That Precious Time: Present With the Dead Body

Order member and home funeral midwife Cassandra Yonder shares the story of the death that revealed her calling.

Jeremy's Horse

One morning, my partner Kurt looked into our field and saw a black horse that wasn’t there.  The horse looked just like our neighbor Jeremy Frith’s horse, and turned out to be a harbinger of his impending death.

A week earlier, Jeremy had been admitted to the emergency department due to concerns about his heart, but after EKG and blood pressure analysis his mind was put at ease.  He was told that with a little bed rest he’d be just fine.

Tuesday morning I was outside shoveling around the hay trailer. Cheryl stopped in to tell us that she had just seen a number of emergency response vehicles at the Frith’s Mountain Meadow Farm.  Just then Kurt came out of the house saying that another neighbour had called to share the sad news that indeed Jeremy had died.  We fumbled to collect what we needed to go up the road.

People were gathered in the driveway in shock.  I went into the house, suspecting that Jeremy’s body had already been removed by the first responders, who must have tried to rush him to the hospital.  My intention was to offer support to his wife Sue.

To my surprise, there on their bedroom floor lay Jeremy – his head cradled in Sue’s lap.  He was still warm, only recently pronounced dead.  He looked wonderful (if slightly pale). There was nothing grotesque about his appearance at all.  In fact my thought at that moment was, “how can someone who looks so strong and healthy be dead?”  My impulse was to go closer to touch him.

Home Funeral

Jeremy & Sue

Medical personnel were still around and since the death was unexpected, the police were conducting an investigation.  It was difficult to witness Sue’s experience, but I refused to comply with those who conspired to “protect her” by insisting that she come downstairs to the living room for tea.  Instead I chose to hold space for what was naturally unfolding.

Sue’s world was turned upside down, and she fretted about what would become of the farm, their animals, their gardens and herself.  I sat down with her and Jeremy both, and said that all she had to think about right now was that this was the last chance she’d ever have to be with Jeremy’s body. When Sue was given permission to spend that time in any way that felt right for her, she opened to the experience so fully, and with such love, that being in their presence was an honour that I will never forget.

The local minister and I nodded at one another as we watched Sue communicate with Jeremy rather than about him.  As a grief counselor, I recognized the important grief work that was being done.  She looked into his face and imagined his answers to questions. “Do you know how much I love you?” She was holding his body as she made the difficult phone calls to tell his sons about their dad’s death.

JeremyHours passed. Sue did everything a person could with that precious time.  She agreed with the medical examiner that Jeremy must have an autopsy to try to attain some answers about his unexpected death, and by the time his remains were removed she felt his spirit was no longer embodied.  One of the women who came to take Jeremy away was excited by the closeness of the dogs Kipper and Lucy who were cuddled at his side. She said that she had not seen animals that close in many years.

FarmSue articulated that what she thought Jeremy would want- a burial at home, without embalming and without hiring professional services for anything that could be done by friends and family.  It seemed like such a simple request and a perfectly natural response to the death of a farmer and poet and community activist.

That is how I came to embark upon a crash course in home funerals and burial here in Victoria County, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  I can’t really recount all that was done, but I do remember that it was the DOING that felt therapeutic.  I was compelled to assign anyone who said, “..if there is anything I can do,” a concrete task.  That was effective and really got everyone working together in a way that would have made Jeremy proud.  As a community, we made meaning of his death by cooperating to offer community centred, home based deathcare.

Friday morning Jeremy’s sons met in Halifax and went to the medical examiner’s office as well as the office of vital statistics to obtain a death certificate. Friends had been sent the night before with a van to pick up Jeremy from the morgue and placed him in a coffin that had been made on Thursday by other friends in Jeremy’s own wood shop.  There was a palpable sense of excitement and adventure about the whole thing which was enhanced when the medical examiner told me that her understanding of her job was affected by the fact that in her career no one had ever come to retrieve the body of someone they knew!

It was winter, and Jeremy’s coffin was placed upon two sawhorses on the farmhouse porch overnight while the community gathered for a party that might also be called a wake or a home vigil.  We sang and read aloud from his collection of Uniquely Bermudian poetry.

We didn’t open the coffin because the medical examiner made us promise we wouldn’t in case we might have been traumatized by the appearance of Jeremy’s body following autopsy.  That was OK.  No one said they wanted to see him, but since then we have wished that we had removed his remains from the plastic body bag from the morgue so that his home burial was greener.  If only I had known then what I know now about the rights of a family to care for their own.

