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The Ultimate Journey
“Death is the ultimate journey,” my mother used to say. While my mother was terminally ill we discussed at length how she wanted her funeral arrangements handled. Her instructions were quite simple: “Don’t involve a funeral director. Just make sure you do it all yourself.”
Her reasons for this were due to our unpleasant experiences of using a funeral director when my father had died. My father had left strict instructions his body wasn’t to be embalmed because of his bad experiences during the Second World War. The funeral director had informed us that he had to be embalmed as he couldn’t keep his body for three days until the date of the funeral, otherwise it would be a health risk.
Trusting a professional, who we thought knew more about death and burial, we reluctantly gave permission for the embalming and then watched my father being lifted onto a trolley, zipped into a black bag, and taken away to the funeral directors.
It was only some months later, that we found out through reading Lynda Hannah’s book “Living Legacies – a family funeral handbook for an evergreen world”, that embalming, according to the Health (Burial) Regulations 1946, is only legally required in the case of an infectious disease. My father had had cancer. It wasn’t infectious. The funeral director had misinformed us.
In addition to this, the funeral costs were exorbitant and we didn’t have the money. The church and WINZ both helped financially, but my mother still had to sell the car and Dad’s expensive watch, while I used up all my savings.
Three years later, my mother was diagnosed with end stage heart failure. With the invaluable help from the hospice nurse I looked after her closely for several months. During this time my mother and I re-read Lynda’s book, Living Legacies. My mother and I liked what she had to say. “Communities that have lost the skills and values needed to lay out the dead, and contemplate the broader issues of living and dying.” She also wrote that funeral homes have taken even more responsibility from us to our detriment.
We also learned exactly what the embalmer does to the body. The veins are filled with formaldehyde, a steriliser and preservative that is a powerful poison.
My mother and I looked back on our experiences of my father’s funeral. We felt we’d failed him because we hadn’t known our rights and were pressured into having him embalmed due to us both being in shock at the time. She made me promise that we would handle her funeral arrangements without a funeral director.
When my mother deteriorated, I sat by her bedside, watching her spirit getting ready to leave her body. She was about to undertake that ultimate journey she and I had so often talked about. On Saturday evening she died at my home. The image that came into my mind at the exact time of her passing was of a rose bursting into bloom. Sadness overwhelmed me and I cried. My husband phoned the hospice to see what the next step was. After all, I was now in charge of a dead body. The hospice nurse asked if we could pull out the syringe driver needle from my mother’s chest and the other needle in her arm. My husband and teenage son offered to do this. I liked the idea of them being involved in caring for her body. My husband also laid her out so as to ensure she fitted into the cardboard coffin the following day.
When Sunday arrived, my emotions were put on hold, even though I wanted to grieve. I had work to do. A promise to fulfill. I had to ensure my mother’s body was taken to the crematorium and arrange the celebration of life. We had decided we would have the cremation first, then the celebration of life in four days’ time. Many people usually have things the other way around, but we thought it made more sense to do it this way so we could take our time planning the celebration of life, and besides it would give us time to recover from the initial shock of losing her.
Many thoughts went through my mind. How would we lift mum into the cardboard coffin? She was 5ft 1” and weighed 74 kilos. The bedroom was too small to bring in the coffin. We’d have to carry her through to the dining room where we’d placed the coffin on trestles. The hospice nurse suggested asking the local firemen as they were strong and would be open to help us. We agreed.
The hospice nurse dressed mum and applied her make-up so she’d look presentable for visitors. My mother was beautiful. She’d lost twenty years and looked like a woman in her sixties. I placed a pink flower in her hair. Shortly afterwards, friends and family arrived.
The duty doctor was contacted as we couldn’t proceed with the cremation until he issued the death certificate. Unfortunately, he wasn’t comfortable about certifying my mother’s death since he didn’t know her and wasn’t her GP. However, when we called our family GP, he wasn’t available as it was Sunday. What was I to do? We’d already booked the crematorium for 3.30pm. After another phone call. It turned out the duty doctor had actually seen my mother a few months ago, so finally he agreed to attend and issue a death certificate. There was no pulse taking, no examining the body, no questions. He merely touched her eyelid. One hour later he dropped off the necessary paperwork saying he’d phoned the coroner just to make sure it was alright for him to certify the death.
Shortly afterwards, six burly firemen in their red engine arrived. Mum would have loved this, I thought, as they lifted her gently into the cardboard coffin. She was the type of person to like something unusual. She’d always been a great believer in the supernatural. During her illness she also had an amazing psychic experience which strengthened both of our beliefs in the spirit world.
