Prior to the 20th century, death had always been tended to in the home. Family members took care of the dying person, washed and dressed the deceased, dug the grave in the ground, and carried the body in the coffin. Death was a part of life that required the family’s physical work and participation.
After-death care returns the sacredness of death to the family and home. Having a wake at home or hosting a home funeral can help honor the deceased and support the grieving process.
“Often people don’t know that if a loved one has died in a hospital or nursing home, the person’s body can be brought home for an in-home funeral or wake,” says Ann-Elizabeth Barnes of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who has been a home funeral guide for 20 years and has helped nearly 100 families honor their loved ones after death.
Instead of immediately calling a funeral director, you have the option of keeping your loved one’s body at home; and grieving in your own way at your own pace.
Some religions and traditions believe it takes three days for the soul to completely disengage from the body, says Barnes. So the deceased person’s body may be in the home for up to three days before burial or cremation. Mourners can light candles, pray, adorn the body with flowers and fabric, share stories, or read poetry as farewells and gratitude for the deceased—which also help the departed soul transit to the afterlife.
When Joanne Cooney’s mother died, she enlisted Barnes’ help. Cooney wanted to honor her mother’s life and help the soul fully release so it wasn’t “lingering.” She chose to host a wake at home.
Barnes came to the house and spoke to the deceased, explaining that she would be “preparing her for the next part of her journey.” Then, Barnes lit a candle and talked the deceased through each step of what she would be doing as she began her after-death care work on the body.
Cooney, who had been caregiving for her mother during the final years, had picked out a blue suit in which to dress her mother and a purple sheet to wrap around the body. After Barnes ceremoniously washed the body and anointed it with oil, she fit the suit on the deceased and shrouded it with the loose flowing purple sheet. Every six hours, Barnes returned to the house to replace the ice around the body.
Seeing and spending time with her mother’s body had a therapeutic effect for Cooney. “I would have felt a terrible emptiness and loss if my mother’s body had been taken away,” Cooney says. “I wasn’t ready to let go.” The additional time helped to normalize death, reinforcing its natural role as a life transition.
For three days, family and friends gathered at Cooney’s house around her mother’s body. People read Shakespeare’s poem “Seven Ages of Man” and recited prayers; children played and picked flowers in the yard to place on the body; and friends brought casseroles, sandwiches, and salads to share together at the dining room table.
To help usher the soul on its path, everyone formed a circle around the body and recalled fond memories of the deceased.
“On the third day, I knew she had really crossed over,” recalls Cooney. “The energy felt different. It felt like more of just a body; I knew she was really gone,” she adds. “And I felt so peaceful that we had given her a warm, beautiful sendoff.”
Read more about living memorials—gatherings for a person who is present and alive before death.