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The Emerge Foundation Blog

Create a Releasing Blanket

Are you a dog or cat owner who is anxious and worried about your aging pet?

black and white old dog and brown tabby catYou’re doing everything you possibly can to help your elderly pet.  Still, your own feelings may be conveyed to your dog or cat, who have a way of sensing your feelings.

You’re there for them, but…how are you helping yourself? How can you head into these last months or years fully present, with less pain and more peace in your heart?

I have a solution that can help.

When my dog Aiko, a collie/border collie mix, started to get a white muzzle, I started to think about how she wouldn’t be with me forever. I couldn’t imagine my life without her – she meant everything to me.

Sometimes the worry and anticipatory grief would overwhelm me. I had never faced anything like it before, and I didn’t know what to do.

So I did what I always do in times of stress. I knit. It calms me, and I also fill the knitting with my love and prayers. At first, I wasn’t knitting a shroud for her – after all, she was 75 pounds and had years of life in her. I used up my stash, creating a large blanket with the thought that she could lie on it like a bed.

A Releasing Blanket is created in advance of a pet’s death, as a way to actively begin to reflect on and work through your feelings. Truth is, there is no specific pattern for this, because it is in the inspiration, planning and making that the work is done.

It will help to hold your love and grief, and it will softly cover your pet to the end and beyond.

You can make it slowly over the months or years, when you first start seeing the white nose or fading eyes. When you begin to feel sad and anxious about not having them by your side, then it’s time to begin to imagine what you can make to help enfold them, and you.

Old dog lying on a knitted blanketThis Releasing Blanket will be used when the vet comes, or you go to the vet. Put it on the cold table, and if need be, put towels between your pet  and the blanket. After death, wrap your pet in it, and keep them there, all the way into the crematorium or grave.

When you remember the last day, you will remember all the love and care you put into the Releasing Blanket, and that it went with your pet as your final loving act.

Note: making this releasing blanket will not hasten your pet’s death. When I started fretting at my old dog’s declining health, I began knitting (and knitting…she was a big dog), and then put it on a shelf for three years!

Quilters can quilt. Crocheters can crochet. Weavers can weave. Non-crafters can take a blanket, cut it to shape, and draw on it with fabric markers.

It can be any shape. Use your creativity, love and care to design it. I find a diamond shape works well, so let’s use that as a base to get you thinking.



diagram of a diamond shape blanket with a pet on topMeasure your pet when they are asleep. You’ll make the blanket so that the corners fold over and are tied, creating an envelope.

You can sew pockets on to hold messages, kibble, collars, a toy, to go with them.

Decorate or leave as simple as you like.

POUR your love into it as you work. Cry into it. As you do, the sharpness of the grief will soften; it will still be there, but it won’t cut. It will just squeeze.



here needy he stands,

and I am he.

- Omaha tribal prayer


I’m collecting images of pet shrouds, ‘Releasing Blankets’, and their stories to publish there, too, so please send them to [email protected] I would love to read them and even publish them if possible.


Home Funeral Guides Embrace the Dead on Dia de los Muertos

Why would women who work with the dead celebrate death?

(I interviewed Sara and Jessica on this topic and it was great, if you want to listen in.)

sara williams in a Day of the Dead apron waits for guests to arrive

Sara Williams

Home funeral guides Sara Williams and Jessica Caldwell show up to help families and friends care for someone after death, at home. They encourage families to tend with their hands to the final needs of the dead – how it used to be.

They believe that death, something most of us hate to contemplate, holds the key to celebrating life.

And from opposite sides of the country, they know how to throw a great Day of the Dead celebration in their home and school.

Sara, of Graham, a town just west of Raleigh-Durham, NC, can be called in the middle of the night or hours before a family gathering to help other families care for a body. She says that celebrating the Day of the Dead is a “reminder that death is merely a part of life, part of the same continuum of respect and reverence for, and remembrance of, our beloved deads.”

“There’s a carefully kept secret that I’m going to let you in on,” says Sara. “You are going to die. I know! Right?!”

Jessica, a home funeral guide living in Tenino, WA, near Mt. Rainier, once worked in a conventional funeral home and cemetery. She stresses the human side of Day of the Dead celebrations, which replace plastic costumes and decorations of horror and violence, into an experience where families come together to celebrate life and death.

Jessica caldwell by her Day of the Dead altar

Jessica Caldwell

Jessica says, “This is a lively celebration based in a belief that birth and death are a continuum. That the dead are not to be feared, but welcomed into our homes to share with us the food and drink of the living, just like a home funeral.”

“I’m a Halloween hater,” Sara says. “The crappy candy, the cheap costumes, the cleaning up the disgusting pumpkin guts. So when I learned about the Mexican holiday around the same time of year, Dia de los Muertos, I was instantly captivated. Here was a culture that got death.”

A culture that gets death. Mexicans take this time to embrace their dead. It’s a family gathering time – visiting together on the graves to tell stories, picnic, and sing. They cook their ancestors’ favorite foods and serve them too, on little dishes.

And ancestors can be the little ones who have died too. This is an especially caring time to acknowledge pregnancy loss, babies and children with special flowers, images, gifts and treats on private ofrendas, altars, in the home. These are covered with marigolds, photos, food offerings and heirlooms. The Mexican people spend time remembering – even teasing – the deceased, in hopes of visits from them.

sara altarDay of the Dead falls on the first few days of November. It’s the same time of year as All Saint’s Day, Halloween, and Samhain – the time of final harvests, and a time when the veil between life and death is thinner.

“It’s the time of year,” Sara says, “when friends and relatives – even pets – who have died are given divine consent to visit with us.”

Is she ever fearful? “Absolutely not!  For me to be with an actual dead body is nothing short of a great gift.  It teaches me (while hopefully I am teaching others present) that we have nothing to fear.”

This school swapped candy and costumes for culture. Jessica wanted to bring Jessica altarmeaning into her private, rural elementary school. She says, “I knew our Halloween event sent children home from school on intense sugar highs, often traumatized from costume anxiety. And it left our school community feeling a non-descript form of emptiness.”

So she began researching other cultures and ancient traditions to find more meaning “for this important and mysterious time of year.” The answer was right in the classroom.

“On the day of our school celebration,” Jessica said, “a student’s mom from Mexico helped us transform two long tables into a beautiful alter with traditionally-made Calaveras (sugar skulls) candles, marigolds, and incense.” Students put pictures and symbolic relics of family, friends or even pets who had died there, and ceremonially served food from homemade dishes too.

Five glowing carved jackolanterns“Instead of candy, families shared a hearty harvest potluck that evening, to come together and celebrate our care for one another,” Jessica says. Earlier, students helped create a ‘Forest Walk’ in a wooded portion of the campus. “Going into the entrance,” says Jessica, “meant they were leaving the world of the tangible and entering the world of spirit and mystery.” Lit with lanterns and pumpkins that families had carved, it ended at a bonfire surrounded by straw bales, and apple cider heating in a cauldron.bonfire at night

Jessica says that being close to the dead, whether as a home funeral guide or at Day of the Dead celebrations, help her experience the teachings of impermanence and understand the fragility of life.

“Many friends and family would ask Jessica if it was strange being close to a dead body. Truly, my response has always been no. Being this close to death has given me less to be afraid of in life,” she says.

Host a Day of the Dead Celebration at your home or school

Prepare folks in advance. To prepare at home, send invitations letting your guests know to bring photos and memorabilia. For a school, include parents well-ahead in the planning, which will replace sugar and costumes with meaningful sharing, ceremony, and cultural learning. Jessica’s school spent time in the classroom teaching about the traditions around early November, and planning for their harvest event. They made lanterns and decorations, and families brought carved pumpkins, poems and pictures of their relatives for the altar, and food to share.Day of the Dead invitations

Bring offerings to this party. On Sara’s Day of the Dead invitations, she lets people know that they will participate in building the ancestors’ altar, a powerful symbolic gesture from hearts and memory. She asks that guests bring a photograph, marigolds, vigil candle or something special to honor and remember their deceased. Tip: check out the tall religious candles in the Hispanic section of your grocery store for some great choices.

