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How A Community Can Care For Its Own Dead

Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.

In America, 80% of the people wish to die at home. In actuality, 80% of the people die in the hospital. Their bodies are then turned over to strangers. How the body is treated behind closed doors, is a big secret.  Not until the funeral do families and friends get to have one last look at the dead and then, body is either buried or cremated.

Families don’t know how to care for the dead and even think they have no right to do so. Only the older generations still have memories of caring for their own dead.  When the body is turned over to the funeral home, it is normally embalmed. This practice began during the Civil War. Many young men from the North died on the battlefields in the South. Families did not want their sons buried in “enemy” territory, so they hired third parties to embalm the body and then transported home for burial.  After President Lincoln was assassinated, his body was embalmed then transported back to Springfield, Illinois.  During the two week, 1600 miles journey home, the train stopped at more than a dozen major cities and people paid their respect.  Viewing the embalmed body of Lincoln made embalming acceptable to many more people.  Today, embalming the body has become the norm.  However, even today we can find people who insist on caring for their own dead.

Twelve years ago, Beth Knox’s seven-year-old daughter was accidently killed by the safety air sack at the front seat of the car.  After the doctors pronounced her case hopeless, they planned to move the body to the hospital morgue, then to a funeral home.  Beth insisted on taking her daughter’s body home.  As a mother, she had given her daughter unconditional love from the time of her birth.  Turning her body over to  strangers violated her sense of duty as a mother. As they faced a broken-hearted mother, no one could deny her wish.

The hospital released the body to a funeral home and then the child’s body was caringly transported back home.  The daughter’s body was laid in her bedroom, surrounded by her toys and favorite pictures. During the three days at home, family members, grandparents, schoolmates, teachers, and friends came to say goodbye. People stayed in her room for a few hours or as long as they wished. Because her death was so sudden, people needed time to confront the unchangeable and accept this reality.

During this time of great sorrow and darkness, facing her death brought light to the whole community. It removed the secrecy and fear surrounding death.  The daughter’s death inspired a new mission for the mother.  Beth has since assisted with more than 200 home funerals.  She has taught people to care for their own dead.  Her non-profit group www.crosssings.net has provided many families a ray of light at a time of great sorrow and darkness.

Beth’s experience in facilitating these home funerals showed that when families care for their own dead, the experience is that of warmth, love, light and being  deeply moved.  People often feel the existence of consciousness outside the body.  It is totally different from the process arising from turning the body over to strangers.  Beth believes people need to touch death, because it is a great teacher.

Among the stories of many people that I interviewed in Crestone, the death and cremation of Darlene’s husband David proved to be very touching. About six years ago, David, a talented architect, was near death after three years of  illness. When the doctors indicated that he would die soon, friends from Crestone insisted that he must not die in the hospital.  He was brought back home and died the very same night.  Before he died, friends had chanted prayers with him for several hours.  The very next morning, Darlene was woken with a very loud noise, so loud that she went outside thinking a plane had crashed.  At the same time, a lady driving to her boyfriend’s place saw a ball of blue light. She followed it until it went up a tree.  The boyfriend commented that someone had just died.

David’s body was kept at home for three days, anointed with essential oil, decorated with a mala or necklace of flowers and covered with a shawl used in meditation by Darlene. Darlene experienced light inside and outside her head during these three days. The experience totally transformed her.  The body was kept cool with ice and cremated three days later in front of the house.  At the moment the fire was lit, a friend photographed a ball of light above the funeral pyre. It was before sunrise, so there was no reflected light.  Another professional photographer also captured the ball of light on film.

Stephanie, the key person who started Crestone End of Life Project, feels that the community’s every encounter with death lessens the fear of death. Fear of death often is the hidden fear lurking behind many fears. The forces driving people to hours of overwork, unending cravings, and impulsive behavior are often motivated by fear of death. Many traumas are the result of unresolved issues related to a family member’s death.

