.

As for burial, one option might be what is called a green burial. The body is placed in the ground as naturally as possible.

There are some cemeteries in Maine that have specific spaces for those kinds of burials. You might use a pine box or you might use a shroud, which is a cloth for wrapping the body and you don’t use any chemicals in the process.

Alice

About Alice

Alice says her mission is to offer people information and resources and to help them become more comfortable about having a conversation about death. It is one of life’s certainties, after all.

I find that avoiding it can create a lot of suffering. It certainly did for me, and I would just like to normalize the conversation a little bit more. It’s okay, as a family, for us to talk about what we would like when we die, and it’s okay for us to start to think about that and make some choices because there are choices.

Alice

Resources

To learn more about some of the choices available, here are some useful resources.

You might also find some useful information about grieving in my special series Living with Grief.