Create a colorful altar. Keep lots of empty space for folks to place their offerings to their ancestors. For preganancy loss, babies and children, perhaps plant a tree in memory in the early spring, and then each year during the ceremony, use a small branch or some leaves from it on the altar, along with other remembrances of an especially tender loss. Bringing names into the open, to share with others, is a way to support and care for one another in life.

Share food. Schools can invite families to create a special dish to share at a community potluck. Remember that feeding your ancestors is an important part of the celebration, so be sure you make a plate for them and add small servings (including drinks) for those you are remembering.Day of the Dead bread and a sugar skull ornament

Share more food. Everyone loves Mexican food. Even the dead. Sara says that Mexican food is surefire bait for her guests, who won’t stop talking about how they ate pan de muerto (dead breada sweet bread you can make or get from your local Mexican bakery). She serves tamales, chalupas, and pico de gallo, with carnitas (shredded pork) on the grill and a big pot of seasoned black beans. Plus tortillas, chips, salsa, and guacamole. End the night with delicious tres leches cake (three milk cake). Remember to serve up little plates for the altar.

Create meaningful ceremony. Sara says that “each year, people thank me for giving them the chance to honor their dead and celebrate their lives.” When Sara makes an “altar call,” everyone proceeds to the ofrenda, where she reads about the reverential aspects of this holiday and why it is important to pause and remember those no longer with us. She often finds appropriate “All Saints Day” prayers to use, and guests gather in a circle to sing.

Jessica’s school remembered those who died in a similar way. Each family lit a candle in memory and the group recited, “To our loved ones, here we do invite you to return home this night, to share with us once again the food you loved in life. May these tokens of our love renew and refresh you, and merry may we meet again.”

Have a crackling fire. If you have the space, a fire or bonfire is an important part of the fiesta. Sara says it helps keep the evil spirits away, and Jessica stresses the community warmth of gathering together around a fire to share stories and cider.

photo of a man on a horse in a frame on the altar. Jessica's fatherPass on stories of the dead. Jessica’s children never knew their grandfather. “To create a space and time in which to bring him alive through stories and by inviting him to be close, created a very spiritually fulfilling event for me, she says. “This is a loving celebration, not a Ouija board game or séance to spook our nervous system. It is spiritual care for both the living and the dead.”




day of the dead filmWatch this short film of a little girl mourning the death of her mother to learn the true meaning of Day of the Dead in Mexico Dia De Los Muertos by Whoo Kazoo (Used with permission from TheCGBros. Do not download or repost please.) 3 minutes





Sara Williams and Jessica Caldwell are home funeral guides and serve on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a non-profit organization that helps families remember they have the right to care for their own after death – and how to do it.


A Natural Death in Yellow Springs 6/19/16

A Natural Death

Family-led body care (home funeral/vigil) and green burial

People laying hands on a woman's body, who is holding a yellow rose.Join Home Funeral Guide Kateyanne Unullisi for a talk about caring for our own after death and green burial  – including Yellow Springs’ own green burial cemetery – on Sunday, June 19 from 1 – 3 p.m. at The Rockford Chapel.

Learn why family-led home vigils and after body care are growing in appeal to families who want hands on, personal time with their loved ones after death, cost savings, and a more natural approach. Yes – it’s legal, and you’ll be introduced to resources to learn how to care for your own loved one yourself. Plus, we’ll talk about green burial, including information on the local Glen Forest Natural Burial Cemetery.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

1:00 to 3:00 p.m.


Kateyanne Unullisi, Home Funeral Guide, Funeral Celebrant, Author


Rockford Chapel

Antioch College Campus

President Street

Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387




Kateyanne UnullisiKateyanne Unullisi is co-author of Home Funeral Ceremonies, a home funeral guide, funeral celebrant, and currently serves on the board for the National Home Funeral Alliance. She lives in Seattle, Washington.






Join us at Poppy’s Funerals in London

In the Presence of Death

How to Create DIY Funerals & Bespoke Ceremonies

People laying hands on a woman's body, who is holding a yellow rose.What is a DIY or ‘Family’ funeral? Why would this be appealing and how would that work in your family or with someone you know?

Join us for this fascinating talk about caring for your own after death.

Home Funeral Guides and Funeral Celebrants Donna Belk and Kateyanne Unullisi, both from the States, show how to weave together the practical, the emotional, and the spiritual elements when someone dies.

Funeral Director Poppy Mardall describes her simple, affordable approach and dedication to choices for funeral services in the London area.

Together, they – and you – gather to connect with one another to share ideas and ways of being and doing death and dying, including how to use ceremony to deepen the connection and meaning of the experience. There will be time for questions and discussion.

Please plan to bring your own lunch. We will have light snacks, coffee, tea, and water available.


Saturday February 20

10 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.


Poppy Mardall, Funeral Director

Kateyanne Unullisi, Home Funeral Guide, Funeral Celebrant, Author

Donna Belk, Home Funeral Guide, Celebrant, Author, Instructor


Poppy’s Funerals

The Gatehouse, Lambeth Cemetery, Blackshaw Road

London, SW17 0BY




Email: [email protected]

Call: Poppy’s Funerals @ 020 3589 4726

Donna BelkDonna Belk is co-author of Home Funeral Ceremonies, offers the Beyond Hospice online training course for home funeral and death and dying guides, and is a founding member and currently serves on the board for the National Home Funeral Alliance. She lives in Austin, Texas.



Kateyanne UnullisiKateyanne Unullisi is co-author of Home Funeral Ceremonies, a home funeral guide, funeral celebrant, and currently serves on the board for the National Home Funeral Alliance. She lives in Seattle, Washington.



Poppy MardallPoppy Mardall founded Poppy’s Funerals because she wanted to help people take creative control of their funerals. She feels strongly that everyone deserves a ‘good’ funeral. It should be a funeral that reflects the person who has died. A funeral to be proud of.





Remembering My First Home Funeral

This is a guest post by my friend and fellow National Home Funeral Alliance board member, Sara Williams. Sara speaks with a delicious North Carolina drawl and can be at my home funeral any day. What I love about this story is how nervous I knew she was, before she had ever personally helped a family attend to their dead person. So consider that this could be you – headed into your first home funeral. – Kateyanne

My First Home Funeral

by Sara Williams

I am grateful to Elizabeth for giving me permission to share this story. It is a powerful teaching gift as we remember how important home funerals and their healing rituals are—for both the living and the dead. All names have been changed by request.


Sara Williams
Home Funeral Guide
North Carolina

It seems that for the past two years, I have repeatedly told all my friends within the home funeral movement, “I’m just waiting for somebody to die!” This was because I had done the requisite training for after-death care, including a year’s worth of online coursework, as well as workshops at several national conferences and within my local Crossings Care group. I was primed and ready to take care of someone’s dearly departed.

I cannot recall the exact moment I learned about the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA), but in 2013 when they had their national conference in Raleigh (35 miles from home!!) I was so ready to be there. I immersed myself in all things NHFA. It paid off. Within a year, I was asked to be on their Board of Directors. Everything they stand for resonates deeply within me…everything they do is the way we used to do things…everything old is new again.

Penny was a gentle spirit who I had met many years ago when our daughters Heba and Elizabeth were in middle school together. She was a public health nurse and her caring and loving nature was coupled with a free and easy style which made young girls like my daughter idolize her. It was no secret that when some girls ran away from home, they wanted to take shelter with Penny.

Sadly, eighteen years later—when our daughters were now mothers in their early 30’s—her third recurrence of breast cancer had finally gotten the best of her. She came back to her childhood home to spend her last days. This would be the easy choice for her only daughter, Elizabeth, who lived close by, and for her older sister, Judy, who still lived in the home.