Sharon’s story offers an example. Her father died when she was eight years old. She was neither allowed to see the body and nor to participate in any ceremony to say goodbye. For many years she felt she was living in a dream-like world, not understanding and accepting the reality of her father’s death.

Matthew’s story is another example. He is a talented and dedicated member of the community. He was very supportive of the Crestone End of Life Project from the very beginning, and often could be found speaking out at community meetings and writing to officials during the two-year period that CEOLP was being formed.  Now he feels a calling to help Paul tend to the fire.  His own experience of loss of family members to death left a deep impact on his life. His older brother died when he was seven years old. His father simply told him  that his brother went to heaven.  That explanation did not comfort Matthew. Based on what he’d learned from the nuns at school, his brother wouldn’t be going to heaven.

Then Matthew’s mother took her own life when he was fourteen. This time, he responded to the loss with denial and rebellion.  He thought, “With my Mom gone and my father a broken man, no one can stop me now.”  It took ten years of life experience and many more years of therapy to realize fully the impact of the loss of his mother on his life.  Losing his mother was his greatest hidden fear.
The death of Matthew’s grandmother at the age of 96 brought a different kind of experience. He spent time with her, reminiscing about the past together before she died. Two months later he had a spiritual awakening that completely changed his life. He left his high-paying job and after three years of exploration, he came to Crestone.

Carolyn, before joining Caring for the Body team,  had had an earlier experience of helping a friend who was washing the body of her aunt who’d died unexpectedly. She has since observed that when family members are involved in the process of caring for the body, healing starts. This friend’s mother initially did not want to participate in the washing but stayed in the room to watch. She was still in shock from the sudden death of her sister. When the two were anointing the body, the mother pointed out that they had missed the area behind the neck.  She then came over and took care of it. At that moment of participation, she accepted the reality of death and began the healing process.

Anna and Julie are also members of the Caring for the Body team. Anna intuitively knew she was to be involved as soon as she heard the formation of the group. Julie has a background as a nurse in mental health. She had been involved with training medical personnel in spiritual care. She started her career as a nurse’s aid. In those days, as soon as a patient died, they were told to remove the body even if family members were around, not allowing the family time with the body.  It didn’t feel right then, but she had to carry out the orders. After many years of learning and meditating, Julie now believes the best way to support a dying person is to be there with love and without judgment. The flow of love at that moment is very beautiful. If the family members support the dying person with love, the feeling is very harmonious.  If conflicts remain unresolved, then the feeling surrounding the death process could be marked by confusion.

A dying person normally will refuse water and food. This actually will make the death process easier. Intravenous feeding will not prolong life for one who is dying, but may make the death process more uncomfortable.

About ten years ago, before CEOLP existed, a Crestone Buddhist was cremated in her back yard. A few years later when another resident, Laverne, died, she also wished to be cremated. It was spontaneously decided to cremate her in Crestone using the pyre from the previous cremation. Laverne had made many friends with people from all spiritual traditions.  At the funeral they all came to pray for her, becoming acquainted with cremation.

Now, CEOLP serves people from all spiritual backgrounds. Barbara, Laverne’s daughter-in-law, and Stephanie are the main coordinators for CEOLP, which provides support for informed end-of–life choices and throughout the whole process of death, from caring for the body, funeral service, to cremation or green burial. So far those seeking help have requested only cremation. It also offers information about end-of-life choices for other communities to develop their own end-of life organizations.

Paul, who is in charge of the fire, plays an important role in the group. He introduced the cremation technology to Crestone. About twenty years ago he was involved with the cremation of a Buddhist on the east side of the mountain range and since then, he has helped in more than ten cremations. In the early days he used concrete blocks to make a temporary pyre.

Paul is involved with the group is out of reasons of humanity and honesty. He observed the nature of fire is that of release. Family members and friends who participated in the cremation ceremony seemed to move through the grieving process faster. If people consciously released unfinished business and all negative emotions into the fire, it worked even better.

