Friday, May 29, 2009

Alison's Gift

When my sister-in-law had terminal-stage breast cancer, she and my brother read a book that changed their lives.

Alison’s Gift is the true story of a seven-year old killed by an air bag in a slow-speed collision. Her mother, Beth Knox, knew that when Alison was disconnected from life-support, she did not want a mortician to take charge. She wanted to bring Alison home, continue caring for her, share her grief, and give Alison’s brothers, grandparents, and friends time to say goodbye.

The hospital said it could not release Alison to her mother’s care. They eventually allowed an undertaker to transport the body home. As Beth learned later, the hospital was wrong; she had the legal right to take Alison home in the van in which she had driven her daughter to school each day.

For the next three days, Alison lay on her own bed. Friends and family members talked and sang to her, prayed and meditated, or just sat quietly, saying goodbye. Several of Alison’s Waldorf School classmates came, and even though some parents were apprehensive about letting them see a body, the children seemed quite comfortable. Spending time with their friend, far from being frightening or creepy, allowed them so experience death as a real and normal part of life.

As a result of this experience, Beth founded Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death, a national non-profit educational organization. In workshops around the country, she teaches people how to care for a body at home, choose a final resting place, and understand the applicable laws in each state. (For a 3-minute Frontline You Tube story on home funerals featuring Beth Knox, click here.)

Just as the home birth movement has given families more control over birth, the home death movement, which Beth helped found, encourages families to take more control over the other big transition, returning death care to its rightful place as a last sacred family act of love.

My brother and sister-in-law, Bill and Diane Manahan, liked this idea. They ordered a home funeral kit from Crossings. In addition to instructions for after-death care, the kit contained essential oil of lavender for washing the body, a length of white silk cloth to drape over it, and candles. (Although this kit is no longer sold, a Handbook for Home Funeral Care is available for purchase or as a free pdf download at

My spouse Becky Bohan and I were with Diane when she died. I helped bathe and dress her body, hold a vigil, accompany her body to the crematorium, and bring her ashes back home for her life celebration three days later. Becky had a mystical experience at the moment of Diane's death and a joyful visit from Diane several hours later. These profound experiences led us to write Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond, which has won six regional and national book awards and affected readers in ways similar to the impact Alison’s Gift had on our family.
Last month, when Becky and I were in Maryland, we spent an afternoon with Alison's mother. We liked Beth Knox immensely. She is an ideal home funeral educator -- warm, practical, visionary, and passionate about the environment. She told us about the remarkable deaths last year of her mother and her husband’s father, who died peacefully at home, and who requested and received a home funeral.

Following Beth’s lead, our local Minnesota Threshold Network offered a free public information session on home deaths and green, eco-friendly burials in Minneapolis this month. Resources, including Alison’s Gift, were available.

If readers of this blog know of someone who is interested in caring for their own at death, please extend an invitation to read this inspiring book, join the Crossings listserv, and learn from the experiences of Alison and her extraordinary mother.