On the afternoon of February 24, my daughter Heba was trying desperately to reach me to ask for my advice. Elizabeth was in Raleigh with her dying mother Penny whose final wish was to be buried in a pine box in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Heba wanted to know if I could help Elizabeth with all the questions she had about cemeteries and coffins. Elizabeth was an amazing woman who did her research and her homework—and it would pay off later. During her research, she found that my name, Sara Williams, kept popping up. When she called me, she recognized my voice from long ago and hung up, in disbelief and shock, immediately phoned Heba, and asked her, “Is that YOUR MOTHER who is doing home funerals?”

After Heba confirmed that it was indeed her mother who was “the green reaper,” Elizabeth and I talked at length about what would be involved. I helped her believe she could absolutely do this herself and that although I was trained to do this as a Home Funeral Guide, I had never done one myself. Her reply was, “Well, it looks like you’re going to be doing your first home funeral soon.”

At last, I thought to myself. Here is the dead person I will be able to love and care for, and share this love and care with her daughter and the rest of her family. Thank you, Penny, for coming back into my life after all these years, to help me learn from you.

You know, mothers would be lying if they said they didn’t have favorites among their children’s friends. Elizabeth was always impressive. Elizabeth sparkled, both in her physical attributes, and her athletic prowess, but also as a brilliant young woman who was a good student, polite, and whose aura was golden.

pond and meadow at Duck Run natural cemetery in Virginia

Duck Run natural cemetery
Shenandoah Valley, VA

I coached her through the necessary and required paperwork. She had already ordered the pine coffin from an artisan who is also my friend, Don Byrne of Piedmont Pine Coffins. She had located the perfect green cemetery in Penn Laird, VA—Duck Run. This young woman was on it! Plus, when she told Heba how helpful I had been, my daughter said, “Mom, I will never make fun of you again for your ‘dead’ work.” That was no small accomplishment, believe me. My daughter, like so many people who don’t understand yet, had basically eschewed all this home funeral business. Now, suddenly, I seemed legitimate! (Thank you again, Penny!)

I had been trained. I was ready, willing and able. And I knew it would be so much better if I had support. So I contacted my friend and experienced home funeral guide, Jenny Bingham, to ask her to please work in tandem with me during this first home funeral. She agreed to do so with love and happiness that I would finally get to have this experience. I was delighted to work with Jenny. She had really been my mentor this past year, and we had been meeting regularly for lunch and discussing our work within the home funeral and green burial movements. She was so “Zen” in contrast to my hyper, type-A personality. I loved being in her presence. (Thank you, Jenny!)

Elizabeth called late Friday night, February 27, to let me know her mother had died. I had told Elizabeth earlier in the day that Jenny and I were willing to come over that night if she died before 9:00 PM. Due to really icy roads and cold, however, we were trying to avoid that. Elizabeth called right before 11:00 PM and I assured her that her mom would be fine until the morning if she cracked the window. She asked me what to do with one eye that would not shut, and her mouth which would not close. I suggested she put something on her eyelid for some weight—she had a sleeping mask which I said should be perfect—and told her how to tie a scarf around her mother’s head after first placing a small rolled towel under her chin.

I picked up Jenny the next morning at 8:00 AM—she had her kit with her. In it were things I didn’t have, like washcloths, towels, gauze, sheets. (I did manage to pack some of my essential oils like lavender and eucalyptus, and one lesson learned is that creating my own home funeral kit is now a priority). Being able to grab my kit and go will give me time to think about other more important things, show I am prepared, and lend even more credibility to my work as a home funeral guide.

Jenny and I stopped on the way at Harris-Teeter grocery store to buy dry ice. The checkout clerk rang up 26 CENTS, but I was quick to point out that it should be more like 26 DOLLARS! I was right once the supervisor rechecked the receipt! It is so good to be able to laugh during all this!

Then on to Raleigh to meet with Elizabeth, her dead mother, and whomever else might be there. Jenny asked how I was feeling. I thought about walking together up to a house I had never seen before, into a brand new situation. My friend and experienced home funeral guide asked me if I was nervous, and then talked to me about what to expect when we saw a dead body—the dead body of a woman I had known years before. I was a bit nervous, true, but I had such a strong feeling that everything I needed in that moment would manifest itself, and that with Jenny by my side, all would be well.

Elizabeth came out to meet us, sweet as ever—a young woman so full of wisdom for her years. She escorted me and Jenny in after an apology to please overlook the cluttered house. Penny was in her childhood home where her sister, Judy, now lived. Her hospital bed, provided by hospice, stood in the center of the dining room where she had been able to watch the sunrise, the roses out the window, and the winter birds flitting past.

Oh, to see Penny, tiny and pale in the high hospital bed, the morning sun on her face. After all these years to see her from her vibrant state to this final one of repose. I remembered her sweet smile, how she loved to dance, and her work with our school’s PTA. I always thought how nice it must be to be so tall and carry yourself so well! (And that’s from a tall woman!)

Elizabeth told us that when her mom died, “It was the worst relief I ever felt.” She explained how long it had taken hospice to get her pain under control, and how her mother finally took her last breath.

Handcrafted pine coffin with pine shavings  from Piedmont Pine Coffins

Handcrafted pine coffin with pine shavings
from Piedmont Pine Coffins

Penny’s daughter was proud to show me the pine coffin that she had ordered from Don and it was beautiful!! The three of us took some time to practice getting it through the doorway…this is really important. (We would later learn and see firsthand that Penny, who was really tall, looked a bit cramped when we first placed her in the coffin. But we realized with a little gentle maneuvering we could adjust her to where she looked totally comfortable).

We wondered where Judy, Penny’s sister, was. “In her bedroom, a bit spooked I think,” Elizabeth told us. Judy had not come out since Jenny and I arrived. When Nancy, a cousin, arrived to be with Judy, she too absconded to the back bedroom after looking hastily at Penny, dead on her hospital bed.

This is the last thing home funeral guides want to happen. We are here to educate the family and put them at ease with their dearly departed. Soon after, Olivia, a hospice nursing assistant arrived. She seemed a little addled at our presence, and soon told Jenny, “You’ll need to hurry with your preparations before rigor mortis sets in.” Jenny told her, “We don’t rush anything in this work.”

Elizabeth told Olivia that Jenny and I really wanted Judy and Nancy present to help with bathing and anointing and dressing Penny. Olivia simply said, “You need to COMMUNICATE! Did you invite them?” Another lesson learned! Be sure you communicate to all present and make them believe that they are critically important within this home funeral work! She went in to them herself before she left to return to work, and within 15 minutes, Judy and Nancy appeared! (Thank you, Olivia!)

We were so happy to see them, and immediately began speaking about how they could help us do all the washing and anointing. This was the strongest and most positive vibe we had that day…here was a group of women doing what they have always done, through all of time, caring for their dead. They could have remained in their room, but they didn’t. You NEED five or six people to do this work so it was a very happy moment to witness Judy and Nancy, in concert with me, Jenny and Elizabeth, as an integral part of this holy endeavor.

Before we began, to focus us and get us present in this sacred moment in time, I read a poem while we were gathered at Penny’s bedside. As we stood around the hospital bed in the dining room of Penny’s childhood home, I read it aloud.


Deep wet moss and cool blue shadows

Beneath a bending fir,

hair brushAnd the purple solitude of mountains,

When only the dark owls stir—

Oh, there will come a day, a twilight,

When I shall sink to rest

In deep wet moss and cool blue shadows

Upon a mountain’s breast,

And yield a body torn with passions,

And bruised with earthly scars,

To the cool oblivion of evening,

Of solitude and stars.

“Deep Wet Moss” by Lew Sarett


So now to work…and work they did. I will never forget older sister Judy eagerly volunteering to find us bowls to hold the hot water, extra towels and cloths, and her own VERY SPECIAL oil which evoked the scent of pine forests which she and Penny had always funeral stuffloved so much! She was so proud to share this oil, and to use it generously as Jenny and I coached her in gently washing Penny. Judy took her time combing and brushing her sister’s hair—lovingly speaking to her about memories they had shared growing up with each stroke of the brush.