Once we arrived at the crematorium, my husband backed the vehicle up to the entrance normally reserved for the funeral directors. It’s not pleasant. The ovens are in full view. The paperwork was handed over but to our dismay we were informed we didn’t have the essential Permission to Cremate form signed by the Medical Referee. The Council had failed to inform us previously that we needed this document, only issuing us the form Application to Cremate which I needed to fill in. (The Certification of Causes of Death and Certificate of Medical Practitioner forms were issued by the attending doctor.) Four documents in total were needed.
There was no alternative but to leave mum in the crematorium overnight and rebook for the next day. On Monday morning we met with the Medical Referee who normally does work for the funeral directors. He seemed quite suspicious about our intentions to do things ourselves. He studied our paperwork but refused permission for cremation because the duty doctor had recorded the wrong date of death and had made three minor mistakes on the death certificate without initialing them. He said sternly, “I’d prefer your family GP to do the certification, not the duty doctor.” So he sent us away to the GP who rewrote the death certificate, but couldn’t redo the Certificate of Medical Practitioner, as seemingly the requirement was he’d have to view the body. So the duty doctor had to amend that form.
We met with the Medical Referee again three hours later. But now he wouldn’t accept the two forms because they were written out by different doctors! However, eventually he consented if we ensured the duty doctor rewrote the certificates.
With the paperwork, we headed to the crematorium, twenty four hours after our original booking. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt a great sense of relief my task was nearly completed. That I had done everything my mother wanted.
In spite of the paperwork difficulties, handling the funeral arrangements ourselves felt right. The practical aspects helped me work through the grieving process. Now I understood completely what Lynda had conveyed in her book about “having a family focused, personal and holistic approach to death without fear, high costs or superficiality.”
Four days later, we had the celebration of life with Lynda Hannah as the celebrant. Her quiet and warm manner put everyone at ease. The ceremony went perfectly. Candles were lit, speeches were made, and a piper played a Scottish lament. On the table stood a carved wooden box containing my mother’s ashes. Looking back I’d recommend any family to take the death and burial process into their own hands like we did. There was something very satisfying about seeing to your loved one’s funeral instead of being a passive observer. If I was to change anything we did though, it would be to ask Lynda to assist us with the paperwork rather than trying to see to it ourselves. But that is the only thing I would have done differently.
I have a feeling that my mother and my father would have been very pleased at how things had turned out.
Sadly Loren herself died at the age of 51, only 4 years after her Mum and Living Legacies also helped with her funeral. Rest in peace, Loren.
I would have come across Lynda’s book, Living Legacies, about 6 years before Yarra died. At the time it seemed likely that my wife would not be living for that many more years. So naturally we wanted to prepare
ourselves for her dying.
Almost everything Lynda says in her book made total sense to me. And I love the way she is really matter-of-fact about what needs doing when a person dies, yet writes with sensitivity, almost poetic, around our feelings and needs at that time.
Yarra had severe multiple sclerosis. After becoming wheelchair-bound in 2001,she lost all movement in her limbs by about 2004. Her ability to speak had deteriorated markedly by 2002, and disappeared totally soon after. She died in 2007, aged 43.
A close childhood friend of Yarra’s, who is also a photographer, published a book of photographs, entitled LIVING, about her life as it was in 2003. I love these photo’s. They tell a part of the story of Yarra’s life, her struggles and challenges, and mostly, her acceptance and celebration, of what is.
Swallowing food and drink had become increasingly difficult by 2000, and in 2001, almost impossible. So after much discussion between Yarra, her parents, and myself, we decided to allow a direct tube to be inserted into her stomach, enabling her to have liquid food. At the same time we made legal provision for Yarra, or myself, with medical power of attorney, to reverse this intervention in the natural process of her life, at any time in the future.
And we did in fact do this 6 years later, when we stopped using the tube, ceasing food and fluids to Yarra.
Throughout Yarra’s illness, we (family/whanau on her side and mine) always tried to include Yarra in all discussions concerning her welfare ~ including, of course, her death and dying. For example: in the regular discussions with her GP. In her last year or so these included the question of using antibiotics, or not, and the big one around the use of her feeding tube.
For years, Yarra and I had regular sessions with our counsellor, and even a few including her parents. How were we doing with the many challenges in our lives?
In 2006 it looked like Yarra was heading for pneumonia, and I had to decide whether we were going to use antibiotics. I remember sitting in the garden of Motueka Community Hospital (where Yarra lived) with Yarra in her bed on wheels, beside me. We sat with this question for about two hours. And I became very clear that we would not.
