Saturday, March 17, 2012

Truth and Beauty in Death and Dying

When I gave birth to our first child at home 18 years ago, the idea of home birth was regarded with significant skepticism and resistance. Though routine practice in countries like The Netherlands, in the U.S. home birth was still predominantly considered to be the domain of 19th century women, crunchy new-agers, and hippies. It was, to say the least, an uncomfortable idea amongst my prep-school-educated, East Coast network of family and friends. Many of my closest friends and family members questioned our judgment and the wisdom of our decision, and my first-born was affectionately nicknamed “Little Tofu” by her adoring grandparents. Being the first amongst my friends and siblings to have a child, it was sometimes challenging to be a trailblazer. But nearly two decades later, one of my sisters and several of those same friends have themselves made the choice to birth at home, and my once-skeptical mother, having now attended four home-births, is as strong an advocate as any. Nationwide, the practice has become much more mainstream and is rarely regarded as an “irresponsible” choice, though still not the elected by the majority of women.  The point is, that today women and families are increasingly aware that they have choices when it comes to birth and that there are many ways to approach the same situation safely and with integrity. Exposure, fortified by positive experiences has allowed the initial resistance to slowly peel off, thus providing a gateway for new ideas to take hold.

More recently, in my small corner of southwestern Wisconsin another “old idea-reborn” has been evolving over the past decade, as our community has increasingly been exposed to the practice of home funerals, green burials, and death and dying with consciousness.

Though the dormant seeds had long been present, the movement sprang to life 8 years ago when a beloved member of our community and young mother of three passed away.  When the coroner inquired about funeral home preference, the woman’s mother replied that she “would like to bring the body home.” Though widely practiced throughout history, the custom of having a wake and/or funeral at home was very unfamiliar territory for most of us at that time. Nevertheless, a community of do-ers we are and if our friend’s mother wanted her body at home, by-gum we were going to make it happen. Neighbors, friends and family members sprang into action trying to knit together all the strands necessary to assemble a home vigil and funeral for our beloved friend. Women cared for the body, made arrangements and prepared meals. Men came together and crafted a beautifully simple casket from local wood stored in a neighbor’s barn. Family and friends grieved together as we planned the celebration of a beautiful life. The experience of family and community coming together, attending to all the details of a home wake and funeral, bonding through grief and celebrating life was the impetus needed for a group to form.

In the winter months of 2006, further inspired after attending a workshop on death and dying, Charlene Elderkin, Susan Nesbit, Kathy Doerfer, and Kathy Neidert formed The Threshold Care Circle in Viroqua, WI. The group set to work educating themselves on care of the body, dying at home, home funerals and green burials, eventually releasing a workbook: My Final Wishes. At the time, there were no other groups doing this work in Wisconsin, and the women received invaluable guidance from the Minnesota Threshold Network, a group formed not long before. The primary mission of the group is to educate the public on what options surround death and dying, gently guiding people to think about what their final wishes are before the time of death. The women did their work –researching, educating and supporting- quietly and diligently for years until, in May of 2010, our community was engulfed in tragedy and grief when two 18-year-old boys were killed in a car accident in the early-morning hours of Mother’s Day. Living in a town as small as ours, no family was left untouched by the heartache of this tragedy, and once again, the community rallied together. This time, however, there were more resources in place for grieving family members who might wish for an alternative to the traditional choices of funeral and burial. With the care and guidance of the Threshold Care Circle, the family of one of the boys chose to bring his body home, bathe him, and hold a 3-day vigil on their front porch.* The home-vigil was new to almost everyone who experienced it, and the family’s choice to do this undulated outward, reaching an unexpectedly large group of people. But in the midst of unimaginable despair, those who were sharing the experience were finding extraordinary moments of truth and beauty. All were profoundly moved and forever changed through exposure to such tender caring and collective grief. A wide segment of our community had been initiated into an alternative view of death and dying, and it deeply touched a place of longing and need.

Since that terrible day in May, the way that our small, rural community deals with death and dying has been permanently altered. Many others have crossed over, some before their time. But increasing numbers of people are considering their final wishes, writing them down, and discussing them with kin. Many are choosing to die at home, in the presence of family and friends. Home funerals and green burial are also on the rise, and the Threshold Care Circle has expanded its numbers and its reach. Just as with birthing, the human longing for intention around the processes and rituals of death and dying too often go unmet. The response of 4 women to a need-identified, has changed our community forever and continues to ripple outward.

*to read about this in more detail, read Elderkin’s article "The Call"  in Lilipoh magazine:

Additional Resources for Threshold Care, Final Wishes, and Green Burial:

Threshold Care Circle

“My Final Wishes”

Minnesota Threshold Network

Novalis Institute: DEATH AND DYING: Beholding the Threshold Consciously

Anne O’Connor: Death can be a moment that connects us, even as it parts us

Joe Orso: Midwifing death at home

Minnesota Public Television: End-Of-Life Choices: Through History

Considered the “grandmother” of the movement: Nancy Poer:

Green Burial: Natural Path Sanctuary

Green Burial: Kevin Corrado of Natural Path Sanctuary interviewed on WPR:


  1. Provocative and inspiring, and, as always, beautifully presented. Thank you.

  2. Great piece! Thank you for gathering a great set of resources as well.

  3. I have been researching conservation or green cemeteries and I ran across this interesting fact today: "The average cemetery buries 1,000 gallons of embalming fluid, 97.5 tons of steel, 2,028 tons of concrete, and 56,250 board feet of high quality wood in just one acre of green." that is quite a carbon foot print ... per acre!