Now came the time to dress Penny. Often at home funerals, clothes will need to be cut up the back in order to more easily get them on the body. Knowing how proud Elizabeth was of her recent purchase of a J. Jill linen suit for her mother, and even though we were having a little bit of difficulty getting her arms through the linen tank top, I declared straight up: “THIS IS J. JILL AND WE ARE NOT CUTTING IT!!” Everyone had a good chuckle, and we proceeded to get the top on as well as the jacket and pants!

We prepared the pine coffin with the lovely scented shavings Don had provided (I remember Elizabeth picking some up in her hands, sniffing them, and then putting them under my nose and saying, “Isn’t the scent divine?”), laying in an old bed sheet (Italian cotton! my contribution!) and covering Penny with her favorite little comforter, a gift from one of Elizabeth’s best friends. (For the abundant gifts, we thank you!)

It’s almost like magic the way you learn to roll and lay out sheets under a dead body, and how that process makes the body easy to turn and then lift. Jenny and I taught these maneuvers to Elizabeth, Judy and Nancy, gently rolling Penny on her side and spreading out the sheet lengthwise with half of it folded in accordion pleats. Then we gently rolled Penny onto her other side and pulled the pleated sheet out, extending it, to complete placing the sheet underneath the body. Each of us rolled up the sheet in our hands until the sheet was tight around Penny, with Jenny supporting Penny’s head. Jenny remained at her head while I was at Penny’s feet; Elizabeth, Judy, and Nancy were lined up along the body and on the count of three we lifted Penny down into the coffin on the floor. We knew to always keep the head higher than the rest of the body to prevent discharge of fluids. Now it was just a matter of lifting the coffin back up on the bed where Penny would remain during her vigil until Monday morning.

matelaiseWe covered the hospital bed with a white matelassé bedspread–and when we placed the coffin back up on the bed, it was really lovely. Penny loved a lint brush and kept an extensive collection with her even during her last days! There was a lot of laughter as we all used lint brushes to remove the cat hair from the bedspread!

I decided then and there my gift to Elizabeth for her gift to me of this experience would be a beautiful print called “Our Journey” by artist Gaia Orion.

She has painted the stages of our life, from infancy to old age, and finally going back to the earth. Gaia states, “Just like winter is telling us to rest and look inward every year. When one lives in tune with nature life is a cycle following the seasons. Where does it really start? When does it end? When the caterpillar ‘dies,’ it has no idea that it is initiating the birth of a beautiful butterfly.”

The Journey - art by Gaia of the circle of life

I hope this will become my signature gift to everyone for whom I have the great gift of working together during a home funeral. Being able to do this, to be there and serve as a guide for this family, was all that I had hoped it would be. One of the benefits of caring for these loved ones after death is experiencing both the finality of death and the continuity of life. Fear of death is usually fear of the unknown. When we experience something firsthand, and when we are allowed to be at home with it, then there is little that we shy away from. By participating in the end of life of a loved one, by helping with arrangements and bringing sanctity to the days after death, there is an almost universal experience that life and death are embraced without fear.

Duck Run natural cemetery

Because we had already practiced getting the coffin through the doors, and because Elizabeth had already measured and calculated how the coffin would be placed in their car for transport to Virginia, this last remaining task was in her hands. Now she was in charge; she had her husband and brother to help now, and Jenny’s and my work was done. I had advised Elizabeth on all the required paperwork and she had dutifully gotten all the documents as well as the doctor’s signature on the Death Certificate and Notification of Death forms.   She and her husband drove Penny in her J. Jill suit in her custom pine coffin from Raleigh in the back of their Subaru to Duck Run on Monday, three days later, without a hitch. They had their Burial Transit Permit in the car with the Death Certificate, and were ready to present them at any point in the 250 mile journey.   But they didn’t need to. Now Penny is at her “soul’s rest” in the beautiful, peaceful landscape of the Shenandoah Valley.

I now felt “legitimate” and could not wait to get my “Beyond Hospice” Home Funeral Guide certificate of completion shrunk and laminated! I carry it in my wallet at all times like a badge of honor.  Right beside my new business cards which Heba designed and presented to me!

certificate of completion and business card for home funeral guide Sara WilliamsAt Penny’s memorial service on Tuesday, four days after her death, it was so comforting to see all the family again. The women who loved her and hid in the bedroom, sister Judy and cousin Nancy, were so grateful for their experience and thanked me profusely. “We think it’s amazing,” Nancy said. “It occurred to us that if more Americans spent more time with their dead—at least until the next morning—they would come away with a new respect for life, and possibly a larger view of the world.”

Later, in the receiving line, Elizabeth’s husband Bob said to me, “Sara, you changed our family’s lives.” And Penny and her family changed mine. Bob’s words will be with me always, reminding me that this work we do is important, healing, and transformative for all involved. (Thanks to everyone!)

My first home funeral totally captured and reinforced the circle of life. Two years ago, I could only read about and study how home funerals promote healing and closure; how they provide a comfortable place to discuss life and death; how they allow us to express our grief and loss. Now I knew all this to be true because I had lived it! Quite simply, home funerals return death care to the traditional and natural.

Watch Sara talk about her first home funeral.


Sara Williams is too humble to say so, but I will. She is one of the best women you’ll ever want to know, dead or alive. She is a home funeral guide in Chapel Hill area, North Carolina, on the National Home Funeral Alliance board, married to the awesome Hank, grandmother to an adorable little girl, works at the university, and has a cool blog describing her quest for the perfect shroud at The Shrouding Sisters.

Luna is a Helper – a Dog who Goes to Funerals

Oh sure, she’s cute. And sweet. But here’s the thing – Luna helps me stay grounded,

Kateyanne Unullisi and her therapy dog, Luna

Kateyanne Unullisi and her therapy dog, Luna

especially when I’m wading into some deep waters.

She can literally help me stay balanced. If I put Luna in a shopping bag in one hand, she equals the groceries in the other: a gallon of milk, a pound of butter, a few oranges and a dozen eggs.

That’s only some of what 12 pounds of fancy can counterbalance.

Here we are at her first official celebration of life.  We are looking down a big room of about 75 people, and it was a comfort to me and many others that she was there. She even got a testimonial - “Dogs were always a part of our family’s life and I requested Luna be there. She was a good little tension breaker and did a wonderful job of watching the service.  I know my Dad was smiling down watching her too.”

Luna and Kateyanne officate a funeral for a dog lover.


When we go to cemeteries, she often meets with fairies, on this side and that, about this and that. She keeps these conversations to herself.

luna at a graveside


Dr. Unullisi is not only a professional in the hospital, she also sees the recovering patients as perfect, just as they are. Even if I feel nervous, she never does. It cheers up the super hardworking nurses to have her there, too.

Dr. Luna Unullisi visiting hospital


One of the ways I relax is by knitting, but knitting around a Havanese is a challenge. Their chests so broad! Their waists so slim! (and not much time to get from one to the other.) Luna helps foster my passion of knitting by being forever patient with trying it on (and taking it off, and putting it back on).

Luna's bespoke knits


She uses her counseling degree to help kids who are afraid of dogs by letting them touch her amazing tail, and keeps the grandkids on the other end of the leash when they’re out walking me.

Luna Pet Partner therapy dog


Luna is a WAY bigger football fan than I am, but I try to be a good sport about it. And this last game messed her up pretty badly. GO HAWKS!!

Luna Seahawks fan


Luna really likes to hang out with all the pretty girls, here dancing at a wedding and at home with her sister, Stella. To wind down, she gets back to her love of goose poop, rotten fish and dead slugs as soon as possible. (not shown)

Luna is pretty


She has this thing for blue dragons, saving the day, and sleeping on my special teddy bear.



My work takes me into sad places at times. The world is pretty darn scary at times. Luna keeps me feeling safer and lighter. I am grateful that we share the work we do.

Is she perfect? Hell no – that’s another blog. A really short one.


Luna with wings and butterflies


Remembering Baby Burton

Listen to my interview with Alicia and Derek two years after Burton’s death, where we discuss his birth, life, death, and having a home funeral. Below is the reflection on the first anniversary of his death.

