Bringing Death Back Home
by Marilyn Strong
See this essay on the Mythic Journeys Web site.
I recently returned from a gathering at Mountain Home Ranch Resort, located in the hills of wine country between Napa and Sonoma Valleys in northern California. The focus of this gathering was a training called “Honoring Life’s Final Passage with Love and Compassion: Death Midwifery Level III”. It was taught by Jerrigrace Lyons, Founder and Director of Final Passages, an educational non-profit program founded in 1995 and dedicated to dignified and compassionate alternatives to current funeral practices. For eleven years she has offered her services to the community and beyond, helping over 250 families plan and create their own home funerals. She also teaches workshops, consults and sells informative guides and pamphlets. Thirty-five of us from six different states gathered at a most appropriate time of year for this training - early November, during what the Mexicans call “Los Dias de Muertos” or “Days of the Dead”, Mexico’s traditional holiday honoring departed ancestors, friends and family. This is a time in the wheel of the year when the “veil between the worlds is thin”, and it felt to be an auspicious time to further my training in Death Midwifery!
I remember the first time I became aware of the reality of death. The year was 1962; I was in second grade, and not more than seven years old. I would walk twelve blocks to my grade school, outside the city limits north of Spokane, WA, and was often accompanied by my older sister, Cheri. During this walk I would always see a young girl, about my age, from a distance, walking with a nurse or a nanny. What first caught my eye was her size; she was unusually overweight for a girl her age. There was also something mysterious about her, for she lived in my neighborhood and yet I never saw her at school. She was never alone on these walks in that she always had an adult with her; and yet she was always alone, in that I never saw her with other children. I often thought about her, and wondered if she was lonely, but I was too timid a child to introduce myself and befriend her. I eventually discovered that she suffered from leukemia, and that the medicines she took caused her to gain the weight. I never knew her name, and only saw her on her walks, on my way to and from school.
One day I realized that I had not seen her walking for several days in a row. I don’t recall how I found out, but word came that she had died. The finality of it began slowly sinking in and my innocent sense of well-being came crashing down around me. Death did not just come to old people! Someone my age could, and has died! Suddenly, I realized that it could also happen to me. I remember going to my mother in her bedroom, lying on her bed, sobbing, and trying to explain to her what was wrong, longing for consolation that I knew in my heart of hearts she could not give. This was a hurt she could not kiss away. The world shifted for me that day in an irrevocable way. I was crying, not only for the unnamed, unknown girl; but I was crying for the recognition that some day I, too, would be no more on this earth, and I was afraid.
That fear of death stayed with me throughout my childhood and into my middle adulthood, primarily because, like most of us in this culture, I was not taught experientially about the natural cycles of life and was protected from any direct contact with human death. The first funeral I attended was for my paternal grandmother when I was 14. I never got to see her (dead body) before she was buried. Death was such a scary thing precisely because it was so mysterious and unknown to me, and I was so inexperienced with it. We humans tend to be afraid of things that we don’t know, and therefore don’t understand. The truth is that our culture teaches that death is something to be ignored, denied, feared and avoided as much as possible. We try to insulate ourselves from the reality that death is a natural part of the cycle of life.
As a young adult I moved to Whidbey Island, and studied Native American and European earth-based spiritualities, and through the teachings of the Medicine Wheel came to know more intimately about the life-death-life cycle, ever present in the seasons of the year. In my mid-thirties I experienced a metaphorical death through the loss of a 10-year marriage that I valued. This shattering led me to explore many of the classic descent myths. The myths helped me, after much resistance, to befriend the surrender and letting go process that is inherent in any death, be it physical or metaphorical. Although it took me many years to heal from that experience, I did emerge with a stronger sense of Self and a belief and deeper understanding in the promise of renewal that follows any death. I eventually came to see the divorce as one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I was becoming more familiar with the territory of death. However, it wasn’t until I was in my early 40’s that I had the privilege of being present at the death of a dear friend, Sara, in 1997 and my fear of death completely fell away.
Sara had been a participant in the first year of a women’s spiritual growth group that I cocreated and co-facilitated with my friend and business partner, Renie Hope, called “Gaia Spirit Rising: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth.” From the fall of 1989 to the spring of 1990, Sara, along with 15 other women that year, gave herself fully to nine months of gathering weekly together, sitting in circle, exploring issues of spiritual, cultural and personal transformation through study, discussion, movement, creative expression, drumming, chanting, sacred ceremony. Sara, like most of us, had grown up a daughter of the patriarchy, in a male-defined religious institution and identified fully with masculine ways of being successful in the world. Like many women, Sara was searching for a “God who looked like me” and she used the Gaia curriculum and experience to find a new source of empowerment for the second half of her life. Sara especially loved the chanting and drumming that I would lead at the beginning of each gathering.
