Alice Toohey's experience with her father's death led her to want to help others navigate the deaths of their loved ones. Credit: Courtesy of Alice Toohey

Before his death in 2012, Alice Toohey’s father let his family know that he wanted to be buried on his own land here in Maine. Because she was living in California at the time, Alice wasn’t closely involved in sorting out the details. Also, even talking about death made her feel uncomfortable.

But experiencing her father’s death and participating in his home funeral and burial had a profound effect on her.

“It was very, very sad, but also such an opportunity to love him and carry out his wishes in a way that felt so good,” Toohey said. “It woke something up in me and it got me curious about death and how we view death in our society.”

Alice’s experience led her to want to help other people care for their own loved ones during the dying process and after death. She now has a certificate in the Art of Death Midwifery with Olivia Bareham and a certificate in Community Deathcare from Anne-Marie Keppel’s Village Deathcare Citizen Training. She is also a member of the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance and is on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance, all great resources.

You might not be the least bit interested in this topic, as was once the case for Alice, but if you are, there are some things you should think about ahead of time.

The key is to have conversations with your family early on and do your research. Check laws in your area, learn what paperwork you’ll need, decide if and how you wish to be laid out, where and how you wish to be buried, and if there are funeral homes that can assist you in any way. In some areas, there are funeral homes that specifically support home services. You are not required to have a funeral director make or carry out final arrangements. That said, it might be helpful when it comes to filing the death certificate and other paperwork, as well as handling cremation, if necessary, and transporting the body.

If you want to have a home vigil and/or funeral service, the body does not have to be embalmed, but you will need to keep it preserved with refrigeration or dry ice. Generally, the optimal time for viewing is one to three days after death.

“It’s really up to the family or the community as to how they want to prepare the body,” Toohey said, “but you could dress and bathe them and maybe place your loved one’s body on a bed or another surface. You can put flowers or things that mattered to them around them. Things like that.”

In order to transport your loved one’s body in any fashion, even if it’s just up the hill to the family cemetery, you will need a burial transit permit from your local town hall. Some people opt for what is called a green burial, where the body is placed in the ground as naturally as possible.

“There are some cemeteries in Maine that have specific spaces for those kinds of burials,” Toohey said. “You might use a pine box, or you might use a shroud, which is a cloth for wrapping the body and you don’t use any chemicals in the process.”

Alice says since her father’s death it has become her mission to offer people information and resources and to help them become more comfortable about having a conversation about death. It is one of life’s certainties, after all.

“I find that avoiding it can create a lot of suffering,” she said. “It certainly did for me, and I would just like to normalize the conversation a little bit more. It’s OK, as a family, for us to talk about what we would like when we die, and it’s okay for us to start to think about that and make some choices, because there are choices.”

Diane Atwood, Health contributor

Diane Atwood writes the award-winning blog Catching Health and produces and hosts the Catching Health podcast. She has been sharing stories about health and wellness for more than 30 years, first as a...