JeremyOn Saturday morning our good ‘ol farm truck acted as a hearse and we all gathered at the community church at North River Bridge for a service. Sue had started a book at the wake in which she invited people to share thoughts and memories about Jeremy.  At the service she read what my 8 year old daughter Naomi had written; “I thought about Jeremy at school today because we had our Christmas turkey dinner – and the carrots were terrible.

Jeremy worked his whole life so that a little girl like her would understand the difference between a fresh, locally grown, organic carrot and a “commercialized” one.  Indeed, Jeremy has fed us well.

I’ll never forget the view as the coffin left the church and the white doors opened to reveal a beautiful snowstorm which was so severe that we commented; “as this story is retold over the years, surely no one will believe us!”  It was nuts.  Sue was lying on top of the coffin in the back of the truck for the last of many thousand drives up the Meadow Road with her husband. We couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us.  The van which had been used to pick up Jeremy’s remains in Halifax slid off the road near the bottom of our horse field; ironically, right where Kurt had “seen” Jeremy’s horse 2 weeks earlier. There was congestion and even a collision- unheard of on this very remote, rural road.

Snow FuneralThe plan was to have a home burial upon arrival, but Jeremy’s interment was postponed while everyone took shelter in the house to recuperate, and the tractor had just broken down in the process of clearing the road to get access to the grave which Sue had picked for its beautiful view of the surrounding landscape.

When the weather subsided a little we proceeded to graveside.  The coffin was lowered and everyone gathered, singing and shoveling dirt into Jeremy’s grave with one of the many shovels we had found around the farm.  We all took turns.  During this process a patch of clear blue sky opened up.  A bottle of whiskey was passed around and someone poured some on the ground in which Jeremy’s body now lies, near his deceased horse, also named Whiskey.  Sue now tends vegetables there in addition to flowers and an Oak tree.

Jeremy FrithI’m sad and angry about the death of a good friend. As I remember him I recall that there was a vitality to Jeremy that might have occasionally been misconstrued as arrogance, but to my way of thinking an arrogant man is closed off to change; whereas Jeremy was always wide open.  I believe that he would have been open to the changes taking place in the funeral industry, and I know he would be pleased to be the one to set an example of how enriching a home funeral can be in this day and age in rural Cape Breton.

How could I have known that his death would impact my life so!  As I reflected on the events described above the only words that seemed to capture the essence of what happened related to the home birth movement.  Since that time the story of Jeremy’s home based deathcare has helped to shape a burgeoning discourse called Death Midwifery in Canada which I feel honoured to be involved with.

Below is what I wrote in Jeremy’s book:

We’ve seen each other almost daily since we moved to our homestead near to his.  We trade fresh goat’s milk for precious organic vegetables.  Jeremy helped me to understand why there is no exchange more sacred than this.

Cassandra Yonder lives on a self-sustaining homestead in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is a practicing Death Midwife, focusing on home funerals and alternative body dispositions. Cassandra is a Canadian representative to the National Home Funeral Alliance.

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  • Arlene

    Thank you for sharing this very personal experience Cassandra. What a beautiful gift you gave to Sue and Jeremy’s family and other friends. I had never heard of a Death Midwife before and hope to hear more about this practice in the future.

  • Virginia Curtis-Threadgill

    I was so moved by this story. I am so happy that Nova Scotia allows home burials. My experience in America with death of family members was very different. Cold , clinical and painful.

  • ErikaBeseda

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • Kimmie Clinen

    most beautiful

  • Brittany

    ” I sat down with her and Jeremy both, and said that all she had to
    think about right now was that this was the last chance she’d ever have
    to be with Jeremy’s body…The local minister and I nodded at one another as we watched Sue communicate with Jeremy rather than about
    him. As a grief counselor, I recognized the important grief work that
    was being done. She looked into his face and imagined his answers to
    questions. “Do you know how much I love you?””

    This idea about grieving loved ones communicating with the body and it being their last moment together is so beautiful and touching. I think this needs to happen more often after the death of a loved one.

  • HS

    BEAUTIFUL STORY. I hope to have time with my loved one before the clinical, administrative, and unfeeling process begins.

  • Bunny Kramer

    beautiful beautiful! thank you for being there for all of them and thank you for sharing with us.

