Jerrigrace Lyons is a family funeral guide and educator—one of the original pioneers of the home funeral movement. She is a founding member of the Home Funeral Alliance, and the founder and director of Final Passages, through which she both guides families and certifies home funeral consultants. In this introduction to her two-part interview with SevenPonds, Jerrigrace shares the inspiring back-story behind her groundbreaking life path…
“I had attended my father’s wake, but washing someone’s body and dressing them, like my experience with Caroline, just felt so natural and beautiful that it awakened something ancient within me. And I just wanted to share with everyone that there’s a much kinder, gentler, more intimate way to deal with death.”
Aurora: When and how did you first become involved in the home funeral movement?
Jerrigrace: My first experience with a home funeral was before the term even existed. My dear friend Caroline was a nurse, who also practiced alternative healing, such as Reiki. When I met her through her open Reiki practice group, I felt like I’d always known her—and we became very close. She passed away almost a year later. Caroline was such a wise person and embraced so many different cultural ceremonies, including Native American and Buddhist rituals…
She was only 56, and her death was shocking. But Caroline had written instructions on exactly what to do when she died: she wanted her body brought home and cared for by her friends—washed, prepared, and laid out at home. No embalming, mortuary, or autopsy. She had included directions on the ceremony, down to the kinds of flowers and music she wanted, and what to place on the altar. So we did everything Caroline asked us to do, and it was really profound and beautiful.
It was strange at first, because we received her in a body bag, when we had seen her alive not too long before… we couldn’t imagine what she would look like. But we unzipped the bag, and she had this beautiful, peaceful expression on her face—with a lovely half-smile. We washed her body, dressed her in beautiful clothes, and laid her out on a futon.
People started coming by to pay their last respects. We sat around her in the living room and told stories about her, sang songs, and read her poetry. It was so beautiful and amazing. Those next couple days were life changing for me. I had not been involved with death in my life—I was doing bodywork at a medical facility. This was a big thing. I had attended my father’s wake, but washing someone’s body and dressing them, like my experience with Caroline, just felt so natural and beautiful that it awakened something ancient within me. And I just wanted to share with everyone that there’s a much kinder, gentler, more intimate way to deal with death.
After Caroline was cremated, we all came back together and we each took some of her ashes to scatter around the world, as she had requested. I told one of our friends from our Reiki group, I just want to share this with everyone in the world. She said, “Oh, and you will.” She said, “Caroline has big plans for you. You’ll see.” She was really intuitive, like Caroline. She knew I was going to be the messenger of this teaching Caroline was giving us through her death. Her legacy. My friend was right, of course. I just didn’t know it yet…
Although Caroline’s home funeral had received some local press, and I had been going to talks to share that experience with others—it would be a year and a half before I actually called a group of people to my house. We started meeting weekly to discuss how we could guide people through this process, and soon I was being referred to people who were dying. And I became a home funeral guide, which was the beginning of my work. Our organization would go and talk to families and help them through their process. We called ourselves the Natural Death Care Project, which evolved into Final Passages. We became a nonprofit, with a focus on educating the public to their rights about how they can care for the dead. That was the beginning. Final Passages is a truly grassroots organization.
In the year 2000, I started the first level of a three-tier certificate course, which we call Honoring Life: Final Passage; upon completion, you are a certified death midwife and home funeral guide. Level one and two of these comprehensive workshops are coming up at the end of October.
…So in short, it was my friend’s death that inspired me—and she became my mentor from the other side, giving me something wonderful to share with everyone in the world, and I slowly devoted my life to it.
Read Part One next.