Today is the one year anniversary of Burton’s death. Burton’s family and friends remember him keenly every day, especially as these darkening autumn days of winds and fallingDerek and Burton leaves bring back the season of his dying. And the geese gathering and calling in the sky just now, as I write this, are the song of his leaving.

I remember standing at the front door of his little green house on the top of a hill in Seattle, overlooking lake and trees. I shook because I hadn’t met him or his parents, and because I was about to hold a very ill baby who didn’t have long to live. I was about to enter the space where I would hold both sides green houseof things: the liminal house of love and loss, and the glaring world of timetables and paperwork. My little dog Luna waited in the back window of my car, and I would be glad to hold her when I returned a few hours later.

Burton lay heavy, limp and warm in my arms. His breathing rattled and tore in damaged lungs. His blue eyes flickered and rolled and he had a dozen little seizures in the few hours I was there. Toby, his black dog, stayed by him, watchful.

Alicia and Derek were calm, sad, and smart, and right then, meeting them, I want to run to the other side of the world and never look back. And there was so much sadness and grace in them, that really, how could I make any choice but to stay and listen, and learn?

alicia and burton

The beautiful carved table we sat around was covered in medicines and charts. We made a space to light a little candle, to acknowledge that we were here to talk about ceremony for removing life support and ceremony for after his death. We apologized to Burton for the things we had to say in front of him.

His parents were exhausted, physically curled inward as month after month they absorbed assault after assault to their guts and their hearts. I held the baby, listening as they tossed the story back and forth, the story of diminishing hope and expanding love.

There had been a precious few months together, where with the help of Stepping Stones, a palliative care and hospice program for children, they were able to bring Burton home.

Alicia and baby Burtondad and baby in front carrierThey could show him the life they loved, of camping in the Pacific Northwest and exploring the lakes and parks in their Seattle neighborhood. Burton even got to be the ring-bearer at the wedding of his aunties. They spent a sweet, sunny summer together, aware every moment that Burton would not get better, ever.

Now, when summer – and their hope – was gone, they sensed that there was something that could be done to sanctify Burton’s journey. “I just have a feeling,” Alicia said, “that somehow this can become beautiful.”

I asked them to tell me all the times along the way ahead that felt significant. Removing criblife support. The wait. His death. The celebration of life a week later. I suggested a few more: getting themselves ready and solid for their own journey. Preparing their close and expanded circle of friends and community. I was envisioning a map for their journey over the next weeks, one that would be filled in with way-stations and guide-posts made from ceremony and ritual, the rituals created from yet-to-be discovered meaning I would listen for, that would come from their own souls. We called it a Transition Journey.

“But there is a part that I don’t hear,” I said. “When he dies. Then what happens?”

Alicia curled into herself even tighter. “It’s the part I can’t stand thinking about. The part when I hand him over.”

“But you don’t have to hand him over, Alicia. You can keep him here, at home after he dies. You can take care of him yourself and if you want, you can be the last one to hold him and even put his body in the crematory and push the button yourselves.”

They looked at me in horror. I thought maybe they would gracefully see me to the door right then.

Alicia was not OK with it. “No! It’s not legal and also I don’t want to see him dead.”

Derek rocked Burton in the rocking chair, swaddled, against his chest.

OK, then. I asked them what plan A was for ‘when he dies.’ When he dies they call the social worker who calls the funeral home and within moments a shadowy person comes to the door and the body is handed off, as quickly as possible, probably by Derek. Alicia is under a thousand blankets in the bed at the other end of the house.

I asked if they were willing to consider a Plan B? Another way that could – I felt – bring real beauty and healing into the terribleness of everything. And they said yes.sick baby

So I described how Burton would look after he died – beautiful, and dead. He would not explode or smell or be in any way frightening – all the things people who haven’t been with the dead naturally fear.

Since there would have already been a ceremony, a witnessing, of the moment they chose to remove life support and await his death, the shock of his actual death would be softened. That decision and ceremony would be the time when they began to release him, to stop fighting for his life, and against his death. So when he did die, it would not be an emergency. (Death is never an emergency. He’s dead call someone do something remove us from the dead body! Treating death as an emergency is a way of bolting from agonizing pain, when allowing it instead – moving into the space – makes room for truth, and healing.)

It could be, in Plan B, a quiet, sacred, time out of time. Together, candles, soft light, sanctified space that was prepared to care for his body, to hold him and grieve in their own home, with all the time and quiet, privacy and care, they needed. It was legal, and I could help them.

And they said yes.

So we planned a home funeral for Burton. I sent them videos and support from the National Home Funeral Alliance (and reached out to NHFA for my own support). Alicia and Derek were so brave – looking each fear straight on and asking for help and advice. Alicia worried about what her community would think if they kept Burton home and cared for him after he died. Their young, vibrant group of friends had, like most Americans, not faced death much. I doubt any had ever heard of a family-directed home funeral or even seen a dead body. Certainly not a natural, unembalmed body. She worried but it did not stop her.

And so Alicia and Derek and Burton became teachers, modeling to their friends and harp playing for dying babyfamilies a more human, natural way of death. It was in the last days of October, when the rains begin, when the leaves fall, that the transition journey began. Derek and Alicia took responsibility of being Burton’s parents, mindful and present, through the long days of his dying, Toby dog by their side, along with grandparents and aunties. And finally, a year ago today, they sat in the quiet little house, candles and soft lights, singing together around the carved table. Late in the afternoon, as they sang ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ Burton died.

Toby whined. Alicia asked for the hundredth time if he was breathing. And Derek, holding post deathhis baby, checked for the hundredth time and this time, he said, “No.”

Here’s what they told me: then, just then, they heard a strange sound overhead. Someone went to look, and the sky was filled with geese, the biggest flock they had ever seen, honking, baying, barking, a mighty noise.

There was no emergency, and no more pain for Burton.

And for his parents and grandparents, aunties and friends, there was all the time and quiet and love inside the little green house on the hill to reckon with his death, with their sorrow, to hold him and rock him, and say goodbye.

A Prayer at Burton’s Death

Divine Presence. You have known us and loved us from the first moment of our lives.

Now you are with us here at Burton’s death.

Thank you for always being with us.

Please take and receive our baby into your presence and care for him, guide him to his Ancestors who wait to care for him. He is precious to us. Give us strength and comfort as we let go of Burton and he moves now into your hands. In faith and in love, we commit him to your care.

geese in sunset

Burton Robert Ormerod

May 24th, 2013 – November 2, 2013

Rest in Peace, Little Bear


A Day with Your Dead

A Day with Your Dead

Join us on November 1, 2014 on Whidbey Island, WA

sugar skullYour Ancestors want to help you.

In fact, they are waiting for you so they can support you in the here and now.

Join us for a day of connection – a day when the veil is thin and connection is more possible.

Together at the edge of a sacred woods, in a beautiful barn loft above healing horses, we will connect deeply to our Ancestral Guides with deep journeying, art, and ceremony.

Your Altar: Learn why and how to make an Ancestral altar

Your Ancestral Guides: Take a shamanic journey to meet your Ancestors

Your Altar Piece: Create a sacred work of art to keep connection with your Ancestors

REGISTER HERE. After you register, we’ll contact you for payment and provide more details. Space is limited, so register soon!

       Whidbey Island, WA
Saturday – November 1, 2014
9 a.m. – 6 p.m
$115.00 (includes art supplies, drinks and snacks)

Your Hosts: Denise Paulette, Shamanic Healer; Lynette Dickson, Artist; Kateyanne Unullisi, Death Worker

Lynette Dickson, Denise Paulette, Kateyanne Unullisi

For more information:
The Emerge Foundation on Facebook:




Funeral for a Child

For Phoebe 

As I was training to become a funeral celebrant, a little girl who I loved, and love, died. She was five years old and had been valiantly living with brain cancer for half of her life. Her name is Phoebe.

Why do I say ‘is’ and not ‘was?’ Because she lives on in the lives of her parents, her family, her friends and neighbors, and her community on an island in the Pacific Northwest. She does not walk among us; we carry her with us now. She is.

Young girl


Phoebe was, and is, my teacher and my friend.