  • Jazzi Blonde

    Native Americans have this custom for years. To stay with the deceased body in an overnight vigil. I did this for the first time with my brother. I was with my other siblings and we sat in a darkened Native American church and talked about our childhoods and I finally feel asleep in a corner on a make shift bed of coats. I wasnt expecting this. As we took my brother to his burial plot which was right next to my mother. The grave was already dug by the cemetary. As family stood around, my brothers best friend asked that we might have some shovels to bury my brother ourselves. The men stood and looked at us like we were crazy. But I asked them to bring shovels, as my brothers best friend said “brother bury brothers, not back hoes” so they got us three shovels and we all took turns putting the dirt on my brothers lowered coffin. There was items for his necessary journey thrown in along. Other family members left us for the luncheon and we didnt leave until the last shovel of dirt was put on my brothers grave. I walked away for the first time in my life, after losing a loved one and family member knowing what closure truly felt like. I got into my truck with my brothers young son and my radio started working, it had quit working months ago. It played the song “when she smiles” I felt like it was my brothers way of communicating with me his Thank you for all that I did. After we got back to the luncheon and headed for the long journey back home. The radio stopped working. This story reminded me so much of my experience with my brother. Instead of letting men with suits and fake consolence. We experienced the real thing. I loved reading this story. Thank You for bringing back the memories of my brother.

  • Rachel Green

    That was awesome. Thank you for sharing the experience.

  • Dorinda

    We had the good fortune of having my Mom home in her own bed with me, Dad and her granddaughter all in and on the bed with her as she slipped away. After she was gone, we each took time to hug and lay with her saying what we needed to. Dad spent a good 40 minutes just laying and holding her. After 57 years how can you leave immediately. I’m forever grateful for these moments. It brings comfort to my siblings to know this is how she exited the world. With us, with music and of course with her dog beside her as well.

  • Julie Saeger Nierenberg

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You gift us all with the retelling. What an inspiration YOU are!

  • Unc Remus

    Beautiful

  • Charise Charly McOmber

    I wonder if you would be willing to share information with me about this. it is something I have thought about since my husband told me he wished for this on his death. Please contact me on facebook if possible.

  • Sara Love – Wichita, Kansas

    You are doing God’s work…I believe Jeremy’s story WAS your beginning to do what our Lord intended. The story told touched my heart, gave me goosebumps and filled me with great satisfaction! Bless you mightily, all you care for and of course, Mr. Jeremy’s wife, dear Sue and the family!

  • Diane

    Truly spiritual, Cassandra. I did this with my sister, Kathy, when she decided to give up the battle against breast cancer. It was wonderful but sad at the same time. I didn’t know it had a name…it was my way of helping her to cross over. Thank you for sharing.

  • Pauline

    Beautiful! I think this is wonderful and so natural. I remember when my Grandmother passed years ago and it came time to leave the funeral home after the visitation, it felt so strange to me to be leaving her there “by herself”. I luv the comment that your daughter put in the memory book, about the terrible carrots! I remember taking my kids to the market in Sydney and Jeremy would always make a point of getting them to try the “green candy”. Thank you for sharing this special memory.

  • Donnmaria

    You had a beautiful experience and closure. I have never heard the term “Death Midwife”. It has to be difficult to prepare either a love one’s body or a close friend/neighbor.
    I wish I could say I had had a good experience when my husband died.
    He was hospitalized for 16;weeks and home for one (1)week before he passed away.
    His daughter, my stepdaughter, came to our home to help me care for her father for the last week of his life.
    When I realized he had passed away and needed to notify the Hospice nurse to come to return to our home to pronounce him dead, contact funeral home, etc. my step daughtrer. 53 years old, crawled onto the hospital bed with her father and stayed there while the Hospice nurse came to pronounce him dead and left; and continued to stayed there until the funeral home personnel arrived to remove my husband’s body.
    My step daughter made certain I did not have any personal time to say good-bye to my husband.

    We had recently celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary. It was a 2nd marriage for both of us – he a widower for 3+ years and I, a divorcee for 17 years; his daughter disapproved of him remarrying.

    I envy Sue the time she was able to spend with Jeremy and say her good byes while arrangements etc were completed.

    • Amy

      I’m so sorry that you were not gifted the time alone with your husband’s body to say goodbye.