Renie and I had created the Gaia program from the ashes of our failed marriages and the ending of our close association with the Chinook Learning Center. We had been covenant members of the Chinook community for many years, and had worked together on the educational staff, facilitating both residential and non-residential, nine-month long programs. Major changes at Chinook, including the disbanding of the community, closely followed the exodus of our husbands from our marriages (ironically, within two months of each other). Our lives as we knew them were suddenly and irretrievably over. We were being kicked out of the “nest” and needed a new way to support ourselves financially. We also wanted to continue our in-depth educational work, teaching others how to create community, even as we created it for ourselves. Being participant-leaders, Gaia became a crucible not only for the healing and support of the women who came to us, but for our own healing as well. We went on to facilitate the Gaia program for seven more years, but there was something about that first group that bonded especially deeply. After the official end of Gaia 1, they continued meeting without us through the years, with Sara emerging as one of their strongest leaders.
Then, in the fall of 1993, Sara was diagnosed with cancer. We were informed that her prognosis was not good and her doctors gave her 3 to 6 months to live. Sara’s one wish, at that point, was to live to see the birth of her grandchild. Her daughter Jennifer was newly pregnant at the time of her diagnosis. Her Gaia group and the extended Gaia community rallied around to support her and her husband, Allen. Our support included hospital visits during her many surgeries, emotional support, healing ceremonies - creating ways to uphold Sara and to hold our own sense of shock and disbelief that this was happening to one of us, so young. Months went by slowly as Sara grappled with the multitude of issues and decisions facing her. I had no easy answer when she asked my advice on whether to do chemotherapy. Initially she did do chemo, but soon wearied of the negative impact it had on her body and spirit. She then courageously chose to leave that known path sanctioned by western medicine and began to trail blaze one of her own. She began working with a medical doctor who offered alternative treatments for cancer. More months passed. Sara’s granddaughter was born, and she was overjoyed to have made it that long. Never once did I see Sara get caught in self-pity. She lived on, beating her doctors’ timeline by three and a half years.
However, in the spring of 1997, I received a phone call from one of the Gaia women telling me that Sara was well into her dying process, and that if I wanted to come to Seattle and say goodbye to her, I should do it soon. I was also informed that Sara had requested that I facilitate her memorial service. When I arrived at Sara’s home, she was surrounded by the sounds of life; her hospital bed was in her living room, a makeshift altar nearby, candle flickering, casting shadowed light on fresh spring flowers, pictures of her loved ones and her special, sacred objects. The exquisitely beautiful and lovingly hand-crafted quilt made by her women’s group hung nearby, each square a testimony to Sara’s bright and giving spirit, and how cherished she was by each woman. Her family was there in support of her process and to grant her last wish – to die at home. There was a surprising lack of machines or medical equipment, save one computerized unit that served to dispense pain medication slowly to Sara through an IV drip. At this point she was refusing fluids and intravenous feeding, but the pain medication, given at regular intervals, helped her to rest more comfortably.
At first the everyday atmosphere seemed to contradict what was happening. Amidst a backdrop of Sara’s family chatting away over a supper brought in by another Gaia 1 participant, Sara’s slow, labored and uneven breath was taking her step, by invisible step, closer to her passing. There was incongruence here, and yet a lovely perfection -- for death is a part of life, as much as it may be denied by our culture. I was honored to be included in this sacred leave-taking. However, I was feeling awkward, as I had never been so close to human death before, and because there was no private space to express my personal grief. I leaned over to whisper my assurance to Sara that I would be honored to facilitate her memorial service. I wanted her to know so she would have one less worry. Yet, as I spoke the words, I realized in her semi-conscious state that she was beyond the concerns of this world. Still, she opened her eyes, silently communicating to me that she understood and knew that I was there.
I sat next to her, longing to help ease her transition. I had brought my drum. The thought of drumming and singing to Sara had crossed my mind, but it was edited out by the impracticality of doing so in an environment where it might not be understood. Within just a few minutes of having this thought, Sara’s husband, Allen, came to me and asked, “Would you be willing to sing some of the Gaia chants that Sara loves so much?” I was stunned, yet grateful for the synchronicity of the moment. I turned my attention briefly to Allen, acknowledging to myself what a fine, gentle and good husband he is and how supportive through this four-year process he has been to Sara. I watched him wipe her brow, lovingly caress her dry, chapped lips with a moist sponge, and check her IV.
Relieved to have an avenue of expression for the mixture of joy and pain, sorrow and love I felt for Sara all at once, I began to sing. Suddenly the words rang through with clarity and new meaning:
“Mother Earth, Birth and Death,Chanting, the repetition of simple words and melodies over and over again, is an ancient practice developed to create sacred space. As I was chanting, I was struck with the realization that I had done this for Sara before, during the Gaia program. Through a ritual reenactment of the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld, I had stood by, chanting and holding the space consciously and with great care while she “died.” I had led her down through the seven gates to the underworld where she had released layers of her identity, one at a time, to each ritual gatekeeper. As Inanna, she had then “hung on a peg,” until her body turned to “green, rotting meat.” Although a metaphorical death, it had many of the same aspects of Sara’s physical death. The story of Inanna is a death and resurrection myth, similar to the Christian myth, yet it predates Christianity by 2,000 years. This ancient myth involves goddesses and is told from the feminine perspective. It was a fundamental aspect of the Gaia curriculum because it is such a potent template for a pattern of psychological and spiritual growth. Our hope was that by relating to this very early myth, from an age when the Great Goddess was still vital, that participants would be able to reclaim some connection to the archetypal feminine instinct and spirit that our culture sadly lacks.
