BY KATE POSS
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
April 19, 2017
Hardly anyone likes thinking or talking about death, yet planning our final act can be a gift we give our loved ones. Lucinda Herring, an ordained minister, licensed funeral director, and after-death care consultant helps people reclaim their right to care for their own deceased loved ones. She creates funeral rituals that can provide greater closure and healing for the person who has died and for the families and communities left behind.
Sitting in Herring’s cozy cottage, with the afternoon sun shining behind her, we sip tea and our talk turns toward how removed from death we are in our Western culture; how the habit of having “someone else” care for our dead has become the norm, so we often don’t know what to do or how to be when our loved one passes on.
“We give the power to the funeral industry and don’t know of the alternatives,” Herring says. “There is a huge cost — financially, spiritually, and emotionally — when we give that sacred task over to strangers. My work has shown me how healing and helpful it can be for families to remain connected to their loved one during the dying and after-death process. As a culture, we’re no longer in direct relationship with the dead. Hospice helps. Yet there’s an important gap time between dying and disposition of the body that we’ve forgotten today.”
This gap time, as practiced in other cultures and available in ours, Herring says, is a sacred time, just like birth is.
“In some spiritual traditions, the sense of being with the body for three days is important,” Herring says. Such traditions, which include esoteric Christianity and Buddhism, hold that it can take up to three days for the etheric or life forces and the soul and spirit to fully leave the physical body. In this view, the process of death is more fluid, and isn’t considered complete at the time of the last breath, as modern medical science believes.”
It is important to know that loved ones can legally spend time in vigil for up to three days, Herring says. She has helped families make arrangements to be with the one who has passed, without the unwanted interruption of the body being taken away shortly after death. This way, a person who has died has more time to depart, survivors have time to adjust to the passing, and loved ones can prepare the departed for cremation or burial.
“The time immediately after a death is a precious opportunity,” Herring explains. “An intimate relationship exists between the person and his/her body for a time after death. It can be profoundly helpful for the deceased to lie in state in a peaceful and supportive environment for this time out of time. Family and friends can keep watch and accompany the deceased for this vigil time, saying prayers, reading to them, singing or making music. The presence and support of loved ones is of immense help and comfort to the departing soul.”
One of Herring’s earliest vigils involved holding sacred space for a husband and father who died eight years ago. At that time, men in his community built a simple pine box. In his home, before a window that looked out into his wooded yard, the man was placed on dry ice and surrounded by greens that were picked from the forest and gardens around his home. His children’s school friends painted flowers, butterflies, and angels on the lid of his box. His face was serene as family and friends visited him, telling him how much he meant to them. His favorite music was played, and the guests danced with abandon.
Herring directed the event with sensitivity. Family members placed the lid on the box while a friend played a Native American flute, and then the guests walked out in procession. The man’s friends carried the box into a waiting station wagon and took him to be cremated. It was a beautiful, sacred event, which I attended and remains clear in my memory.
Langley resident Janice O’Mahony recently attended a vigil and funeral for a friend, directed by Herring.
“It was so human and so intimate,” O’Mahony recalls. “It was my first experience with something like this, and it was a wonderful experience.”
Jeanne Lepisto and her family held a three-day home funeral vigil for her father after he died. “There was no pressure concerning the timing of others,” she says. “There was freedom to be uniquely ourselves and express grief, caring, and love as needed in the moment. Time for the family members to have alone time with Dad to say goodbye. Time for memories to come and be explored with other family members. Time to cry together. Time to get real with death and to take back responsibilities we have given away because we might think it will be less painful if we let someone else do death for us. Experiencing the reality, death is part of life.”
Lepisto adds, “I love you, Dad, and celebrating you in this way has brought great healing to our relationship.”
As an alternative, Herring helps families and communities have both home funeral vigils and green burials. Green burial means the simple, natural burial of a body that has not been embalmed in a container that is biodegradable — either cardboard, untreated wood, or simply a shroud. There are no concrete vaults and no caskets of steel, metal, or endangered species of wood. Compost and biomass are placed in the grave with the body to accelerate the natural decomposition process. People who choose green burial do so because they want their bodies to be “recycled,” so they serve as a source of nourishment to the earth when they die.
Home funeral vigils and green burial go hand-in-hand, Herring says. They allow families to actively engage in caring for their loved one — both right after death and during the disposition. Also, in green burial, it often takes a few days to complete the necessary paperwork before a person can be buried. Having a person simply remain at home during this process, rather than being transported to a funeral home and then transported again to the cemetery makes a lot of sense. Families can transport a loved one from the home to the cemetery themselves, in ways that are more natural, creative, and healing for all.
“There is no one way to do this. I meet with families and get a sense of who they are and their dynamics,” Herring says of her custom approach to compassionately working with families. “If possible, I ask the dying what their wishes are. I listen deeply to what they want. Some of the gifts that result from my work are that people can be themselves and grieve easily. Being more present with the dead can bring comfort and solace and a greater acceptance. As someone who does ceremony naturally, I can gently suggest bringing nature to the experience. Death is fierce no matter what. I want to bring in the healing life forces and softness of nature, flowers, mementos of a person’s life. In my mind, to “green a death” is to bring these elements of art, beauty and creativity, creating circles of wholeness rather than separation.”
Herring is passionate about helping others get their after-death care plans in place, especially if they want alternative options such as home funerals and green burial. She helped form and is a member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, which supports educating people about home funerals and the legal rights involved.
“In many ways, I would say life has chosen me for death work rather than the other way around,” says Herring. “Perhaps it’s because I’m not afraid of standing at the threshold or edge of the unknown with others. Perhaps it’s because I see death as a natural and even beautiful part of life, no matter what the circumstances. I’m committed to helping others change the heavy thought forms of avoidance, denial, and fear we all carry about death today. I’m also committed to finding more ecological and sustainable after-death practices that care for the earth while caring for others. The home funeral and green burial work is doing much to transform our relationship to death. It’s this possibility of transformation and healing that keeps me saying ‘yes’ to this work.”
Kate Poss worked as a library assistant at the Langley Library until last June, when she retired. She worked for three summers as a chef aboard a small Alaskan tour boat from 2008 to 2010. Kate was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles for many years before moving to Whidbey Island, where she likes cooking for new and old friends, hiking, reading great fiction, and writing her second novel with her friend Fred Bixby.
David Welton is a retired physician who has been a staff photographer for Whidbey Life Magazine since its early days. His work has also appeared in museums, art galleries, newspapers, regional and national magazines, books, non-profit publicity, and the back of the Whidbey Sea-Tac shuttle!
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