August 28, 2005 is when she was born. So today is her birthday, and I think about her parents, grandparents, family and friends even more than usual on this day.

She died on March 15, 2011. Her parents kept her at home for a three day family-directed home funeral. From there, she was taken to the local cemetery, tucked on top of a hill close to her home.

It was a test for me, braving the funeral ceremony with my broken heart, in the midst of so many broken hearts. How in the world, I wondered, would the ceremony go? We were outside, and this would be the first green burial in this little cemetery.

It was led by a funeral celebrant. I wondered who could be strong enough to do it? And could I ever be someone who could stand and deliver a ceremony for a child and her family and friends without coming undone? Could I do her justice not just in the delivery, but in the structure and flow, the wording and the holding of the space?

I didn’t know the funeral celebrant. She was a family friend. A hundred people stood in clumps in front of her on a grey March day, in the open air at the edge of a pine forest. Many were Phoebe’s friends, children. It was damp and cool, the sky was low and wet. And I will never forget what the officiant said.

She said, “This is the hardest thing we will ever have to do, to bury Phoebe today. It is an impossible thing to do. And there is only one way to make it through, and that is together.”circle with feathers inside

She asked everyone to form a circle around the grave, to draw closer to one another. “Hold hands, hold on, don’t let go,” she said. “We need one another.”

It was awkward for a minute, the shuffling and the touching. I took the hand of my co-worker on my right and his teenaged son on my left. It was a terrible, horrible few moments. Everyone, I am sure, felt as though it was all they could do not to fall to their knees in anguish.

A circle is a powerful thing. We were joined in our grief, encircling the plain wooden casket and the small open grave, and the shattered parents in the center.

We could see across and around the circle. All around us in the open sky, we could feel the cool air and hear the birds in the trees. We could feel the flow of life in the hands and arms around us.

And then, a feeling went around the group as we stood in silence, witnesses to the coffin and parents and grave in the center, seeing our fellow mourners across the circle also witnessing, standing together. No one would fall, because we were holding each other up.

Phoebe's grave

Phoebe’s grave

There were many tears, as broken hearts stopped being alone and isolated, and came together to connect, to recognize and to begin to create shelter for everyone who carried Phoebe with them. It felt…it was, comforting.

I cry now, remembering.

Today I am a funeral celebrant. I have been that officiant at the grave of a child. I have called on all my training, my mentors and my helpers to help me hold the space and words and to do honor to the child and her family and friends. So far, this has always been outside in the open air, in a circle.

I put them in the middle, child and parents, and encompass them with the circle of their community. We hold hands and we look into each other’s faces. We hold each other up. And we say her or his name and agree to keep saying it. It seems like the only way to get through it.

Just the way Phoebe, my teacher and my friend, taught me.

Happy Birthday Dear Little One. We miss you.

Phoebe and her mother

Phoebe and her mother





Being Held

May all of us find the courage to ask for help today. And help us to open in kindness to those who ask, or who are unable to ask.

Perhaps the shortest and most powerful prayer in human language is help.

Father Thomas Keating

Two dolphins leaping at sunset

From August 15 entry in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening

A hardness we can’t see, cold and rigid, begins to form between us and the world, the longer we stay silent about what we need. It is not even about getting what we need, but about admitting, mostly to ourselves, that we do have needs.

Asking for help, whether we get it or not, breaks the hardness that builds in the world. Paradoxically, asking even for the things that no one can give, we are relieved and blessed for the asking. For admitting our humanness lets the soul break surface, the way a dolphin leaps for the sun.

One of the most painful barriers we can experience is the sense of isolation the modern world fosters, which can only be broken by our willingness to be held, by the quiet courage to allow our vulnerabilities to be seen. For as water fills a hole and as light fills the dark, kindness wraps around what is soft, if what is soft can be seen.

So admitting what we need, asking for help, letting our softness show – these are prayers without words that friends, strangers, wind, and time all wrap themselves around. Allowing ourselves to be held is like returning to the womb.


After Daddy Died

Chrysalis and Luna, Superheroes

Luna and Chrys have an awesome super power. They can travel between ‘the veil’ – from this side to that side. Mostly, they hang out under a weeping willow tree on that side, looking for ways to help out when there’s trouble on this side.

After their daddy died, the girls were very sad. But since he was on the other side, he didn’t know how to tell them he was OK, and watching over them all the time.Superheroes Chrys and Luna help out two sad little girls

Even though they didn’t see their daddy, Luna and Chrys helped them to remember him in all kinds of ways. And even though he was dead, and on the other side, his daughters kept him in their hearts and in their family, all the time they were growing up.

And even after that.


Art by Tatiana Gill, Super Comixen, Seattle, WA



A Modern Home Funeral vs. a Traditional Funeral Home

 Two Men, Two Funerals

When last you heard from me, I had just become a young widow, and was trying to beat my way out of the car after I learned that my husband, Nick, and his friend Scott were dead. As my friend drove me home, I remembered that I had two little girls to pick up along the way. We got home a little before six, and ran the gauntlet of reporters to the porch, into a house that held no safety anymore.

Nick and Scott in the hang glider

Someday I’ll tell you more about what that was like, but for now I’d like to get these two young men out of the county coroner’s and take a look at how they were laid to rest.

Their funerals were complete opposites. It wasn’t only that one of them went into the ground and the other up in smoke. It was that one funeral, green and at home, healed and helped, and the other didn’t.

On that hot August day, after Nick and Scott fell from the sky in a tandem hang glider, they were tucked into cool drawers at the morgue, and there they stayed until the doctor’s work was done, autopsies written, and paperwork signed. Almost two days.

Two days of the tick tock of 2,880 minutes haunting me to be with him. However I found him. But because I didn’t understand my rights, I was kept away and given every reason why I couldn’t, why they wouldn’t. It was all a big ‘no.’  messy pile of shoes

When someone dies there’s a lot of work to do, usually pretty quickly. Especially when it’s sudden, like when your husband goes to work in the morning and hits the ground before lunch. There is, as a friend said, one of the biggest parties of your life to plan, organize and hold in a really short time.

DSC00559People were coming in from across the country, needing rides from the airport. The hallway was a tangle of strange shoes (none of them Nick’s). Within hours, in this Ohio village, my kitchen counters were piled with pies and muffins, loaves of bread, coffee and peaches and slow cookers of ham.

The day he died was late in the week of two working parents. A Monday would have been better if we could have planned, because we cleaned together on Sundays. But we were not prepared for him to die, and so there was a bucket of soaking diapers by the washing machine, and a yard full of toys and weeds. I hadn’t had a haircut in months and didn’t own funeral clothes. And the girls – how do you dress a toddler for a funeral or talk a six year old out of her summertime bare feet and into patent leather Mary Jane’s to go see her dead Daddy?

I had three days to put on this funeral thing, with a house full of weeping people and a filthy car. The cat went missing but since I didn’t remember I had a cat, I wasn’t worried.

solid oak treePeople came in and made my decisions, cleaned my fridge, fed my kids. While I begged strange men to let me see Nick, friends took the girls shopping. As I crouched over the phone, holding one ear closed so I could hear the police describe what happened, someone planned a wake after the funeral service. And while I swept the front walk and half the village block for hours, his big loving family, in the worst crisis of their lives, did what families do: they turned to the solid, decent funeral home they always turned to, the one that was there when Nick’s Daddy died, and his grandparents before him.

I have a thousand regrets about this. Like so many errors we make, we would surely make them again on that day, in that place. I didn’t know any better and I couldn’t have done any better then, I suppose.

Still, I owed Nick a huge apology. It was bad enough he died, but then, I got him buried all wrong. It’s not like I didn’t know what he wanted.

tree Nick is buried under

The tree Nick is buried under in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

“Lean me against a tree and walk away,” he said.

Every time, that’s what he said. And he meant it.

He was Emerson, Thoreau and Mark Twain with some hippie mystic sprinkles on top. He was private and deep, and would no more have wanted to be up on stage for the ‘big stuffed doll show,’ lying exposed, embalmed, powdered and suited up, than dance a burlesque show in a three ring circus.

