I first came across the fact that you can be the undertaker/funeral director for a loved-one’s send-off some years ago, when my half-sister’s grandmother died and the family arranged the cremation themselves without recourse to a professional funeral director. Although it was a new idea to me, and I will admit quite a shocking one, I was intrigued by the possibilities of a ‘home funeral’. A funeral entirely run by people who knew the deceased person well. The cardboard coffin was purchased from the internet, beautifully decorated by a group of family at a pre-funeral gathering and memories and stories about Mary were shared. This unique coffin was then taken to the hospital mortuary by a couple of the men who collected her body and drove it to the crematorium at the appointed time. The funeral itself was conducted by the whole family with one of my half-sisters as facilitator and many family members contributing. Mary was a very practical woman who retained the frugal habits of the war-generation and would have loved the fact that it was not only unique and properly expressed her individuality, but it cost a fraction of the price of even a cheap professionally arranged one!
When I began to look further, I discovered that it was common practice to keep the dead at home everywhere until the mid 1900s, when it became increasingly common for funeral directors to do the needful, instead of families looking after their own. Somehow within a few generations death became yet another area of life to be wrapped up in mystery, taken out of our own hands and made into a business.
There is a growing trend to return to home-arranged funerals. Some people feel strongly that they want to care for their loved one’s body in death as they did in life – not wanting them to go into the hands of strangers. Yet it is usually a fairly daunting step to arrange a home funeral, especially when you have never been around one before. For the last ten years of their lives, my elderly parents lived with me on our own smallholding. They expressed their desire to be buried in a small field we had made into a nature reserve and growing woodland. It contained around sixty trees that had been planted for their fiftieth wedding anniversary and is situated in a very remote mountainside in North Wales. The carrying out of my parents wishes necessitated a steep learning curve for me as I discovered the legal and practical things needed to take care of their bodies and bury them both – they died in the space of a year. This experience was one of the most beautiful and profoundly moving of my life.
In the UK it is possible to do (limited) ‘home burials’ on private land without planning permission. There is a great organisation in the UK which gives free advice to people about home burials and all aspects of DIY funerals – www.naturaldeath.org.uk. I am very grateful for their advice and support.The law in the UK about burying someone on private land is very simple. Basically there are guidelines to follow to protect groundwater – you have to be a minimum of 30 metres from running water, and 50 metres from water that is used as a source of people’s drinking water. The body must be buried with at least 1 metre (3 feet) of earth on top. If you are in doubt, you might like to confer with the environmental agency, but you are not legally obliged to do this and they are not legally in a position to give or refuse permission, as long as the correct guidelines are followed.
You must own the land freehold, or have the permission of the owner, and there must be no restrictions on burying anyone on the land – which there rarely are. No planning permission is needed, unless you bury more than three (or four) people – then your land becomes a ‘burial ground’ and planning permission for change of use is needed. Once the burial has been carried out, a ‘burial record’ must be made and kept with the deeds of the land, clearing showing the location of the grave.
My dad David had lived his life with a general attitude towards health that involved avoiding doctors at all costs. He was fairly conventional in his lifestyle, but since his 40s at least he had been very careful with his diet, didn’t smoke and drank very little alcohol. His father had died in his 60s of heart disease. He had chosen herbal treatments from his middle age when he had one or two health problems – it was because of his influence that I had become a herbalist. He used herbal medicine entirely for his health problems, mostly prostate, and kept himself well by eating salad and vegetables (though he didn’t really like them!) and avoiding sugar (which he loved).
He had a horror of dying in hospital. He didn’t like strangers at all, and would have hated any loss of dignity. I lived with him for the last ten years of his life and had promised him to do everything I could to keep him at home. He had become weaker, older and frailer over the few years before his death, but right up to 3 weeks before he was able to walk down to the local park to look at the river, and enjoyed going out for lunch on his 93rd birthday. Soon after this he basically took to his bed, getting up for breakfast then going back to bed. He was treated for a kidney infection but antibiotics had no effect, and he slowly ate and drank less and less. Later I realised that the doctor did this so that he could put ‘kidney infection’ on the death certificate – he himself told me it was clearly old-age, but that’s not a viable cause of death these days!
