By Patricia Duff, South Whidbey Record Arts & Entertainment, Island Life, May 09 2009
Death, in a sense, is a denouement. It follows the climax of life.
In it, a person plays out the final act of one’s existence before his or her exit out of this world.
Strange, then, that many families in American society allow a beloved’s body to be taken immediately away; whisked off to a mortuary for embalming and laid out in an unfamiliar funeral home before being buried or cremated.
No final curtain. No long moment in the spotlight of one’s death to allow a family the time to give those they love an ovation; a curtain call for which they may honor the dead with appreciation and love.
One South Whidbey woman would like to give families the chance to change all that.
Marilyn Strong is the founder of Soul’s Journey Services.
Strong is a certified death midwife and is part of a new movement that aims to restage life’s final act with an intimate, sacred and gentle transition from life to death. It’s an alternative to funeral homes.
“Caring for our loved ones after death is nothing new,” Strong said. “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,” she added. “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.”
Strong’s services provide guidance, counsel and ministry to families who want to personally care for and make specific, low-cost, home-based funeral arrangements.
A traditional mortuary burial can easily cost $10,000, while a home funeral followed by cremation or an environmentally-conscious burial in a pine-box can cost less than $1,000.
Historically, the family was responsible for preparing a family member’s body and other rituals that followed death. It was a natural part of the grieving process and gave people the hours or days needed to say goodbye to their relative while the body lay in the parlor.
“That’s where the terms ‘living room’ and ‘parlor’ come from,” Strong said.
She said the business of embalming the dead is obsolete. It was invented during the American Civil War as a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers who needed to be shipped long distances home so their families could bury them. Embalming is not required in any state.
Like others in her field, Strong is dedicated to dignified and compassionate alternatives to current funeral practices.
“The first funeral I attended was for my paternal grandmother when I was 14,” Strong said.
“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.”
There is a movement in this country away from modern funeral traditions.
In 1998, a rural doctor and environmentalist, Billy Campbell, opened the first modern “green cemetery” in North America.
Campbell and his wife, Kimberley, created the Ramsey Creek Preserve in upstate South Carolina that specializes in burials that eschew embalming, traditional coffins and headstones in favor of a simpler, more natural approach. Graves are hand-dug, and instead of using expensive, finished coffins, the dead are buried in shrouds or a plain wooden box without a vault or grave liner.
Now, organizations such as the Green Burial Council, an independent, nonprofit organization founded to encourage ethical and environmentally sustainable deathcare practices, are making it easier for people to access alternatives.
Death midwifery is part of the natural burial movement that allows advisors like Strong to facilitate the transportation and care of the body in preparation for a home ritual or wake.
“Home funerals make sense both economically and emotionally,” Strong said.
“We’ve become a death-averse society,” she added. “But by having a body stay at home after death, a transformation can happen in front of the family. Being physically present during that process aids in the grieving process.”
“When someone dies, the portal between the worlds opens, just as it does during a birth, and it is very powerful,” Strong said.
She explained that by having the body present for up to three days gives a family time to gather, hold vigil, perhaps decorate the casket and do other rituals while saying goodbye and healing at the same time.
Soul’s Journey Services can do as much or as little as desired.
After acquiring the death certificate for the family from the medical examiner, the death midwife can assist with washing, dressing and preparing the body at home. The body is then preserved for viewing by keeping it on blocks of dry ice.
Strong can also assist the family with medical and legal paperwork; with selection of a low-cost casket that can be eco-friendly; access to low-cost cremation services; and memorial services.
Strong emits an expressive tenderness and warmth when speaking about the process of death. She said the end stage of life is an extremely personal and sacred time for the family of the dead.
But beyond her natural inclination to help ease the pain families feel while grieving, Strong has had more than 25 years of experience in related fields.
With degrees in religion, adult education and spirituality and culture, Strong has been a longtime facilitator of spirituality programs. She is an interfaith minister and a respected ceremonialist and singer with experience in bedside chanting vigils and sacred dying rituals. She also provides grief and bereavement counseling.
Additionally, Strong is the president of the board of the Woodmen Cemetery in Langley, where green burials are available.
“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,” she said.
South Whidbey Record Arts & Entertainment, Island Life Patricia Duff can be reached at email@example.com or (360) 221-5300.