“I am your child, oh Ancient Mother,During Sara’s ritual death I had stood in support of her process just as Inanna’s trusted companion Ninshubur stood watch for her journey. During Sara’s ritual death, I had led her with chant, prayer and drum to help build a sacred container strong enough to carry her through. I could only pray that this small offering now would provide her some of the same for this, the literal death of her body. The difference was that this time l would not be there when and where she re-emerged to be reborn. I could only pray that there would be unseen and loving hands to greet her on the other side, for I knew in my bones that she would be reborn, just the same.
“Return Again, Return Again, Return to the Land of your Soul.This took me more deeply into a place of communication and communion with Sara than merely speaking to her could have. Her breathing quieted and her pain and agitation seemed to ease for a while. After an hour or so I stopped. It was time for me to go. Remarkably, the rest of Sara’s family had retreated upstairs, and I was surrounded now only by the quiet of Sara’s breathing.
I returned the next day as soon as my schedule allowed. I arrived to find that Sara had died only twenty minutes prior, and Ruthe, another of the Gaia 1 group and a registered nurse, was there alone. It was time to bathe Sara’s body and to prepare for her lying-in-honor. We did this together in silence. Not only did I find my personal fear around death being released through this experience, but I also felt incredibly gifted by it. It was heart opening, healing and transformational.
When someone dies, the portal between the worlds opens, just as it does during a birth, and it is very powerful. I was transformed by being present to this energy, by touching, bathing and dressing this woman who had been my friend, but who was now in the process of leaving the shell that was her physical body. Rather than being afraid, I found it to be a privilege and an honor to be able to tend to someone who has passed. Her spirit permeated the room during those initial hours after her death, and during the hours that she lay-in-honor in her bedroom, allowing friends and family to come and say their goodbyes. However, her spirit slowly diminished and when the family was ready, she was taken to cremation. Eventually, I felt Sara’s spirit dissolve into all of nature, into everything, including myself. I took part of her away with me, and, I no longer feared death. This was Sara’s gift to me.
A second gift would come from this experience, unbeknownst to me. At the time of Sarah’s death I was grappling with another death – the ending of the Gaia program itself. We had created Gaia at the crest of the wave of the emerging women’s spirituality movement. Now, after riding it for eight years, this wave had expressed it’s fullness, splashed on the shore, and was receding back into deeper waters. Enrollment for the program was down, but I had also grown weary of the work, as fulfilling as it had been. I had been leading nine-month long groups for 16 years, and something else was calling me forward, although I had no name for it. At the time all I could feel was the grief of letting go. The form that enabled me to lead and participate in sacred ceremony, which had led me to my true vocation, was crumbling, and I had no idea whether or not a new form would take its place.
The experience of Sara’s death and the facilitation of her memorial service were the transitional events that planted the seeds for a new expression of my work. For the first time, I experienced myself in the role of “priestess” in a more mainstream form. Shortly thereafter I became ordained as a non-denominational minister and have developed a small business facilitating weddings. Additionally, during these past ten years I have had several dreams about caring for the dead and have experienced the deaths of three more friends. These things have all brought me to my current sense of calling as a Death Midwife.
Conscious after-death care follows in the footsteps of home birthing, and conscious death and dying. Hospice has helped bring caring for the terminally ill back into the home with wonderful, loving care. However, once the person dies, most people call a funeral home. Strangers arrive; the deceased is zipped up into a body bag and immediately taken away. This can be a very impersonal, institutionalized process, and always includes embalming, which is an expensive, very violent and unnecessary process. Many faith traditions believe that it may take up to three days for the soul to leave the body. Is this how we would want our loved one’s body to be treated during this important transition? How much more wonderful for them to be at home, ritually washed and dressed by those who love them. What a gift it is for those left behind to be able to spend time with the body of their loved one, to create and hold sacred space for them to lie-in-honor, to have the time and privacy to do their grieving, and to perhaps transform their grief through the creative process of decorating the urn or casket (typically a pine or cardboard box.)
Caring for our loved ones after death is nothing new. It has only been three or four generations since everyone cared for their own at home in this country. Consciously tending the dead at home is reclaiming something very ancient -- something most cultures around the world still reverently do for their loved ones. It is only natural that we bring back this very personal, family involvement and participation in a way that becomes a simple, loving part of the cycle of our lives.
- Act in lieu of a funeral director to facilitate all arrangements and carry out all decisions.
- Fill out and file end-of-life documentation.
- Transport the deceased in any vehicle to a home, place of ceremony, crematory or cemetery.
Contact Marilyn for a brochure (page 1 | page 2) or to find out more about death mid-wifery.