Recently I had a note in an email saying, ‘I loved the gentle, conscious and beautiful way that my friend showed me passing can be. Thank you for your role in it’.

Yet for many people I meet, the idea she speaks of is hard to imagine. The idea that a family would choose to have their home as the site of a person’s passing, or to keep them in their own bed for a vigil may be confronting. It takes time to muster the confidence to do something you’ve never seen anyone do before.

The funeral industry is efficient

An immediate response to keeping a body at home is often: why? Why on earth would you lay out your loved one in your front room, when you could just call the funeral director and have them come and do everything that needs to be done?

Australian cultural norms for after death care have been firmly established by the funeral industry whose practice is quick and efficient.

Slowing things down

There is value in slowing down the whole process around death, and some men and women are motivated to make a conscious choice for a home vigil. To lessen others’ fear of death. To create beauty in transition. To give the family time to deal with dying and bereavement. To involve their community and enact all the events around their death in their place. To take the stance of activists who choose collaboration rather than the top-down authority of funeral companies. These are people who understand the value of involved, experiential learning.

For anyone who has lost someone suddenly a vigil is the chance to be close with them, caring. Recently a grandmother said to me of a woman who had lost a child: She birthed her, she has to go through that process now.

It may seem strange to suggest that a vigil offers comfort to a dying person. Yet think of it. None of us have the slightest idea of what happens when we die. The image of a constant thread, of being attended by people we love, through the dying process and into the next phase, is less of a severance than that of knowing one’s body will be whisked away to a mortuary. The rest of you aren’t separating yourselves from my fate. And it can really be fun to choose the outfit and accessories.

home vigil pets welcome

Image credit: NFHA

Above all vigils give those left behind the space to come to terms with the reality of the death in a way that is tangible and indisputable. This influences the later grieving process in a positive way.

 A safe space for a home vigil

When my colleague Pippa and I assist a family with a home vigil, we take up an ‘alongside-ness’. We make a safe and familiar space for the family, community, and the children to be with the dead.

Friends from different cultures and spiritual traditions, see bodies as safe, vigils and completely normal. Theonie, a second generation Greek colleague gives a look at me that says: What else would you do? Eam, a friend from T’ai Chi remembers the kids in his neighbourhood in Malaysia heading off as a gang to see the old folks who had died down the street.

One of the best accounts I know of a vigil comes from Joanna Macy describing her husband Fran’s death on her blog. I connected with Joanna in the 80s as an activist, when she offered work called ‘Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age’. Now Joanna is known for ‘The Work That Reconnects’. This excerpt embodies reconnection. It gives me the pleasure of her warm and invigorating voice. It’s a reminder of what Pippa and I offer to those who would like to have a home vigil, and want trusted guidance through the process:

Given the shock and suddenness of it all, it made a huge difference to bring Fran’s body home.

It was a surreal and exquisite night. Our bedroom filled with flowers, candlelight, music – Russian liturgies and Bach cello suites. With scented water and rose petals in a Palestinian bowl he’d given me for Christmas, Fran’s beautiful body was washed slowly, caressingly, reverently by his son, his daughter, and his wife. Then we dressed him, choosing sweatpants and a faded denim shirt I loved, and tucked bags of dry ice under his neck and back and sides, and covered his legs and torso with a sheet of royal blue. He looked calm, handsome, and noble, like a Viking chief on his funeral boat.

The next two days from ten in the morning till ten and night, people came to pay their respects. No idea how many came, all told, in that steady flow of friends and neighbours, some returning more than once. No need to ring or knock, just come in and up the stairs. Go straight ahead to the bedroom and sit in silent meditation with Fran, or read to him, or join in a song. Or turn right into the dining room where more bounteous food appears by the minute or join in a quiet chat at the kitchen table. Or turn left into the living room and sit down to draw messages or pictures on the muslin to be appliquéd to Fran’s shroud. The sewing of that was in Peggy’s domain downstairs – two friends took turns stitching long strips from her quilting fabrics, while the grandchildren and their friends kibitzed, choosing colors and making more decorations for Opa. What struck me above all was the atmosphere that reigned. I can still almost feel it, the softness and buoyancy of the air, a sweet lightness around us and inside us.

A vigil in hospital

I’ve talked about a home vigil. It’s also possible to hold a vigil with a dying person in the hospital.There may be space and time constraints in the hospital or nursing home. Let the staff know that you’ll want this time, get them accustomed to the idea that you plan to have that time of intimacy and reflection, and they will help you to achieve what you want to see happen. It’s quite possible to bring a body home from hospital, as Joanna did.

To experience the buoyancy Joanna describes is to understand that we can do death differently. If you’d like our assistance, please make contact.