Four days after her mother died, Shelley Anson walked into a candlelit room at a funeral home. There, her mother Lorraine lay on a bed, tucked in as though she were just asleep. A cooling mat to slow decomposition was humming away beneath her body.
“She looked so beautiful. She had colour in her face, even her lips. I asked if it was make-up, but it was from massage. I was in absolute disbelief and awe, I cried and cried,” Anson says.
“I was kissing her and she was cold to the touch, but that was OK. I was telling her how much I loved her, how grateful for her I was and how happy that she was reunited with my dad.”
For the next three hours, Anson cuddled her mother, brushed her hair and washed her face, arms, torso and legs with warm water and myrrh oil. Finally, she dressed her in her favourite sequined maroon dress for the funeral.
The experience, in December, was transformative for Anson’s grief.
“It was perfect in every way. It brought me absolute, great peace,” she says. “I could have stayed longer, but I felt like I’d finally done enough and that it was OK to go home.”
In contemporary Australia, much as in the rest of the Western world, our eyes are closed to the realities of death. The dead are often hurried away from a hospital room by an appointed funeral director and not seen again, unless a family chooses to farewell them with an open casket.
But there is a growing push towards keeping vigil with a loved one after their death and taking on the care of their body, either at a private house or a funeral home.
Advocates of what’s been termed the “death-positive movement” say our modern, sanitised practice interrupts our grieving process, creates a fear of death and has contributed to the loss of centuries-old rituals of caring for our loved ones.
Libby Moloney is the founder of Natural Grace, a holistic funeral company that has been at the forefront of shifting the narrative around after-death care in Victoria.
“In the 1900s we surrendered the care of our dead to well-meaning strangers in what we now know as the funeral industry. In a way death was sterilised and outsourced. It’s a model that’s very much about easing your burden, taking away the stress,” she says.
But Moloney says this robs families of a pivotal point in the mourning process that comes from the act of being with the body of their loved one, of feeling the stillness of their hand.
“It happens to everybody, and it’s deeply sacred,” Moloney says. “It takes the human mind and body about three days, where there’s a visceral, profound knowing that ‘I’m ready’ – ready to separate from the body of my person and I can now go on to the next steps. It’s unbelievably empowering.”
She says at least 80 per cent of her clients have an element of death care, with roughly half choosing to do this at home, the other half at her Woodend or Fairfield sanctuaries. These rituals usually take place over a three-day period before a funeral ceremony and burial or cremation.
Tasmania-based Bec Lyons spent six years in the mainstream funeral industry before becoming a death doula and independent funeral practitioner. Today, she leads both the Australian Home Funeral Alliance and Natural Death Advocacy Network, which aim to raise awareness of family-led funerals, death care and natural burials.
Death care is not for everybody, but Lyons’ goal is to teach people that there isn’t just one way to grieve. Most Australians don’t know that they don’t have to appoint a funeral director, and that it’s perfectly legal and safe to care for the body of their loved one. In NSW, the deceased can stay at home for up to five days; in Victoria, there is no prescribed limit. The only requirements are to register the death and arrange a burial or cremation.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows there were more than 171,000 registered deaths in 2021, up from almost 147,000 10 years earlier. It’s estimated that by 2066, the number of annual deaths will be over 430,000.
“There’s a pertinent conversation around what are we going to do with all those bodies? Death needs to move back into the home,” Lyons says.
With 70 per cent of Australians wanting to die at home, Lyons believes that the older generation, having watched their parents die in nursing homes, want to do things differently.
She says the number of home funerals she’s facilitated has doubled in the last 12 months, which she puts down to increased understanding of death, as well as financial considerations: they can be half the cost of a typical funeral.
Lyons says more people began to explore the idea of after-death care and home funerals (meaning a dead person is kept at home until they are put to rest) during COVID-19, when restrictions stripped away usual mourning practices. Holding vigil at home was still possible.
“In conventional Western society, the only vehicle we have to mourn is the funeral ceremony. For people who want that, that’s fantastic. But when COVID-19 hit, you ended up with grief that had no outlet,” she says. “Grief is an emotion that needs something to do.”
