In a throwback to the 1800s, a growing number of families are turning to do-it-yourself vigils.
Dr. Eric Stull spent the last six weeks of his life in a hospital bed next to the bay window in his St. Paul living room. He spent the first three days after his death in the same place.
The in-home funeral after Stull died from cancer was a scene from an emerging movement. Home funerals were common until the start of the 20th century. Now they are making a comeback, fueled by environmental concerns (no embalming), the faltering economy (families can save thousands of dollars compared to a traditional funeral) and surging interest in holistic practices and home hospice care.
State law was changed last year to ease the process. Hospitals will accommodate organ donors by picking up the body, harvesting organs and then returning the deceased home. And even though the initial reaction among funeral homes was to see the movement as competition, a growing number are reaching out to participants after discovering that there's still a need for many of their services (the burial, for instance).
Stull, a pediatrician, and his wife of 30 years, Kyoko Katayama, decided prior to his death six months ago that a home funeral would be a fitting conclusion to his in-home hospice care.
"When we realized that the chemotherapy wasn't working, he wanted to come home," she said. "I was overwhelmed at the way the community got involved. People started bringing over food. Neighbors walked the dog and cleaned the house. Patients' families helped us move out of his office. Healers came to do energy healing. Friends gave him massages. A nurse offered to take care of the IV fluids he was getting.
"Literally, we had people coming through the door at all hours of the day. So when he died, it seemed natural [to have the vigil in the home]. This is where people came when he was alive, so this is where they came to say goodbye."
Home funerals are commonly misunderstood, according to the Minnesota Threshold Network (mnthresholdnetwork. wordpress.com), an organization that describes itself as "a meeting place for all who are interested in death, home funerals and green burials."
The bodies don't rot or stink; they're packed in dry ice or chemical cold packs. There's little danger of disease; you're at a greater risk of catching something from the person sitting next to you at work than from a dead body. And there are no religious prohibitions against them.
In Minnesota, Linda Bergh has become, for lack of a better term, a death-care midwife who fields calls at all hours from people asking for help.
"It's a just a question of what can I do at this point to make a difference in people's lives?" said Bergh, a retired psychologist with personal experience in the process. She has buried her husband, her 17-year-old daughter and, after she remarried, her second husband.
She knows how nice it would have been to tap into someone else's expertise when she needed help.
"We had to teach ourselves how to do this," she said. "When my first husband died in 1995, we wanted him at home, close to his family and friends. But we had no idea what we were doing. In fact, now we laugh about it. We went to a bait shop to get dry ice, and when we told them that we needed 40 pounds of it, their eyes got real big and they said, 'What kind of a fish did you catch?'"
Bergh and Marianne Dietzel, who lost her daughter in the same car crash that killed Bergh's teenager, teach classes on the topic (beholdingthethreshold.org). On a recent evening, a dozen people gathered in Bergh's living room for a workshop.
There are steps in preparing the body that some people might find off-putting. Cotton is stuffed in the orifices to keep liquids from escaping. And the eyes and jaw must be shut before rigor mortis sets in; the most common way is to put small weights on the eyelids and to tie a scarf under the chin.
The main step is a ritualistic washing done with warm water to which natural oils have been added. The private areas are done first and then covered. After that, members of the family and close friends often are invited to participate as a final way of bonding.
"It's about saying goodbye," Bergh said. When her second husband died, "I didn't want some stranger doing this. So I did it myself, and it's emblazoned on my memory as an important part of my grieving."
Until last year, there were strict limits on home vigils. Children were not allowed, and the vigils couldn't be publicized in newspaper obituaries. In the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, introduced a bill that removed those prohibitions.
"I wanted to allow more family involvement," she said. "I didn't know anything about home funerals until I attended one. I walked in on an absolutely marvelous experience. It was a tangibly sacred time, and I was completely taken aback. I had never experienced anything like that."
Advocates are seeing more cooperation from funeral directors. "They used to roll their eyes and say, 'You want what?'" Bergh said. "Now they're open to our suggestions."
Steve Willwerscheid of the Willwerscheid Funeral Home & Cremation Service said it's good business and good karma.
"We are facilitators more than anything else," said Willwerscheid, whose family's West St. Paul chapel also has been at the forefront of so-called green burials done without steel caskets or concrete vaults. "People are coming from hospice situations in which there was a lot of hands-on taking care of the sick, and they want to continue that. Some of these people are very, very passionate about this, and because of that, the industry is much more accepting [of their requests] than they were earlier."
In-home care accounts for only a sliver of all funerals, although no one keeps statistics. But supporters expect a jump in the next two decades as baby boomers make their arrangements.
"It's not in the mainstream yet," Bergh conceded. "But I think it's coming. It's all about choices, about realizing that you have choices and [the survivors] honoring those choices."
For Katayama, it just felt like the right thing to do.
"We were able to express our love by caring for our beloved," she said.
Jeff Strickler 612-673-7392
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