He lay under fluorescent lights in an expensive open casket, harp music playing, carnations and formaldehyde scenting the air, while every person he ever knew from home and work and school and distant cousins and friends and all their wives and husbands and children lined up, took their one minute turn at looking down at his bearded, 33 year-old face, a small smile glued to his lips, then moved on.

Really, I had no idea it would be like this. It was so bizarre. It was the two of us, who never dressed up, never had large gatherings, dancing together in a freakish public event that didn’t fit our lives any more than the tight, square-toed pumps I stood in at the foot of his coffin. Thank God I was in shock, because this profane spectacle was so wrong. Another ‘no’ in a free fall to hell.

But at least I was finally by his side. I stood under the bright lights in bizarre-to-me clothes and took each person’s hand, looked into their eyes and recounted a little memory Nick had told me about them. Mostly, I was pitifully glad to be near to his dead body, like an animal mourning by the side of its dead mate.

pink coffin upholsteryIt was 1988 in rural Ohio. The funeral costs then were over $7,000.00, one third of his reporter’s annual salary. They sold us the metal coffin and vault, the extra flowers and clergy, obit notices, limos and guest books. My six year-old picked out the pricey satin for the padded upholstery inside the casket (pink, her favorite color). The cemetery plot, a double, was my first real estate purchase.

I was a typical funeral consumer.

I didn’t know anything else was possible; still, could I have done better than this? After all, I had given birth to our babies in our bedroom at home, in the early 80’s, when it was practically impossible, nearly illegal, and the hospital industrial complex had a lock on what was allowed. Nick and I did our research and worked with midwives who knew how to birth a baby at home, and the laws and the risks too. nip5

But we never thought about what to do when one of us died. We didn’t think about the funeral industrial complex. But we should have.

Expensive, with no room for our own values, full of horrible chemicals that are not needed but pushed, a system built to step in and take over and take away choices. And make a profit from all of it, when people are sad, sad, crushed and sad. A cookie cutter approach to cover up what is real and hard and heart rending, to move people through a conveyor belt past the dead, with a minute to grieve in public. (I’d sooner have pulled my panties down and peed on the carpet in that funeral home parlor than open my heart and wail.)

I know that funeral homes and funeral directors are there at the worst times in our lives. They are standing on tradition, they are helpful, and many funeral directors do care. NOThey are working within the system we have all agreed to, or at least tolerated, for managing all the shit when death comes. And it is not working for so many folks for so many reasons. It has got to change.

They know to wait behind quiet, heavy doors to receive our fear, our dread, our confusion, our dead. So, when we walk through those oiled doors and sit at the big table to pick out coffins and liners, officiants and interment options, looking for someone to take it all away and pull a dense, soft curtain around what is really happening, we give away our organic ability to create something real and even beautiful out of the inescapable brutality of death. We buy into more of the big ‘no,’ and we pay dearly.

It was all wrong, when it could have been all right, even transformative, even beautiful.

Remember Scott? He’s the one who flew the hang glider and eventually, the one who went up in smoke in the crematorium. His family had many Quaker friends, and it was probably those quiet rabble rousers with personal relationships to Spirit who knew how to attend to a death in a more simple, humane and real way.

hearsesWhen the coroner released them, Nick went one way with a funeral director in a hearse. Scott went another in the back of a Volkswagon bus with his partner and a few other friends. He lay wrapped in a cherished blanket inside of a simple pine casket built by local craftsmen, for $100. Or maybe it was free. Whatever it was, it was beautiful and real and smelled like fresh cut pine. Knowing those folks driving the bus, they probably popped his favorite tape in and sang ‘Let it Be’ on the ride home.

pine coffinHis body lay in their home for a home vigil, while they ceremonially tended to him, cleaned and anointed his body, and sang. They held his hands, touched his face, cried, hugged and even laughed, and because this was a home funeral, they were able to take all the time and space they needed to adapt to his death. His partner told me she spent a lot of time with him alone, in the silence of the night, talking to him and crying, praying and being together.

The room was filled with rose petals and rose water and rosemary, things from their own garden outside the door. There were children and elders coming and going. My cat was probably over there too, because their place, unlike mine, was quiet and peaceful.

veg gardenWhen they were complete in their ministrations of Scott and one another, they drove him to the crematorium and carried the pine box into the building together. I wasn’t there, but it could have been that some of them helped to slide it into the retort. They prayed together while he was cremated. Then they came back and had a ceremony outside on the lawn of Antioch College, a large circle of folks holding hands, of whom I was one. We released balloons (before we knew better) into a light in garden It all felt right, like the relief of a ‘yes’ inside too many ‘noes.’

What happened after Nick and Scott died – in two houses across a quiet village street from one another – mattered. I didn’t have the information or the support around me to find a way to have a funeral for Nick that was aligned with his, with our, beliefs. So I gave myself up to the traditional approach to funerals, where there is very little room for what is unique, something that fit our family and our values. And I paid for it.

What I now know is that a family given choices to keep it real and in alignment with what their views are matters more than anything. For those who want a traditional style funeral, it’s all set up for them, by default. For everyone else, know that there are options for a family-directed home funeral, or funeral homes who will work with you to do what is right for you.

When everything is no, helping the grievers find as many yesses as possible can support and hold them in ways that can help transform a public, brutal situation into something safer, softer and more healing.

KH Victory Tour 120



How to Become a Young Widow

The story of my husband’s death is something people ask about a lot. I can’t tell it all of one blog, so we’ll take it in bits. Here, the story of how life turns course in a few hours.

First, in order to be a young widow, you have to be a woman and not of an age people think is OK for your husband to die – let’s say 65…or in my case, 31.

Family with two children

So it’s a typical weekday morning when you’re a 31 year-old woman with two little girls and your husband goes to work and so do you, each one with a kid on their hip.

Let’s say the night before the day you became a young widow you made a chicken casserole and put it in the fridge ready to pop in the oven because you knew when you all got back late that afternoon the kids would be melting down. Everyone would have their shoes and clothes off practically by the time they got in the door. A typical night.

He heads north to his newspaper job, singing made-up songs to the 20 month-old in the car seat in the back of the old, unairconditioned car. He’ll drop her at the baby sitter’s. Meantime, you head south to the city literacy council, dropping the six year-old off at a friend’s on the way.

Him: on an adventure to write a feature story about tandem hang gliding, featuring himself and his friend, the pilot. You: uneasy all day. A hot August day in Ohio, in the basement of a city church, distracted.

The glider crashes about noon. You: time is oddly slow and breathing is difficult. You can’t see clearly. Probably the 100+ heat. Him: dead.


Headline on death of Nick Adams


Your dead husband and the dead pilot are given cool dark beds at the coroner’s while you interview some volunteers in the rugged afternoon heat. About 4 p.m. a few creepy guys come into the church and you mistrust them right off – bad suits, sneaky eyes. They pin you in a tiny office and force you to listen to something unbelievable and wrong and cruel.

This is not to be believed or endured.

They keep saying it until you double over gasping and then they start praying. Your co-worker, a tall black man, stands like safety across the room in a shower of rainbows coming through the stained glass windows. He holds his arms open and you run into them.

What can I do, he asks. You can’t stop the spasms of shaking and also, you can’t breathe. Your life has collapsed into the work of drawing breath.

stained glass reflecting on wall

I need a drink, you say. Everyone reaches for money to buy a soda from the machine in the hall. Coins spin into the air; time is strange and they seem to pause in the blue yellow red green light. Their tinkling as they hit the floor makes you jump. The man in the light is holding you up, holding the can to your mouth, helping you drink.

The men in the crappy brown suits walk you to your car in the city rush hour, hot streets, and there is an interesting moment when you hit one in the face, a right hook which puts him on his knees on the sidewalk.

You cannot remember your name or where you live. You are pretty sure you have children but not how many or where they are. They put you in your car with a friend, who is driving you back to your chicken casserole, to a life that no longer makes sense. You are dead calm, then a wild cat beating the windows to be let out of the car, then calm. You are sorry, you say.

