My father’s death was my first experience of serving as a home funeral guide – I just didn’t know it at the time. In fact, what was missing at the time of his death has been one of my greatest teachers.
My father was super fit and healthy, in his early 60s, when he was diagnosed with an aggressive and nearly-always terminal form of brain cancer. He had a six-month prognosis but ended up living for 18 months. I joined my step-mother in caring for him at home, with the support of hospice. Once he exhaled for the last time, strangers arrived with a gurney, zipped him into a body bag, and drove him off for a direct cremation. A few weeks later I was given a portion of his remains and some of the artifacts of his life. Not only was there nothing you would call a home funeral; there was no funeral at all, no memorial. He didn’t want one, I was told – and that was pretty much the end of the story.
Except that I knew I needed something else. This is where I felt my way into the continuum of what’s meant by a “home funeral” – a non-institutional response to a death that draws on and empowers the family and community. While we hadn’t done anything to continue our physical care for my father after his death – only later would I learn about bathing and dressing, spending time with, and preparing our dead for final disposition – I created a ceremony of grief and remembrance six months later with the help of some friends.
In the years after my father’s death I began to notice how many others were in the same circumstance: facing a death without access to meaningful rituals. For some, that’s the consequence of mobility or displacement (not living in multi-generational communities with intact cultural or family customs); others no longer find conventional funeral practices or religious rites relevant or affordable; others simply have had no exposure to death or after-death care after several generations of it being out-sourced to professionals and conducted behind closed doors.
In response, I took classes and became certified through the Celebrant Foundation & Institute and Final Passages. Since then, I have worked with dozens of families to help them create more meaningful connections when death occurs or is anticipated. Some of this has been unpaid, in my own family and extended community. Some support has been offered professionally, as a consultant. Sometimes I hear back from those who’ve attended a workshop I’ve offered, read a blog post I’ve written, heard a radio interview, or visited the public information site Oregon Funeral Resources & Education. Their stories affirm that just a little exposure to the realm of possibilities can be the key that unlocks greater engagement with this form of family and community care.
My greatest passion is seeing the capacity for meaning-making in the presence of death grow within families and communities. For me, being a lifelong home funeral guide is simply a form of holding up a mirror so that we can see more clearly this part of being human. It’s a way of remembering that our care for each other does not end with the last exhale. It’s a way of reflecting back my belief that how we are with each other in the presence of death feeds the big story of life going forward.
Holly Pruett is a Life-Cycle Celebrant and Home Funeral Guide, certified in Thanatology by the Association for Death Education & Counseling and a student in Stephen Jenkinson's Orphan Wisdom School. As a community death educator, she founded PDX Death Café and the Death Talk Project, facilitated with Oregon Humanities’ Talking about Dying program, and has designed and led dozens of workshops. Holly partnered with former GBC International president Lee Webster to create Oregon Funeral Resources & Education, a public interest website serving as a model for other states.
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