Brien Link died early on a February morning as a blizzard howled outside.
“He let go little by little and it was a peaceful death,” said Milissa Link, his wife of 25 years.
She was by his side when Link, 59, exhaled for the last time. He was resting on a futon in their Minneapolis living room, where he’d received hospice care.
Instead of calling a funeral director, she tenderly washed his body, then dressed him in his favorite jeans and Irish sweater. As day turned into evening and the snow piled up, friends and neighbors arrived to pay their last respects.
With the body nearby, the group shared a meal, followed by toasts with Irish whiskey. There were stories and tears — and a unique kind of tribute.
“Brien loved his wool socks, and spontaneously everyone went into his dresser drawer and took a pair,” Link said. “That would have delighted him. It was very informal, very humble.”
Almost 24 hours after the death, Link finally was ready for a funeral director to carry her husband out of their home for the last time.
“I knew he wanted a ritual at home,” she said. “It was a real solace to me to be able to fulfill his wishes.”
In-home death rituals — wakes, vigils and visitations — are finding favor with a small but growing number of devotees. A throwback to an earlier era, the trend is fueled by several factors, including the expansion of in-home hospice, increased interest in “green” burials and a desire by family members to be involved in the procedure instead of turning everything over to professionals. The funeral industry also is furthering the cause by tailoring services to offer as much — or as little — assistance as the bereaved may want.
One of the things Link wanted was an extended time to say a private goodbye to her husband after he passed.
“It was a sad but grace-filled day, to sit with him and honor him. It was cathartic to face that he was gone,” she recalled.
He had told his wife that he didn’t want a church service. That’s another common trait among those opting for in-home death rituals. With mainline church membership waning, there’s a need to find another way to conduct a meaningful goodbye.
“We need rituals, and with reduced church affiliation, people are making up their own,” said Mary Meehan, who surveys consumer trends as CEO of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global. “These rituals can be beautiful, personal and communal, a powerful way to remember and acknowledge the end of a life.”
Some people consider in-home care of the dead to simply be an extension of what they did when the person was alive.
“It’s a family’s right to take care of their loved ones. They do not release their right at the time of death,” said Anne Murphy, a St. Paul-based funeral celebrant and home funeral educator.
Murphy has guided a half-dozen families through home visitations, often assuming some of the hands-on duties.
“The body can be laid out on their bed or in a central location,” she explained. “To keep the body from decomposing, you have to keep it cool. I use gel packs that are similar to dry ice that I can tuck under the body and replace as needed.”
With the broad acceptance of hospice, Murphy finds more families have been present in the days leading up to the end of life and have been there to witness the final moments.
“In our culture, death is presented as scary or gruesome, but people find it comforting to be with a loved one when they pass,” she said. “In that transition time after death but before burial, the spirit is felt by some people, and that is healing.”
There are logistics associated with death, including transporting the body and filling out paperwork such as death certificates. Murphy works with licensed funeral directors to assist with such matters.
The next generation of funeral professionals is learning to respect those requests.
“A good funeral director can empower a family to participate at the level that they wish to,” said Michael LuBrant, director of the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota. “We train students to listen thoughtfully and to be open to doing things differently than in the past.”
LuBrant cited other ways that families take part in death rituals, from closing a casket for the final time to accompanying remains to a crematorium and witnessing the body entering the furnace.
“We seldom hear of people who regret this kind of close involvement; more often people are sorry about what they did not get the chance to do,” he said.
Meehan thinks the DIY death movement also has gained momentum with the growing desire for green burial, which limits the use of chemicals and includes a biodegradable coffin or not using a coffin at all.
“Funerals have always been for the living, but now the dying can say what they want,” said Meehan. “Environmental concerns are real; once people choose green burial they back up and start thinking about what comes before it.”
In 1996, Marianne Dietzel’s only daughter and her friend died in a car accident while they were attending school in New York.
One of their classmates volunteered a home for a visitation for the teenagers, setting up a three-day vigil in a living room.
“It was so sudden, and this gave their friends and our family a chance to see them and process this,” she recalled. “I had that time to see her body, touch her hair, give her kisses. It would have been unbearable to have done it any other way.”
Her experience led Dietzel, now 64, to her work as a hospice/bereavement coordinator. She co-founded the Minnesota Threshold Network for others interested in exploring choices at the end of life.
“We want to empower families to be more hands-on and present for their loved ones,” said Dietzel. “We can help people realize that they do have choices and what their choices are.”
The organization worked to promote the Family Rights After Death legislation. Passed in 2010, the state law allows for more options in caring for the deceased, including a provision that allows for a public viewing of an unembalmed body on private property.
“A minority of people would want to do this, but perhaps more would if they knew about it,” she said.
As for Milissa Link, it’s been two years since her husband died. Although she still misses him every day, she believes that her nontraditional goodbye and the natural burial that followed it have helped salve her grief.
“It was so visceral in the way that it showed me that he is gone and will not be my partner in the flesh any longer,” she said. “He has given himself back to the earth and his spirit is elsewhere.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.