The pneumonia miraculously did not eventuate. But for a day or two we were preparing for her death. Which was an amazing preparation for her eventual death, the following year. Quite some discussion took place
between Yarra’s parents and siblings (in the U.S.) and myself, around everyone’s feelings and needs concerning her dying. Based partly on discussions with Yarra years before, when she was still able to speak, we had a strong sense that she was ready to move on ~ a feeling that had been growing over several years. And we were ready to let her go.
At home here in the Motueka Valley, one evening in late January (2007), Vikki and Irma (two of our closest friends) and I, sat with Yarra and we discussed together how we would like everything to happen, when Yarra would leave her body. When would this be? A sense of trust developed that the knowing would come. Simply, the knowing would come.
In June, when pneumonia again threatened, we stopped feeding Yarra.
A friend had already made her coffin, which we started decorating. Her parents and sister came over from the U.S., and we began our vigil with Yarra for her last couple of weeks. Of course this was quite an intense time for us all, but for me also, mostly, very beautiful. I shall never forget those hours and hours of sitting with Yarra, as we both dived ever more deeply. I also remember taking every care to stay healthy during this time, I wanted to be totally there with her. So I greatly appreciated her father being with her those nights, enabling me to get enough sleep.
Yarra, for the greater part, seemed very clear, and accepting of her approaching death.
Some years before, Yarra and I had met someone who had been caring for her husband up to his death. The main part of that quite brief meeting, for me, was her wonder around the TRUST her man had had in her. I have never forgotten that, and never more so than in those last two weeks, as Yarra put her total trust in me.
Although I had mostly assumed that I would really want to be present at Yarra’s actual last breath, when the time came, I realised this was not so important for me any more. About half an hour before she died, her mother and father being with her, I felt a need for spaciousness, to be outside in the garden ~ where I walked singing songs of celebration, rejoicing in Yarra’s release from her body.
Then, the silence……
At the Hospital, we had total support from the staff. With one of the nurses we felt closest to, I had made preparations for washing Yarra’s body, dressing her etc. Her body was not, of course, taken away to be embalmed. Together with her parents, I was in total control of the whole ‘funeral’ process.
When the time came, first Yarra’s mother, then her father, indicated that they wanted to be part of washing their daughter’s body, together with the nurse and me. I totally loved doing this. Sharing this simple act together was such a wonderful experience for me, to really feel the lifelessness of her body. I am sure it contributed greatly to the relative ease of my grieving, and I strongly recommend this hands-on experience. And it was yet another deepening of my connection with Yarra’s parents.
We gently closed her mouth, and held her jaw there with a scarf around her head for a day. (Though later, my sister pointed out that for many years Yarra tended to have her lips slightly open! ~ after she lost her speech.)
We then laid Yarra’s body in the coffin, and with the help of hospital staff, carried it out to her wheelchair van ~ at the same time singing together, led by the nurse manager. During the trip home, for about an hour, there
was a spectacular display of rainbows and other lighting in the sky!
We laid the body out on a bed, where it remained for two days. I was happily surprised to find how easy and fulfilling it was to sleep on my bed next to Yarra’s those nights.
June 2007 was a very cold winter, so we did not have to worry about anything like ice around the body. But neither did I light a fire those days.
Family and friends came to visit, including many children. And the coffin was decorated some more.
When my sister-in-law asked me about taking photographs of Yarra’s body I felt some ambivalence. But now I feel very grateful for those photo’s. I have looked many times at one particular photo and I am often amazed at Yarra’s beauty in death, as much as in life.
Somehow the idea arose to have the cremation of Yarra’s body before the Celebration of her life, where we had the ashes in an urn. This felt OK. Though when I went to another funeral recently, I also appreciated having the body right there amongst us, just reminding us that the person really wasn’t there any more.
Some 30-40 family and friends gathered at the crematorium, and Yarra’s parents led a short ceremony. Several of us then helped push the coffin into the furnace, 8-year old Luka pushed the furnace button, and we sang some songs as the coffin burned. It was important to me that we participated in every step of the process, not a coffin just disappearing behind black curtains.
The next day we had Yarra’s Celebration at the Riverside Community Hall (formerly a church) in Lower Moutere. Our friend Irma had offered to facilitate this event, which I was very happy with. At other funerals, I have usually not felt very connected with a celebrant who has never known the person who has died. Also, I
generally find it hard to maintain my interest with most eulogies I have heard, especially the many chronological details that are common. With Yarra, the majority of those who spoke focused on aspects of her life that had touched us most.
We released some helium balloons outside, something Yarra had thought of at my mother’s funeral. At the end, after afternoon tea there were still some 30 of us to dance our farewell, with music.
This is my story, for now, of Yarra’s dying. Obviously, there is much that has been left unsaid. I invite you to contact me about any aspect you would like to explore further.