Elizabeth Knox is not afraid to look death in the face. The founder of the nonprofit organization Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death has done it regularly since the first time in 1995 when her seven-year-old daughter died after an automobile mishap.
The hospital staff told her that the body could only be released to a funeral home. Knox wanted to care for her daughter’s body at her own home before final disposition. Told it was against the law (it isn’t), she found a funeral home that would pick up the body and deliver it to her home. She bathed and dressed her daughter, then family and friends shared the grief of her passing for three days before letting go of the body.
Some have called her a death midwife, a home funeral guide, a funeral rights educator. Knox helps people return the final preparations of a loved one’s body back into the home, as it was before the 20th century rise of the funeral industry.
“This is the way we cared for our departed throughout millennia, up until about seventy-five years ago,” said Knox. “The new phenomenon is having a funeral director take care of the funerals, instead of the family.”
As Baby Boomers age and see their parents and contemporaries dying in greater numbers, she sees an increased interest in taking back the last rites of preparing a body at home. Knox educates families on how to renew simplicity and sanctity with home death care, while retaining some control over what is done with the remains of a loved one before final disposition with burial or cremation.
Who is taking death care back into the home? “I’d say they’re the same people who took back birthing at home or wrote their own marriage vows, or just tried to take a generalized form and make it more personal to them,” said Knox.
Knox holds workshops that address people’s fears and hesitations about handling the dead, provide examples of at home death care experiences, discuss state-specific laws and how to work within them, body care of the departed, and how to maintain a relationship with those who have crossed over.
“People have concerns like what will the neighbors think? What about smells? What about fluids?” said Knox. “Not once has anyone found it too much to do. If they wanted to do it, they found a way. I offer what served me in my situation and things for them to consider. I give them freedom to find what works for them.”
That includes the freedom to work with a funeral director to some degree. A family can utilize their services for transportation, cremation, and purchasing a casket, among other things.
One of the biggest misconceptions she regularly has to address is letting people know there are no laws that require embalming. Embalming is the practice of draining blood out of the body and replacing it with chemical preservatives that delay, but do not avoid, the natural process of decomposition.
“So many people are selecting embalming without having a single clue of what they’re choosing. If they had any idea, they would really think twice about it,” said Knox. “Embalming is about the only thing that funeral directors can do that we can’t do, and you don’t want it anyway.”
However, most state laws do require refrigeration of a body within 24 hours, to delay the effects of decomposition. Dry ice arranged around a body is a very effective refrigerant. “You can freeze a body solid with dry ice if you’re not careful,” said Knox.
Before she undertook death education, Knox made her living as a landscaper. She feels both activities provide a good balance of life and death.
She also supports the burgeoning green burial movement in the U.S., which ensures the burial site remains as natural as possible and the body is returned to the earth in a biodegradable casket or shroud. Green burial eliminates embalming, concrete vaults and expensive sealed caskets. “It started in England, but the bottom line is, that’s the way we used to bury people all the time,” Knox said.
“It’s a really rewarding experience to be able to help people in this state of tremendous distress and bring them some comfort,” she said. “And because I’ve been around death as much as I have, I’m not as afraid of it as many people are.”
“If you just let love be your guide, and you have a little bit of common sense, it’s not very difficult,” Knox said. “It sounds scary, but if you can just feel your fear and do it anyway, you’ll be amazed at the comfort and healing that it brings.”
For more information about alternatives to conventional funerals and home death care, visit www.crossings.net.