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Bringing Funerals Back Home

January 31, 2024

I am reflecting on when I became interested in pursuing family-directed home funerals in Ontario back in 2009.

I am remembering the two years I accompanied a dear friend of mine through their dying and death time.  Being present and a witness to his death, was a life changing experience for me in so many ways, and set me on a path of discovering what our North American traditions were or how absent they were in our death practices.

I was presented with an opportunity of attending an 8 month course titled “ Contemplative End of Life Care Practitioner” through the Institute of Traditional Medicine in Toronto, Ontario.

What I discovered during those 8 months of study was that there were many faiths/cultures in the world ( Muslim, Jewish, Irish ) that embraced and celebrated one’s death with collective ritual, ceremony and rich and healing traditions.  Family-directed and community funerals were the norm for them and in many cases still are.

Over the past 12 years, I have had the privilege to guide and bear witness to four family-directed home funerals. Each unique to the families enacting them.

One particular family-directed home funeral that I was a part of, that I would like to share, was very moving, and having had this experience, all those individuals involved, were mesmerized by the beauty, serenity, sacredness and love that enveloped and held them during that time.

I received a phone call at 1:00 a.m. in the morning, stating Henry had died.  Could I come.

We had been waiting three weeks for this moment to arrive.

As I walked in the front door of their home, Sarah, his wife, greeted me with a warm embrace.  Her sister had been staying with Sarah during the past two weeks to support her through these difficult days.

What was comforting about this moment now, was a plan had been set in motion 8 months prior to Henry’s death.

A detailed plan that enabled Henry’s wife, Sarah, to have everything ready and available to execute this event.  The after-death body care items, sheets, towels, wash cloths, mementos, pictures, music, fragrance, flowers.  Casket decorating before his death and at the time of his vigil.  Paperwork completed.  Ritual designed for the 24 hour over night vigil.  Family and friends to help transition through each element with Sarah before, during and after Henry’s death.

We lit a candle, symbolizing the spirit of Henry.  We wanted him to be acknowledged.  So began the intimate care by Sarah and her sister and brother-in-law of washing, clothing and preparing his body for the vigil later that day.  Sharing special stories of their lived experience being with Henry.  His brother choosing to shave him and speak to Henry about their childhood adventures.  Watching how tender Sam held his brother’s face was heartbreaking and so special.  Participating at a visceral level; thereby acknowledging the magnitude of the loss personally, which is part of healthy grieving.  Never having tended to a love one in this way, changed their lives.

For those that have experienced and participated in this kind of funeral practice shared how this experience changed their understanding of death and led to a healing embrace of what death is.  Participation is transformative.  One individual said “It was a deeply moving experience to be able to care for Rebecca after her death.  Our family, friends and I felt the unexpected gifts and this experience brought us together in grief, mourning and celebration of our dear Rebecca.” Providing post death care for loved ones (as has been done throughout history) is a final act of love which can be life affirming.


Barb Phillips

Thanadoula, Roseneath, Ontario

Visit Barb’s website to learn more.