And that is how you, or in my case, I, became a young widow.


newspaper clipping about death of Nick Adams







Toy Store Story: A Good Day to Die

My granddaughter, my little dog Luna, and I were in the toy store yesterday, shopping for a birthday present. Minding our own business.

Little girl and little dog

Another grandmother was also there with her two grandchildren, who wanted to pet Luna. My granddaughter, who is three, was encouraging them to touch her long tail.

Other Grandmother (OG): Thank you for helping them learn to pet your dog. We always had dogs but right now we don’t, and the kids really need the exposure.

Me: Luna is a good one for that.

OG: She’s adorable.

Me: Yes, thank you. Will you get another dog soon?

OG: <distressed> We lost our dog five years ago.

Me: I’m sorry. That’s so hard.

OG: She was The Dog. You know?

Me: <thinking of Aiko> Yes. I know.

OG: The Dog of a Lifetime.

We stand by the princess crowns and unicorns, looking at one another. Our Spirit Dogs sniff each others’ spirit butts around our feet.

OG: <brightens> But it was all OK in the end. Do you know we knew exactly what day we would have her put down?

Me: Oh?

OG: Yes. It was the anniversary of our son’s death.

Me: Oh.

OG: <smiling> So you see? He got his dog back! I can see it; I did see it! She ran into his arms and he wasn’t alone anymore, over there. They were – they are – together.

Me: <silent> …nods.

OG: So…that’s why it’s hard to get another dog. But I’m giving it some thought.

The kids lose interest in Luna, and our Spirit Dogs wander off.


OG: Well, we need to get going. Thanks for letting us pet your puppy!


Luna Unullisi, Not Just any Dog

Wherever I drive, Luna sits in the back window of ‘Thunderbolt,’ my trusty old Toyota. She keeps an eye on me in the rearview mirror, blinking slowly into my eyes when I glance at her. (Her: ‘I’m good, how about you?’ Me: ‘I’m good, too. Thank you Luna.’)

Luna Unullisi, therapy dog

She’s a service dog – which Luna says means that I’m here to serve her. This works out for both of us, because I love to find ways to make her little teeth show, all the top ones and all the bottom ones, in one fine, goofy Luna-grin.

What makes Luna smile: dancing on her hind legs, front paws waving. Learning new things. A run on the beach followed by good eats. Me.

She was a therapy dog before she got her official ‘Dr. Luna’ badge from Pet Partners, keeping me laughing when times got rough and sitting close when I needed comfort.

Luna Unullisi, therapy dog

Luna at the dog park on Whidbey Island

When we visit a hospital Luna is serious and effective, like any professional. She is not troubled by smells, beeps and tennis balls on the legs of walkers going by. She is alert to the ailing. I watch her give them her slow blink (‘I’m good. Are you OK?’) and then slide her eyes to me, letting me know we’re in this together, this cheering up business.

Things to know about Luna: she’s a Gemini, almost three, and from Cuba. Well, not really from Cuba, even though she says she’s an Island Girl and a little Chiquita (and has the attitude to prove it). She’s a Havanese, and a damn great one – like a bottle of champagne, bubbly, light and intoxicating. She is at her best reeking of dead fish, sand stuck in her girly parts, with burrs and brambles tangled in her tail.

Luna Unullisi, therapy dog

In a house where someone has died, she is quieter than usual. Respectful. She lies against my ankle while I listen and write notes. She agrees to help by letting the Sad Ones stroke her soft fur. (Hair, she says. Not fur.) She’s pretty good with sorrow, accepting and trusting that everyone is just where they need to be.

She’s not perfect. (Luna says that goes both ways.) She is who she is: Luna Unullisi, gymnast, grief counselor, jokester, Thunderbolt navigator, biologist. Dancer, prancer, dirty dog, ‘I’m OK – how about you?’ dog.

She’s here now, telling me to get up and stretch my legs. ‘Best to do that outside, get some air,’ she says. ‘I’ll come along and make sure everything goes OK.’

That Luna. She’s a helper.

Luna Unullisi, therapy dog

Remember the Grievers, Save the World

Ten Reasons to Keep Reaching Out

Every time someone dies, there’s almost always others who become mourners.

They are the Grievers.

You probably let them know you cared in the beginning. That’s what we do when a member of our group dies.

But after that first month or so, you stopped. You moved on. And you probably assumed that the Grievers moved on or at least have others around to support them.

Why is it that we turn away from or stop attending to the Grievers?

Do we think being in mourning is contagious, like we might catch it? Actually, we probably will someday. Someone we love will die, and we’ll be the one who is sad, overwhelmed, and turning slow circles in the produce department at the grocery. So it makes sense to want to avoid it.

But there’s lots of reasons to reach out to the Grievers over the first year or two, not just in the first few weeks. We know they will be helped by it – but there’s lots in it for us, too.

Why Should We Keep Reaching Out?

OK…but How, Specifically?

Because they need us more now than they did at first. We felt compassion at first, so keep feeling it and acting on it.

Put a reminder on the calendar to connect 1x per month. Send a text or a card letting them know you still are thinking of their loved one – and use their loved one’s name out loud.

Compassion is good. It makes us healthier in our lives and wealthier in love.

Show up and ask “How is today for you?” Then hit the mute button on your mouth and be ready to really listen. Also, keep an eye on your heart because it’s going to swell twice its normal size.

Connection matters almost more than anything, and it’s good for us too. Community and tribe don’t happen by accident, or on Facebook alone.

Take the time for a walk together, or a coffee. Remember your mute button.

What goes around comes around. When we are the Griever someday (a long time from now), the Universe will remember and send extra help.

On the three or six or whatever month anniversary, take a dish over and leave it with a note that you are thinking of Sam-Mary-Josephine. Tell the Grievers to keep the dish (don’t add to their work by asking them to remember to return things). Far away version: a card, an email, a phone call, flowers.

Discrimination is not OK. And yes, we do discriminate against Grievers.

They are not broken; they are sad. They are not weird; they are sad. It’s OK to be sad and it’s not OK to judge or treat them like they are diseased or crazy or inept. They are sad. So show some respect by showing up in any way you can.

It burns off bad karma. Yes! It is possible to evolve from earthworm to squirrel in just a few extra phone calls.

Love is a verb. Go over and mow their lawn or weed a garden bed. Far away? Call a local gardener and have them do it, just once.

Deep listening means we get to learn new things about our own lives.

You really will be in their shoes someday (sorry). Listen and learn what it’s like, because the Griever is also showing a way through a really difficult journey. (See respect, above.)

Love. Giving love feels effing fantastic.

Send a text: I am thinking of you and Sam-Mary-Josephine. I wanted you to know that I love you.

We will become better human beings.

Try saying what you are most afraid of, out loud, to your Griever. Maybe it’s “I’m afraid to bring up Sam-Mary-Josephine’s name because I don’t want to bring you down.’ Chances are they will say, “I’m always down. Hearing her name is a relief.”

And every better human being means a better family, community, town, and eventually, world.

Let them know that their journey is informing your own, and they are helping you and everyone grow closer and kinder.

See how this works? Action leads to listening that grows compassion which burns off bad karma and helps us grow and be better at Being Human, which strengthens our connections and spreads outward like a ripple until all the world is better.

Yep. Remembering the Grievers will save the world.

Would you share the ways you let the Grievers in your life know, even long after the death, that you still care?


The What of What I Do

I am a Paraclete. There. I said it.

When folks ask me what it is I do, it’s tough to answer. It’s not easy to understand in a word or two, like ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘priest.’ So I’ve been on the hunt for a word that sums it up.

I serve the living and dying and death and the funeral or memorial, and after that too.

I help people cross a bridge that has always been pretty darn scary, when someone is dying or dies. I call it the Death Bridge. But these days, many no longer use the traditional maps of established routes (church, ministers or priests, etc.) – so where do those people go for a sense of direction on how to make this transition? I can help.

I am a Death Paraclete. It’s an ancient Greek word meaning ‘called in to help.’


Learn More “The What of What I Do” »