Anson’s mother died at age 79, 2½ years after a brain cancer diagnosis. Anson, an end-of-life doula and nurse, cared for her at home for the first seven months until, emotionally, she couldn’t do it any longer. But putting her mother in a nursing home weighed heavily.
It’s why after-death care and being with her mother’s body was extraordinarily healing: “That was my way of giving that last bit of love that I felt I hadn’t been able to give.”
Several religions and cultures have preserved ancient death care rituals. In Islam, it’s customary for same-sex relatives to wash the bodies of their dead, usually three times, then wrap them in sheets. Hindu families traditionally wash a body with holy ingredients such as milk, honey and ghee before dressing them.
Simon Weinstein is chief executive of the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha, a funeral home that serves much of the city’s Jewish community and delivers funerals according to Orthodox laws and traditions.
In Judaism, a burial should happen as quickly as possible, preferably within a day, and until that happens, a body is guarded – an act called “shemirah” – by family sitting close by to protect and comfort the soul.
The body is also washed in a ritual of purification and immersed in a holy bath. Weinstein says this process, tahara, is done by trained, same-sex volunteers as children and grandchildren of the dead cannot be involved to preserve modesty – but the community is tight-knit, and there is often a connection with at least one volunteer. “It’s an act of ultimate kindness and respect,” he says.
The dead person is then dressed in white cotton shrouds, and it’s at the end of this process that close relatives sometimes enter the room to place a cap on the head or tie a final bow.
“A common theme that comes out is how angelic they look. It’s very comforting for families,” Weinstein says.
Yaelle Schachna was praying in a room next door when her late grandmother was undergoing tahara. She joined for the final stage. “I gave my grandmother a kiss and it was very peaceful for me to see her. I could say goodbye.”
Last year, Schachna became a Chevra Kadisha volunteer. She this week helped send off her great aunt in a purifying ritual.
“For the first time, I stood there and was teary the whole time,” she says. “It was a beautiful send-off. I think you can hear in my tone the holiness I feel.”
There are two methods of looking after a dead body. One is through cleaning and cooling, which slows rather than stalls decomposition. The other is with embalming, which involves injecting chemicals such as formaldehyde and methanol to prevent the corpse from degrading.
RMIT senior lecturer Dr Pia Interlandi has been involved with the death-positive movement for a decade, creating bereavement casts – one of which she made for Anson of her and her mother’s clasped hands – and running Garments for the Grave.
Interlandi believes the movement goes together with attitudes on living sustainably. “If you love composting and the environment, it doesn’t make sense to be embalmed with chemicals and put in a box lined with plastic,” she says.
“Embalming is sold as a perceived psychological protection to seeing the dead body of a person you love. The natural death movement is about saying ‘you can cope with this’.”
Interlandi says that it might feel “strange” to see a dead body at first, but the slowness of death care allows you to move through the shock. “Dressing my nonno [grandfather] was the most transformative moment of my life,” she says.
Moloney explains that dead bodies become cold and pale, while limbs stiffen and get heavy, but these changes act as signals that the person is ready to be returned to nature. “It’s incredibly powerful and healthy to see those gentle changes; they inform our subconscious that we need to prepare to separate from their body.”
Thea Lamaro’s mother, Ana, began to prepare for her death two years before she died of breast cancer in 2016. She decided she wanted her body to be taken home to her apartment after her death, and not be left alone for three days.
Ana’s body was washed and dressed in a shroud by family and friends and Thea spent time talking to and holding her mother.
“I felt so comforted by having her body in the house. When I woke up throughout the night I could go to her,” Thea says.
“[It] helped me so much to integrate the fact she had finally died. It was a very gentle way of saying goodbye.”
Thea, who is developing a podcast series called Approaching The End speaking to people preparing to die, says she appreciated being able to decide the moment her mum’s body left the house: “I was letting her go rather than having her taken from me.”
Interlandi hopes that our conversations on death evolve past the question “do you want to be buried or cremated?” and towards: What type of funeral do you want? Who do you want to be cared for by? How do you want to be dispersed?
“People think it’s hippie woo-woo, and it’s not. There is a spiritual component, of course, because this is ritual – but it’s about choice and how you identify yourself in life goes into how you identify yourself in death.”
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