Not long ago death, like birth, was seen as a natural part of life. When a loved one died, families, friends and neighbours gathered to tenderly care for their own at home, to support and help each other and to make arrangements for the funeral. Families were responsible for washing, dressing and respectfully laying out their loved one’s body in the front room or parlour. This approach was considered a normal way to connect, mourn and deal with death. Nowadays, it is more likely that care is hurriedly handed over to strangers and that professionals lead and direct the funeral.
But times are changing. More and more families are recognising that they are the best people to care for their loved ones after they die, and are taking responsibility to lead and arrange part or all of the funeral themselves.
Reclaiming death care
The mission of the contemporary home-funeral movement is to support families to reclaim their right to home-based after-death care. Whilst not all families may feel comfortable with being so actively involved, I believe it is important for everyone to be aware of the options available so that they can make informed decisions in accordance with their loved one’s beliefs, values and wishes.
Home funeral ceremonies
There is no ‘standard’ home funeral service – each is as unique as the life it celebrates and honours. The family are able to choose whatever feels right for them and create a personal ceremony that reflects the true beauty of their loved one’s life.
Why consider a home funeral?
Of the many advantages to home funerals, being substantially more affordable is a significant one. It is not necessary to spend money on funeral costs you do not want or need. Families also have the freedom and flexibility to be more involved in doing things their own way in their own style and using their own resources. They can choose to keep things as simple as they wish.
However, I believe that the true value of a home funeral lies in the extra time spent in caring for the loved one. Slowing down the process allows all involved to accept and absorb the death at their own pace. Friends and family have more time to sit and be with the body, to grieve and do things in their own way, and to say goodbye.
Home funerals keep everyone involved and connected in the spirit of community. Caring for your own can be a very tender, last act of love and ensures loved ones are only touched by known, loving hands. Family-led death care is more intimate and more meaningful than conventional professional care, and ultimately it allows for greater healing.
For families whose babies are miscarried or stillborn or die in hospital, the benefits of these few days may be even more precious and profound. For some, it may be the only time they have. Parents, siblings and grandparents can welcome their little one at home and be together to make deep, lasting memories before having to say goodbye.
Home funerals may help children understand and accept the death of a loved one, especially when they are sensitively supported and death is explained in a simple, honest and age-appropriate way. When children can see loved ones continuing to being cared for at home they may feel more love and less fear. Children who choose to be involved may feel more valued and included in the process. This helps them grieve in a healthy, natural way.
Family and friends are encouraged to support each other, use their own resources and help with practical tasks. Emphasis is placed on personal engagement rather than expensive professional services. Participating in this way helps families and friends to honour their own relationship with their loved one in a way that nourishes and sustains them always.
Did you know?
Caring for someone at home after death is legal. The body of your loved one can lie safely and naturally at home until burial or cremation. Embalming is often neither necessary nor required by law. You do not need to use a funeral director. Families can make part or all of the arrangements and decisions surrounding after-death care and the funeral. You can fill out and file necessary documents, and transport your loved one in any vehicle, including a family estate car.
You can create and lead the funeral ceremony yourself, or choose the services of an independent celebrant or leader to co–create the service with you. Home funeral ceremonies may be held indoors or outdoors, at your home and/or in any place of personal significance. The only legal requirement in the UK is that the death be certified and registered and the body disposed of. Over three-quarters of funerals end in cremation. Charges and services vary significantly. You may shop around and choose the crematorium that meets your needs best. Natural burial is a greener, more eco-friendly, sustainable option. Families are encouraged to visit the natural burial grounds to discuss choices before the burial is necessary. Bodies may also be buried in traditional cemeteries and churchyards, or on private land with the consent of the landowner and the local authority. Coffins are not required by law for burial or cremation. If you wish to use one, you can often buy direct from a supplier. Alternatively, you may choose a shroud, build your own casket or decorate and personalise a cardboard coffin to help make the ceremony more meaningful and memorable.
When my dad died I knew intuitively I did not wish to hand over his care to strangers. As his only daughter, I had been lovingly caring for him since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Perhaps because of my experience of being a home-birthing and home-educating mother, the idea of now continuing to be with him at home just made sense. It was a very natural, instinctive and life-affirming decision.
With the support of my family, friends and the local hospice, I devoted my time to caring for my dad before he died in his own home. Knowing that death was not far away made us appreciate each moment. We shared much love, laughter, tears, memories, life stories and wisdom together. It was an incredibly precious and special time and we found joy in simple family moments. With each passing day we became more attentive, more caring, savouring every moment, making it last. We lived totally in the moment until he died gently cradled in my arms, surrounded by us all.
My dad’s death was calm, beautiful and like nothing I had imagined it would be. After a vigil during what seemed like a long labour before birth, he died consciously, without fear and most importantly knowing how much he was loved. It was a loving, awe-inspiring time and he died with my blessing, without pain and in peace.
At the time of Dad’s death, I felt that as his daughter it was natural for me to continue gently caring for him as I had in life, and we kept his body at home for five days until we led his funeral. The children were fully involved, and each took on a role by choice. Poppy (14) wrote poetry and helped with gathering photos and music, Celia (12) helped dress him, Theo (7) drew pictures, and Fern (4) talked to him.
I had always felt very safe with my dad and I remembered fondly how as a child he had held my hand. When he did so I felt secure and protected. After he died, being able to hold his hand again was very important to me. When the time came to finally let his body go I was able to feel the imprint of his hand in mine, and I still feel it to this day.
With the help of family and friends, we celebrated Dad’s life with a beautiful and intimate funeral ceremony in his much-loved garden. For him it was perfect, and I feel hugely privileged and proud to have honoured his life in such a loving, simple and meaningful way. For me this experience was life-changing and transforming.
Claire Turnham is mother to four children and lives in Oxford. With a background in education, she is passionate about sharing her skills, knowledge and experience to help others. She offers services as a Soul Midwife, Home Funeral Guide, Independent Celebrant and Funeral Arranger. She is also a regular Death Cafe facilitator and OxBEL volunteer.
Photo: Claire and her father Ivan the day before he died
Only With Love
After tenderly caring for her father at home before and after he died, Claire experienced the profound benefits and deep healing that creating a home funeral can bring. Since then, she has founded Only With Love (OWL), a not-for-profit service to empower and enable others to reclaim the lost art of caring for their loved ones at death. OWL’s mission is to educate and guide individuals and families who wish to care for their own, according to their spiritual and/or cultural beliefs, in ways that honour the person who has died and the loved ones who remain. onlywithlove.co.uk
Published in Issue 37 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.