During the last days of his life, he stopped drinking. I was worried, but when I looked up ‘death by dehydration’ I was reassured: I explained to my dad ‘if you don’t drink, you will die. If you don’t drink at all, you will die in anything from a few days to a week. Apparently after the first day you won’t feel thirsty, I can put this salve on your lips to keep it from cracking, and give you drops of water to moisten your mouth. What is likely to happen is that you will drift in and out of consciousness, and then go relatively peacefully.’ I said ‘I will no longer force you to drink – there will be always be drinks available for you and I will help you to drink and offer to help you, but I won’t force you – as long as you understand that if you don’t drink you will be hastening your death.’ I asked him, ‘do you understand?’ He said that he did.
For the rest of that day he drank a little more than he had been drinking, then he decided to stop. I continued to offer him drinks regularly but when he declined I no longer attempted to force him to drink. He was still able to get up and go to the bathroom by himself, and was completely capable of taking a drink if he chose. Within a few days he died, conscious and awake, at 10.30 in the morning, knowing he was leaving. At the moment of his death I saw a shadow or a shape leave his body through the top of his head – I know it was his soul.
The doctor came and signed the death certificate, and me and a friend washed his body, first with water then with a mix of rose water and essential oils known to help the transition of soul from body:
To be added to the water used to wash the body of a recently deceased loved one.
1/2 cup (125 ml) rosewater
10 drops each of essential oils of rose and cypress
Keeps at least a year. (from Deeply Holistic – A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care)
Myself and a close family friend who was present at his death dressed my dad in clean pyjamas and wrapped him in a cotton sheet as a shroud. As we were doing a home burial, we left his body alone until the next day. It was May when my dad died, so we had the window open and got a couple of bags of ice which we placed on his heart and stomach – this helps to cool the body and slow decomposition.
Next day after registering the death, we put his body in the back of an estate car and took it to a small piece of land I own in the hills.
We dug a grave, lined it with wildflowers – bluebells, lilac and buddleia, then put his body in, and filled the grave. We planted a conference pear on the grave – his favourite fruit. Pear has an energy to do with ancestors and descendants – it takes time for them to fruit, hence the saying ‘plant pears for your heirs.’ This experience has transformed my attitude to death. I am extremely grateful for it.
Nine months later, my mum died in hospital, after a massive stroke. She had to have a post-mortem (PM), but the coroner was very good and followed my request to start just on her head and if the stroke could be confirmed as cause of death, no need to do the rest of the body. It was confirmed. Because of the necessary PM, and the fact that she died at Easter, it took a while to be able to get her body for burial. The people who run the mortuary in the hospital were extremely supportive of home burial, and us doing it without funeral directors, so they were fine to keep the body in their fridges at the morgue until we could arrange the funeral.
Because it had been nearly 3 weeks, and she’d had the mini post-mortem, we got her a coffin – a wicker one, she’d have loved it. We lined the coffin with a thick wool blanket in case of leaks, and I made a strong mixture of essential oils, also with a rose base to anoint her body as we collected her, and to sprinkle in the coffin.
Because the smell was greater, I used a strong mixture containing the oils of cloves, cinnamon, cedarwood and frankincense in the base of aromatic rose water.
She was buried in a grave close to my father’s. We planted a cherry tree on her grave and also a motherwort plant.
Later that year their cat Buster died at the advanced age of 23. He is buried between them, a valerian plant to mark his grave.
by Pip Waller
Herbalist and Plant Spirit Medicine Healer based in Llangollen North Wales
Holistic Anatomy – An Integrative Guide to the Human Body
The Domestic Alchemist – 501 herbal recipes for home, health and happiness
Deeply Holistic – A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care
(and coming out April 2018, co-authored with Lucy Wells – Touched by Nature – Plant Spirit Medicine Journeys)
Pip Waller is an experienced herbalist and plant spirit medicine healer, a writer and a teacher. She lives in North Wales, in the beautiful Vale of Llangollen.
She is the the author of three books – Holistic Anatomy (2010), The Domestic Alchemist (2015) and Deeply Holistic – A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care (2018).
Visit her website at: