The Current

How 'death doulas' and home funerals are changing the way we grieve

Mortician Caitlin Doughty travelled the world and saw how different cultures handled death — from keeping mummified bodies in the home to big public funeral pyres. She thinks North Americans are missing out by not taking a more hands-on approach.
In the final days of Bill Kerr's life, his family stayed with him at home. They sang, told stories, and never left him alone. (Julie Kerr)

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Readers are warned that this article contains some graphic images that some people may find upsetting.

Sarah Kerr was with her father Bill when he died last April at a Nelson, B.C., nursing home.

For three days following his death, she and her family remained with him. They bathed him, built a casket and told stories about Bill with his body still in the room.

Kerr works in Calgary as a 'death doula' — helping people navigate the dying process — both before and after a person's last breath.

She advocates for a more hands-on approach in caring for a loved one after death, describing her experience with her father as a beautiful one.

"We never left him alone," she says. "Over three days, there was always someone in the room with him. And that felt important. It felt like there was some way we were holding the space for him to get wherever he needed to go next."

After three days, the family took Bill's body in their own minivan to a funeral director for cremation.

"It was really important for us to be so hands-on with my dad's body because he's ours," says Kerr.

Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and funeral home owner in Los Angeles, would like to see more North Americans follow Kerr's example.

By letting a funeral home make the arrangements, we miss out on the physical rituals around death, she says.

"You don't have anything physical or meaningful to do when someone dies," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "That's why it's so beautiful to have a home funeral because you can wash the body, hold their hand, put on their favourite sweater."

In her book, 'From Here to Eternity,' Caitlin Doughty encourages everyone to let loved ones know what their wishes are after death. (Mara Zehler)

"And it's my belief that that helps you — you don't get over your grief, but it moves you along in the process of accepting that you're in grief.

How death is handled elsewhere 

Doughty travelled the world looking at the way different cultures deal with their dead for her book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.

She visited Tana Toraja, a remote region of Indonesia, where bodies are often kept in the home for months or years. The bodies are clothed, cleaned and spoken to as if a living member of the family.

In Tana Toraja, Indonesia, Caitlin Doughty met families who keep the mummified bodies of loved ones with them for years. (Caitlin Doughty )

She visited Japan, where after a cremation, families use chopsticks to pick the bones out of the ashes and place them in an urn.

At a public funeral pyre in Colorado — the only such facility in the West — she saw bodies burned under the open sky, in view of everyone at the ceremony.

Though she doesn't expect everyone to feel comfortable remaining with a loved one's body after their death, Doughty says North Americans can learn a lot from cultures that openly address it.

"You have this space to think about the fact that this person, this physical person in front of you, is not alive anymore, and accept that."

A hi-tech columbarium in Tokyo. Ashes are stored in thousands of crystal Buddhas that line the walls. When a family visits, they type in the name of their loved one on a keypad, and the Buddha containing the remains glows a different colour. (Caitlin Doughty )

She points out that home funerals were the norm in North America in the past. But funerals have now become big business.

"We have great funeral directors working in a system that is not set up for the family to have a really intimate, beautiful experience."

Funeral homes offer support

Yves Berthiaume, president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada, brought his mother's body home after she died a year and a half ago. The family sat down for a final dinner together before returning her to the funeral home. Not a lot of families ask for this option, he says.

But he maintains there are benefits to using a funeral home.

"It's a troubled time. You need people at that time to guide you," he says.

Caitlin Doughty visited Mexico to observe Day of the Dead rituals, where families gather to pray for deceased loved ones and support them on their spiritual journey. (Caitlin Doughty )

Doughty says it is good to know that the funeral industry is willing to work with families who may want to keep a loved one's body at home. But encourages people to insist on their right to participate as they wish if individual funeral homes are not accommodating or refuse. 

She also encourages everyone to let loved ones know what their wishes are after death.

For her own funeral, Doughty wants a natural burial — one without embalming or a casket.

But she has a dream of something else, which she hopes might be available in the U.S. someday.

"I would love to be laid out to be eaten by animals," she says. "I've eaten animals throughout my life and they should have their turn with me."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.