A Natural Undertaking: Helping Families Care for Their Own Dead

Pastoral Care Support

by Cheryl Clark, Schuylkill Friends Meeting

Several years ago my leading to share information on the practical, legal and spiritual aspects of caring for the dead led to my involvement in the creation of A Natural Undertaking, a nonprofit partnership dedicated to helping families care for their loved ones at home after death.

Through my experiences of caring for family and friends who have died, I realized that there are many people who would like to make their after death time an event which celebrates and witness to their lives, giving those that live on, a path through grief to acceptance and joy. What many Friends do not realize is that caring for a loved one at home after death is not only perfectly legal but it can make the after-death experience as natural, sensitive and caring as the lives that have been lived.

My concern for the welfare of the dead, the “What happens now?” question, first awaked in me when my older sister died at age 23. She had been living at Emeryville state hospital due to sever epilepsy. The last six years of her life had been a very difficult time for her and our family. It was horrible, really. My parents and my siblings were at the point of despairing. We felt impotent and unable to help.

One early summer day, I drove out to Emeryville to see my sister. During the drive I was feeling emotionally over whelmed. Seeing the Marshalton Friends Meetinghouse up ahead, I pulled into the parking lot to sit and pray. In my meditation, I heard a voice declare “August!” It was the voice of God! But, that’s all it said, “August”. However, this word gave me the strength to continue my journey to see my sister. That August nothing happened but a year later, in that same month, my sister died.

My Episcopalian family – my father was an Episcopal priest – did the proper church burial thing with great pomp and solemnity. It was a “celebration of her life” but with little or no attention paid to the grieving process. In my grief, I was plagued by questions: what happened to her? Where did she go? What am I supposed to do?

After that experience, I found myself involved in the deaths of fourteen people. Four were total strangers, some were elderly family members, and the rest were people who asked me to participate in some way in their passing. It dawned on me that even at the time of death, the journey is not finished. Death is an important threshold and parting experience that doesn’t just end with the person’s last breath. There is more that follows. How do we make it personal, particular to the life lived, and meaningful to everyone still living?

It was after my mother’s timely death and my own personal involvement in her final trip “home” that I felt a Leading to share with others an intentional and personal way of dealing with death. A year later my family suffered the tragic and sudden death of my 19 year old nephew. We could not allow his Spirit to lay on stainless steel. We could not grieve his loss among grey suits. Death is a teacher, and from grief I have wrung real wisdom. These deaths, and the many stories Friends have shared with me in my ministry, have taught me to approach death and grief more holistically. Healing will come and comfort will be given when you are the most vulnerable. I am called to this place and I have the gift of the Spirit, to help others bring the same dignity to after-death care that Hospice brings to pre-death care.

This may mean reintroducing the home as the best place where this great transition should take place. Family and friends may want to vigil or wake as part of their spiritual tradition to honor the dead. Or, they may gather around their loved one to share memories, music, poetry and prayer; to say their farewells; to do whatever connects them to the process of releasing the departed and by allowing for the expression of healthy grief.

My experiences have taught me three important things about coping with the death of a loved one, or anyone, really.

1. Take Time: Don’t rush to do something at the moment of death: Just stop! Even if it is a sudden or unexpected death: Be still and be not afraid! Being fully present with the recently deceased is a good way to begin the grieving process;

2. Be Educated: Not unlike Natural Childbirth, the Natural Undertaking movement can teach you ways to understand and participate in the post-death process. And, while you can’t control every aspect of someone’s dying, you can make choices and find support through good planning;

3. Get Support: It is important to surround yourself with family and friends who can step in and take over mundane tasks when you are grieving especially when interaction with those outside the family is required.

In my opinion, every Meeting should provide for its members this ministry. Friends, especially those facing the prospect of impending death, should consider asking for a Burial Group. Such groups can be created out of their Spiritual community or the communities a person is a part of. This group is then trained and functions as the “coordinating group” to oversee the post-death experience.

But, a burial group does much more than that. It ensures that the purpose, meaning and beauty of the departed body and soul are tended to with loving care as they prepare to leave this world. Healing begins with knowing that everything that can be done has been done by loving hands.

Cheryl Clark is available to talk to Friends and Friends Meeting about her leading to support family directed funerals.  She can be contacted at ckratz52@yahoo.com

Information about A Natural Undertaking: A Pennsylvania Resource Center for Home Funeral Care can be found at www.naturalundertaking.org