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What I did with my parents’ bodies

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want to share our experience of handling my parent’s end of life process as this may help others.

My mother died in August, 2014. My father died last May. In both cases my children and I cared for them at home as neither wanted to be anywhere else. This was not easy as there always needed to be one of us at home with them, but we managed with a lot of family teamwork and the wonderful support of Home Care and Hospice of the Valley and the Veterans’ Administration in the case of my father. In both deaths we obtained their death and burial certificates and buried them ourselves.

The day before my mother died I bought two adjacent burial plots in the Evergreen Cemetery on Eighth Street from the Carbondale town clerk. I learned the town needed two days’ notice to dig a grave. My mother died in early morning and our hospice nurse called a local mortuary where there was an assistant coroner to come and sign the death certificate, explaining that we would not be using the mortuary services.

He very graciously signed the death certificate and told us that we needed to take it to the Garfield County clerk to register it and get the burial certificate which the town needed in order to dig the grave. The information you need for a death certificate is simple: name of deceased, name of their parents, birth date and where the person was born along with time and place of death.

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My daughters and I bathed my mother, dressed her and anointed her with lavender oil with our wonderful nurse and home assistant to help us. My brother-in-law had just taken apart his children’s tree house in Cape Cod that my mother had often used to do her morning yoga when she visited them each summer, and he cut up those boards for the coffin and wrapped the bundle of boards with tape. My sister checked the bundle as her baggage when she flew out later that day to join us.

When the boards arrived our family nailed together the coffin. We picked flowers from our garden. Aaron Taylor from the Way of Compassion Bike Project (at that time called Carbondale Bike Project) brought over his bike trailer and we loaded the coffin onto the trailer. The rest of us got on our bikes including five young great grandchildren, and a friend went ahead of us to stop traffic as our funeral procession made its way across town to the cemetery where we had my parents’ friends waiting and my father safely seated.

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I coordinated the ceremony and my sister and all the grandchildren present spoke and friends also as we thanked God for my mother’s long and loving life.

My mother, though not Catholic, had attended services at St. Benedict’s monastery for years but we had no local minister to call on and it felt right for us to do this burial on our own with a song sung by Olivia Pevec, granddaughter, and poems and prayers by us all. Olivia designed the grave stone and it is there awaiting its engraving of my father’s name this spring.

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Why did we do this ourselves? My father was a lawyer who had a good friend die in his early forties from a heart attack. He handled this friend’s estate for the family and was appalled at the way the funeral industry took advantage of the widow to persuade her to spend money she could not afford on the funeral. I remembered this clearly and really had no desire to have anyone involved in this intimate last rite but our family members and friends. It all flowed beautifully. We felt very united in our caring for my mother as she moved from this life to the next.

My father had signed a living will to donate his body to medicine but then told us he wanted to be buried next to my mother. My father had dementia in the last years’ of his life and my sister and I decided to donate his brain to medical research, thus fulfilling both his wishes. The Alzheimers’ website had a list of research centers across the US. I called Boston University as they were accepting the brains of veterans. Usually they send out a doctor to “harvest” the brain but there was no operating room available nearby so the university contracted with a funeral home in Glenwood to pick up my father’s body and return it to us at the graveside for burial. The university paid for this service.

My father’s death was quiet and peaceful at home in the early evening as he slept. Our hospice nurse was out of town so I did not phone the on-call nurse till the next morning.

This time getting the death and burial certificates proved more difficult than the first. The man who picked up my father’s body offered to get the burial certificate for me for $700. Since our family members were the only ones who knew my father’s vital statistics I balked at this price. I drove to the county clerk’s office and discovered that I had to have either a coroner or doctor’s signature to get a burial certificate, something I had forgotten. 

The hospice doctor was off duty so I called my father’s life-long physician who fortunately I knew well, drove back to his house with the necessary form, got his signature, returned to the county clerk’s office and got the necessary paperwork in time for the funeral home to return the body to the graveside that afternoon. The Garfield County coroner told me that the coroner’s office will store a body in refrigeration if someone needs that done. I would certainly check ahead of time with the coroner if that service is needed.

Again, family and friends gathered at the gravesite to bury my father. We buried him in a shroud my daughter made for him and each person there dropped a flower on him with a blessing.

We sang and we told stories and celebrated his wonderful life that made possible all our lives. Old friends from more than fifty years ago as well as younger friends came to help us in this sacred process.

Carbondale Public Works personnel were very to helpful us, waited respectfully at a distance while we buried my parents and covered their graves when we left. Thank you to them and Maria in the county clerk’s office who helped me with the paperwork and to our town clerk. Our way of dealing with death may not be the norm now but certainly was in the past, and we are grateful it is still possible.

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