  • Chana Phyl Mason

    How timely it is to have happened upon this article this evening, on the 2nd anniversary of my husband’s transition. That photo of SUe & Jeremy is just as mine of Rusty & myself would have been had there been someone with us. I kept him warm under our quilt, as he hated being cold. When he was close to death, I told him I would stay right there, & he squeezed my hand tightly in acknowledgement. I sang to him & touched him until his last breath. After he died, I held him & cried, then picked up my guitar and continued to sing to him for a long time. I kept the quilt snugly around him; he was still warm 3 hrs later when the funeral service came to pick him up. This was a good death, natural and as it should be.and very peaceful. How fortunate we were.
    Because I am a Jew, it is our custom to help fill in the grave and to remain at the graveside until the burial is complete. It is part of the closure, and is one of many customs that supports the mourner. Just as with the begining of life, the end of life has its own spiritual component & is something we all need to accept and recon with in order to live life more fully.

  • sim

    Amazing. I wanted to congratulate you on allowing Sue to hold Jeremy and showing others this is a very important part of the grieving process. As a paramedic, I once attended a child who had drowned – all his mum wanted to do was hold him and “sing their lullaby dancing around the kitchen table”. Onlookers, including police, were horrified and my fight to allow this to happen was sadly lost.

  • Jc

    I like what I am reading. We don,t have to call the professionals right away, our people belong to us, and they are just there to help out. Blake Morrison wrote a beautiful book about his father….and how he took charge with his mother on his fathers death…..simple, but profoundly radicle.

  • Helen Wood

    Beautiful.

  • http://www.WellnessWithMoira.com/ Moira Hutchison

    Thanks you so much for sharing this precious story and bless you for the amazing gift you have given this family and beyond.

  • Angela D.

    How very beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your calling!

  • sandy

    Wow! My mum just passes and one of my comments was we know so much and do so much to help bring people into this world, then we act like people never leave~ there are no supports, no one who knows what information to share to make the whole process more family friendly and supportive. I’m so glad this came across my fb feed. I’m happy to ‘meet’ a Death Midwife.

  • Donna Smith

    This is a wonderful story and example of how to honour our loved ones in the death experience. My husband and I plan to be buried on our property.. We both want to be cremated, which is just our personal preference, so that will certainly make it easier. We already have a pet cemetary, 3 horses, a dog, and a cat. I plan to have my ashes buried there. My husband has a spot picked out by his beloved river. We feel blessed indeed that we can choose to do this. Unfortunately, this is not the case for city dwellers.
    My mother died of lung cancer years ago and because my sister is an RN, she got the best end of life care ever!! It was a bittersweet experience which I wouldn’t trade for anything. I remembered that hearing is the last thing to go so we all talked to her and held her hands until she drew her last breath. I’m sure more people would choose to allow their loved ones to die at home if they had the knowledge and support. Before reading this, I never knew there was such a thing as a Death Midwife. Keep up the good work Cassandra and it will catch on!!

  • Linda Galvin

    Beautiful to read and exciting to know that is becoming more excepted. 19 years ago I had to return to UK to bury a son of 23 years. I knew that he was asking to come home as he was stationed in Germany at time of his transition, I requested that his body be taken to my home there and stay until the funeral. It seemed ‘ odd’ to family and friends . In the 3 days of having his physical body with us there was so much healing done on so many levels for so many people , it was a beautiful closure to our life. I feel all should have that opportunity nothing can describe it. Thank you for your sharing this.

  • JLMThompson

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I wish that spending time with the recently deceased could some day be extended to those who have lost their loved ones to acts of violence. My elderly father died from some mysterious act of violence. A neighbor found his body, called police, and from that moment my father abruptly stopped being a man and my father and became a piece of evidence. He was removed from his home and I never had the chance to see him again until two weeks afterwards when he was released from the medical examiners and was embalmed. I wanted to spend time with him, hold his hand, and tell him how much I loved him but this was not permitted. Many of the official people who handled his body treated him like an episode of CSI and asked questions like “what happened to him; he was pretty beat up?”. It’s been 10 years and this article reminded me of how much I longed for that sacred contact with my father. I realized that I never understood and never had the chance of understanding what happened to him because I was not allowed to see. The criminal justice system is a very cold, hard place to suddenly find yourself in. I hated that my father was in the medical examiner’s office all by himself and I wanted to be the daughter who would accompany him to the frightening places. I think if families of violence victims could be permitted the proper time and space for being with their recently departed loved ones it could be a huge first step in the healing process.