In the many cremations that Paul has participated in, he noticed a pattern. When the body is first brought to the site, there is a heightening of tension in the group. This is the moment of facing the reality of death; this is the dead person. Then the body is placed on the pyre and after juniper branches and more wood are piled on the top, the fire is lit.  This is the second phase. The roaring fire burns the body. There is no turning back, the body is returned to the elements. About two hours after the fire has been burning, the atmosphere starts to be more relaxed. People start to move closer to the fire and maybe soft conversations begin.  Sometimes music is offered at this time.  In the last hour, the atmosphere can even become celebratory, marking the completion  of one’s life journey.

Sometimes, families may still be grieving, but the healing process has begun in the midst of the grieving.  A few weeks or a month later, family members would come to the meeting and appear radiant, thanking members of the CEOLP.  On the other hand, those who did not face the death process directly often grieve a long time.

In the process of interviewing these volunteers, I am moved by their love and warmth and feel a great sense of gratitude for their commitment. I hope by sharing their stories it would inspire other communities to organize similar kind of support for those who are dying. According to Dr. Rudolf Steiner, death is birth into the spiritual world. It is a sacred moment and should be approached with great respect and wisdom.


After the person has stopped breathing, it is best to wait until the consciousness has left the body before there is any touching of the body. Normally this can take up to eight hours. Experienced meditators can stay in meditation for days after.  Certain signs will appear to show that their meditation has concluded. After the consciousness completely leaves the body, a drop of blood will come out of the nose or liquid come out of the lower opening of the body.  The body will also start to develop an odor. If can’t wait for signs that the meditation has naturally ended, one can stop the meditation by lighting  incense.

First, after consciousness has left the body, touch the crown to insure that consciousness exits through the crown, in case it has not left yet. In the winter, one can open the window to cool the room.  In the summer, close the window and turn on the air conditioner,  Use ice or dry ice to keep the trunk of the body cool.  Use thick gloves or towels to handle dry ice to prevent burn. Place the dry ice in a pillow case to place on the body.  For each pound of body weight, use 10 to 15 pounds of dry ice. Check every 12 hours to see if the ice needs replacing.  If using ice cubes, put the ice in plastic bags which seal tightly.

Clean the body and change its clothes only after one is certain the consciousness has left the body.  If the person died of infectious disease, wear gloves. Cover the bed with plastic sheeting and use water or fragrant herbal tea to bathe the body. Dress the lower body with diaper or water-proof pants to avoid the leakage of body fluids. For cremation remove all metal and plastic, in particular pace-makers; otherwise they can explode in the fire.

From the traditions of ancient India and the Middle East, one can also anoint the body with essential oils for preservation and calming the mind.  Essential oils of sandalwood, frankincense, and myrrh are commonly used, diluted about 15  drops to a small bottle of olive oil.  The oil can be used to anoint the chakras.

Choose clothing of natural fabrics, avoid man-made materials. If there is difficulty in dressing, cut the back of the shirt or dress and dress from the front. If the eyes are open, gently close them and put two small sandbags over the eyelids. If the mouth is still open, place a rolled up towel under the chin; it will stay closed in time.

Usually the consciousness of the departed one is still nearby. Sometimes the person may not even realize he/she is dead. They are very aware of what is going on and the thoughts of those around. Thoughts of families and friends with can affect the departing one. It is best to remove all medical equipments from the room and set up an altar reflecting the spiritual practices of the departed. One can also play uplifting chants and music.

Allow the body to stay at home for three days so the higher, non-form bodies can completely disengage from the physical body and return to the greater cosmos. This period provides an opportunity to communicate with the departing one. Families and friends can convey their love, respect and good wishes.  Extreme grief and attachment can interfere with the onward journey of the departing one.  Dr. Rudolf Steiner reminded people to send love and warmth with them.  If we wish that they stay with us, and not leave us, that will hold them back.

According to Buddhist tradition, within 49 days of the death, prayers and good deeds done in the name of the deceased person will help them in their future lives.

Recommended readings:
1.     Staying Connected, Rudolf Steiner
2.     Grave Matters, Mark Harris, Scribner, 2007
3.     www.Crossings.net