How strange this fear of death is! We are never frightened at a sunset.

– George MacDonald

My younger sister, Brenda, was only 29 when her husband of three years, Tony, died after a valiant battle with cancer. The battle to live was hard fought. As fiercely as Tony battled to live, the resolve to die with grace and celebrate a live well-lived after he passed was brilliant.

Home Hospice and the Final Goodbye

At the juncture treating the disease became a futile effort, Tony decided he wanted palliative care provided at home. The hospice they engaged provided both in-patient and at-home care. Thus, when Tony, together with Brenda, determined that his final days would be spent at home, hospice was able to provide the supportive services and resources that were necessary for a comfortable transition from life.

During Tony’s last leg of his journey on Earth, he and my sister discussed at length what he wanted in the way of a celebration of his life after he passed. He kept coming back to the decision then he elected to die at home on his terms. He wanted the celebration of his life after he passed, he wanted his funeral, to be on his terms as well.

As Tony’s life drew to a close, he and Brenda made the decision that his funeral would be at home. His closest family and friends would come to their home to celebrate his life in the same setting where they’d gathered for gatherings of different types through the years – holidays, birthdays, and other events. 

Independent Decision Making and Personal Rituals With Help From a Funeral Home

Tony was not interested in a natural burial. In addition, he didn’t want the burden of fully tending to his remains left in the hands of his wife when he died. (One at-home funeral option involves the family tending to the body entirely, including keeping it cool – or “on ice” – until the burial occurs.) Thus, a decision was made to have Tony’s body embalmed. They contacted a funeral home that was able to transport the body for embalming and return it to their home.

With that said, my sister did want to undertake some of the other aspects associated with body preparation after my brother-in-law died. Specifically, Tony and Brenda decided that she would do a bathing ritual after my brother passed. My sister asked me to assist her in that process, something which I was a bit apprehensive about at first. In the end, I was there at my sister’s side and found the bathing ritual to be a true testament of love after a family member has died.

The funeral home ended up being contracted for two elements of the life celebration. In addition to the embalming and transport associated with that process, the funeral home would also transport the body to the cemetery, where a graveside service was planned. Because my sister and her husband took the initiative, they understood that they could select the services they wanted from a funeral home and didn’t have to purchase a package. For example, they went a different route when it came to the casket.

My sister and brother-in-law have a carpenter friend. They “hired” him to construct a simple and yet beautiful wooden casket for my brother-in-law. When I say hired, when what really was a personalized work of art was completed, the friend of Tony and Brenda refused to take money for his efforts.

The casket was delivered to the home, not the funeral home. When Tony’s body was returned to their home, a funeral home staff member assisted my sister, the carpenter who built the casket, and I in laying Tony into the vessel. There was a sacredness about this process, as there was with washing the body the prior day.

Family Funeral at Home

Before he passed on, Tony shared his ideas about what he had in mind for the actual funeral at home when the time came. He definitely didn’t want anyone dictating what could and could not occur at what he started to call “the gathering of friends.”

Simplicity was the order to the day. There was no minister presiding at the gathering. That was saved for the graveside service later in the day.

Family members and the closet of friends came to the house mid-morning. Brenda welcomed them and presented the first reflections and recollections about Tony and his life. This was followed by unscripted, “open sharing” by all of those in attendance. In the end, everyone contributed something they felt compelled to share about Tony and the impact he had on that individual’s life. The gathering was filled with some tears but also a considerable amount of joy and even laughter.

Graveside Service

Brenda and Tony are people of faith. Indeed, they are Catholic. Few churches are as ritualistic as the Catholic Church, particularly when it comes to death. My sister and brother-in-law wanted to recognize their religious beliefs but didn’t want the church to dictate the manner in which Tony’s life was celebrated.

The decision to have a home funeral not only empowered them to personalize the way in which Tony’s body was prepared and presented, but it gave them the strength and fortitude to stand firm in how they wanted their religious beliefs to be incorporated into Tony’s life celebration. They learned that their church has a simple ritual for a graveside service that allowed them to do what they wanted at the home funeral celebration and yet still honor their religious beliefs – but on their terms.

The graveside service was open to a larger number of people in Tony’s life. None of them felt slighted by not being part of the intimate gathering at home earlier in the day. The celebration of life that started while Tony was in home hospice was a seamless venture until a final farewell was made at the graveside.