Published in Kindred, Issue 25, March 08, as part of the feature, Death Through the Eyes of a Child
The circle of life is a continuous one, starting with birth, journeying through life and ending in death, with some believing that we return again in rebirth or reincarnation.
In life, death is a certainty. Unfortunately our society has now distanced us from death by taking it out of the home, family, and community and putting it in the hands of professionals.
As the natural birth movement has evolved, so too has the natural death movement. People have chosen to be informed and empowered when birthing and now they are choosing a more natural and empowering approach to dying, death, and how their loved ones’ bodies are handled. People are now starting to reclaim control of the death process, discussing it, educating themselves, and making their personal choices known. Families are increasingly attending to the deceased body in the home, sitting in vigil and creating ceremonies whereby the person’s life is celebrated together with their community. People organise and undertake part, or all of the process themselves with the help of their family and friends rather than by a funeral director or clergy.
Both birth and death are rites of passage that transform us. They are times when we enter the veil and walk between the worlds. We are stripped of all of our masks and re-emerge in a new form. Having our family, friends, and community with us, supporting us through these life-transforming events is beneficial for all involved and enables us to move through the process easier. As author Kathy Kalina suggests, ‘Confusion, dissension, and any form of negativity interfere with birthing and dying, and tend to generate complications. Above all else, fear is the greatest enemy.’ As there are midwives to assist us with birthing, there is also midwifery for souls or death doulas, who have emerged from the hospice movement. Both aim for the same thing: ‘a natural, gentle approach to an intimate and life-changing family event, with careful attention throughout the process to the body, mind, and spirit of the patient as well as the family’.
Personally, I have experienced the deaths and funerals of several family members and all of these have been very different. As an active supporter of natural birth, I birthed all of my five children at home including my twins. My daughter Leteisha died at home at age eight months. In death, as in birth, I called on our midwives, family, friends, and community. They advocated for us, cooked for us, and cared for us. As a homebirth mother it was especially important for me to have her body come home from the hospital with my husband and me, and my supporters enabled this to happen. I bathed with my baby, oiled her body, combed her hair, cut her nails, and dressed her. This was such an important ritual for me as this allowed her preparation to be a final act of love.
As a family we painted her coffin, placing our handprints all over it and I painted the top, tuning in to her spirit and portraying her uniqueness. This was a very powerful and healing ritual for our family. It allowed us to talk about her, share stories, and remember her life. With close friends and family we held a small and intimate funeral ceremony and then a week later, a memorial service for our larger community.
All of the rituals and the involvement of our family and friends helped our grieving process. The more public ceremony allowed members of our larger community to express their grief and sorrow. The simple act of bringing a meal allowed people to feel that they were helping and doing something, and this in turn eased their own grief. People generally want to ‘do’ for others at these times. It was the death of Leteisha, combined with my other grief experiences, which led me to enquire more about the processes of death and dying. Discussions with an elderly friend also fuelled this enquiry, as she wants a more personal and community focused funeral.
My enquiry led me to discover that it is a little-known fact that you can undertake the whole funeral process yourself. It is not illegal to tend to a dead body at home, although common sense and health regulations do apply. You can make/or supply your own coffin, transport the body yourself, conduct your own ceremonies, all for a reduced cost compared to employing professional people. There are guidelines and permits to be organised so it is best to be advised and prepared. However, it can easily be done and is becoming more common practice.
The first and most important step is to start discussing death and demystifying it, opening up the discussion within our family and circle of friends and considering the various ways in which we want to attend to death and dying. On a personal level, to ensure your wishes are fulfilled, you need to organise to have someone who supports your choices to be the coordinator of the process; like having a birth plan and support person when giving birth. You need to write your wishes explicitly in your will. Educate yourself around the process and have all of your paperwork together in one place.
With our concerns for the environment there has also been a surge of interest into eco-friendly alternatives. People wanting to have their bodies dealt with in a more green and natural way, by choosing to not be embalmed, having eco-friendly coffins and to be buried or cremated with little impact on the environment. There is a growing demand for natural burial grounds, which have yet to be created in Australia, although there are moves towards creating them.
When intimately attending to our loved ones, who are in the process of dying and death, we have the opportunity to face our grief and start the healing process. When we are informed and in control of the process, and supported by our loved ones, we are then empowered. With empowerment comes healing.
Nicolette Smith is a qualified Social Worker with a Masters in Art Therapy. She is a passionate artist and a homebirth mother of four children. She has experienced grief and loss and has therefore a strong interest in the processes of death and dying. For information in regards to her Funeral Planning and Do-it-yourself Funeral Workshops and other relevant information and resources, refer to her website
Kalina, Kathy. Midwife for Souls: Spiritual Care for the Dying. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2007.