Great excitement here at GFG HQ. The latest edition of the Resource Guide – a Manual for Home Funeral Care has just arrived from Beth Knox at Crossings: Caring For Our Own at Death. Is it the very first copy to set foot on UK soil? I rather fancy it is.
In the UK, as in other ‘advanced’ countries, it has become our custom to permit our dead to be whisked away from us by undertakers, strangers who take them we know not where and do to them we know not what. Most people suppose that this is what the law requires; most suppose that the care of the dead is the preserve of specialists. They are, of course, wrong on both counts.
Having said which, it is undeniable that this is what most people want. They want their dead out of the house at no matter what hour of night; they won’t even sit with them till morning. They are puzzlingly incurious about what happens to them next.
How do we explain this behaviour? Does it stem from a horror of dead bodies? Or is it that our instincts are so insulated by sophistication that we have become divorced from our deepest needs and wishes?
Whatever the answers to those questions, there is a sizeable number of people who are not content to acquiesce in this whisking away of their dead. They will not settle for being helpless bystanders. They are the sort of people who know exactly how Beth Knox felt when her 7 year-old daughter Alison died.
“I would not let her out of my sight; I would not surrender the last vestige I had of her vibrant and loving self to the care of strangers. What sense would that make when I had so recently brought her into the world, nursed her at my breast and given her my full attention as she went through the steps of infancy? … Society expected me to surrender her to a hospital morgue … No, absolutely not. Not if I could help it. I would continue to care for her myself as I had always done. That was our agreement when she came into the world, and I was keeping my end of the bargain … We brought her home and kept her in her room for three days surrounded by her beloved toys and pictures and stuffed animals. Her friends came to be with her one last time, and took as much time as they needed to say goodbye … This small and mighty child had led us all through the valley of death … It was terrible and beautiful.”
It was this event that led Beth Knox to create Crossings “to help make it possible for families to fashion their own funerals.” She defines her rationale with characteristic clarity and cogency: “It is our desire to take the fear and uncertainty out of dealing with physical death and help put the value of being close to your deceased within your reach.”
The Resource Guide is, indeed, empowering, not just because it puts into words what you feel, but also because it tells you everything you need to do. It rolls up its sleeves. It lists the jobs to be done and suggests how they might be divvied up. It tells you how many people you’ll need to move an adult male (4-5). It is graphic. It warns you “Always keep the head higher than the rest of the body to prevent discharge of fluids”. It tells you about rigor mortis. It tells you how to shut the eyes and close the mouth and empty the bladder. It tells you how to dress a dead body, how difficult that is, and how tricky it is to carry a dead body down stairs and round sharp bends.
Most important of all, in my opinion, the Guide tells you the very worst that could happen, for it is only in the evaluation of this that people who are inclined to care for their dead can decide whether this is what they really want to do. The Guide unflinchingly tells you about problems caused by oedema, obesity, bed sores, clostridium perfringens and other infections – “special situations that Crossings has not encountered in ten years of home death care work (other than a bedsore or two).”
The Guide examines approvingly the option of working with a funeral director, especially if there has been a post mortem.
Beth Knox, together with her three other writers, have, I believe, created a wonderful piece of work. It is written with great clarity and skill. It is also very inclusive, wholly succeeding in its aim to be “useful to people of all spiritual and cultural traditions.”
Above all, the message of this Guide is not confined to those brave and eccentric folk who want to do everything themselves. You don’t have to do everything yourself. The important thing is, first, to take control and, then, to do what you feel you can.
There are two reasons for this. First, “By participating in the end of life of a loved one, by helping with the arrangements and bringing sanctity to the days after death, there is an almost universal experience that life and death are embraced without fear.”
Second, “By the end of several days, you will see the changes [to the body] that indicate finality.” To come to terms with finality is to accept the death. “Staying connected to the care of our departed loved ones brings greater closure and healing than is otherwise possible. It allows us to move ahead more gracefully in our lives without leaving our departed loved ones behind.”
We’ve needed something like this Guide here in the UK ever since the Natural Death Centre first evoked the spirit of the natural childbirth movement. While there are sections in the Guide which deal with aspects of US law, all the rest of it is applicable in this country. I commend it to you without reservation and I hope my lonely copy will soon be joined by countless others.
Download a PDF copy here. If you do, you may feel inclined to make a donation to Crossings (details on the home page).