Image: Lyn Baylis, Chris Brock Photography
I’m rather excited about hosting my very first guest post. Lyn Baylis is a dear friend who has kindly accepted my request to write a piece about her work. You might say both of us have walked the mysterious path of the Psychopomp and serve the myriad faces of the god of Death, Anubis being one. Although Lyn’s work and service to the community involves much more. Lyn can be contacted at the email given at the end of the post if you have any questions.
My name is Lyn Baylis and I have been a Priestess for 40 years. My other roles under that umbrella involve being a LifeRites Minister (spanning over 20 years) and a Pagan Hospital and Hospice Chaplain.
I follow a broadly nature based spirituality, within which diversity is celebrated in all its colours as well as the ethic of equality. My belief in a single divine creative source also encompasses a belief in Gaia the Earth Mother, the Old Ones and spirits of nature. We are all bound together by the essence which we call spirit, the divine spark is within all beings. The life force is present within all. It is an energy which pulsates around us but cannot be seen, yet we know it to be real. It is omnipresent.
The energies of nature are consummately obvious when looked at in the context of the phases of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, and the cyclic nature of the seasons. They are in the air, in the wind, in fire, in water, in trees, in the rocks and beneath the earth, in crashing roaring things, and in what the Irish call a soft day. They are in all things and everywhere.
Each day I meditate as a means to focus before tuning into the energies that flow throughout the Universe. It is very simple but takes time and effort. I do not consider myself special, just a part of a worldwide community who are committed to guardianship of the earth and our fellow travellers. My work is undertaken in the knowledge that whatever is done to others, will (if in a different fashion) be returned to me. Accordingly, these powers will not be used for evil. Those that operate in such a manner will flourish for a while but will over time be diminished as individuals.
Regarding my work, the aim is to serve the needs of the wider community while respecting the individual’s spiritual beliefs, culture and lifestyle choices without judgment. LifeRites allows me to work with many differing religious beliefs; often writing and officiating at Naming, Handfasting and Funeral ceremonies which embrace and include more than one faith. My work involves facilitating workshops to enable people to plan funerals in their own way.
I also believe that in our culture Funeral Poverty is not only a financial problem but encompasses culture, social, emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives. Funeral ceremonies can be so much more than what we have been used to. They can be written in a way that will meet the requirements and needs of the clients, not the ego of the priest, minister or celebrant. Since becoming a member of the Brighton Death Forum I find myself facilitating more and more workshops in an effort to dispel the myths and taboos around death. The hope is that people will no longer view this subject with fear and therefore talk openly with their family, friends and even complete strangers without feeling embarrassed.
Home Funerals: A Grandmother’s View
Did you know that family led funerals with limited input from funeral directors or even entirely without funeral directors are totally safe and legal?
In working families, even as late as the 1900s, home funerals were what happened when someone died. They weren’t something special. It was just what was done in every family.
My Grandmother cared for her family and extended family when they were alive, when they were dying and when they were dead. She was the village midwife, so not only did she bring new life into the world, she made sure that those leaving it were shown due respect and treated with honour and love. Laying out the dead and performing the last offices for them, was to her, not only a sacred rite, but a labour of love.
The move to hide death away started with the moneyed gentry towards the end of the 17C. Until then, even for the wealthy, death was just a part of life, with most families losing at least one of their children to illness. However, if you view tombstones from the 18C onwards, the stark statements are transferred into gentle metaphors. Sentiments such as “Here lies Fred, he is dead” cease to be visible and instead, tombstones talk of someone “sleeping with the angels” or being “gathered into God’s arms.”
With the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert, rituals around death became more and more formalised. The care of the deceased followed prescribed patterns; even the behaviour for those in mourning was formalised. The ensuing funeral arrangements were totally removed from the family and summarily placed behind closed doors, where the dead were painted, rouged and plumped up before being wheeled out for photos (with or without the family) or death’s head masks. Then they were locked away again and packed firmly in their coffin, jaws bound and limbs tied tightly together in case they should make a noise that would distress the relatives on their final journey or when they were lowered into the ground.
These social taboos around death slowly seeped into the mind-set of the general population. Death, which had once been accepted as just another part of life, eventually become hidden behind the closed doors of the funeral parlour, only spoken of in reverential tones or whispers. Even today, people are a little bit in awe of the funeral director and this, together with the numbness grief often brings, can cause them to accept any arrangements suggested to them, pick expensive coffins , or settle for funeral arrangements that will cause them social, cultural or financial distress, accepting any date they are given for burial or the cremation. They forget that the funeral director is there to help them, to provide a service, and that it is they who are ultimately in charge of what happens.
We the baby boomers of the 40s fought for the right to give birth at home, a right enjoyed by many mothers around the world now. We have reached an age when our parents and others that we love are dying, and we do not want to just hand them over to some faceless funeral director however professional, nice or kind they may be.
We wish to make sure that our loved ones, and ultimately ourselves (when our time comes), will be looked after in death and afterwards by people who know us, love us and will care for us at the end the way we would like to be cared for. We wish to hold vigils where we can say goodbye to our own with the rest of the family and friends in our own homes, not some faceless funeral parlour. To honour them with our rituals and talk to them while we organise the funeral, sourcing, making, or painting the coffin, and decorating it in a way our loved ones would approve. We want to hold a wake as in the old days, raise a glass, share the old stories and spend time with those we love before we eventually lay them to rest in a celebration of their lives, not with an impersonal, remote ritual which often seems to be staged to be the ultimate separation from our loved ones.
I and others who feel the same will continue with this battle because it is ultimately for ourselves. It is, however, wonderful to see that more and more people are becoming aware that they do have options when it comes to caring for their dead. They can use a funeral director to organise the funeral, or get involved and direct the funeral service making considered decisions, or have a home funeral if they so wish.
My aims are to let people know about their options, to assure them that family led or home funerals are legal and achievable (with or without help) if that is what they wish, and to remind people that they have choices. My hope is that, in some small way, I can empower families to do whatever it is they wish to do for their loved ones at the end of life.
For some, when they think of home funerals, the main drive is to offset the ever-increasing costs, but for many more, they wish to take control of a ceremony they find removed from them, depressing, morbid and not in any way uplifting. They wish to reflect the spirituality of their loved ones, treating them with honour, respect and love, making all actions sacred as the loved one dies and to continue this heart led care whether it is in person until they reach their final resting place, or in spirit walking with them towards the other realm.
Organising part or all of a funeral does make you aware of the reality of death, yes. You see the person you loved dead, but with a good death comes a serenity and peacefulness that is wonderful to witness, and this revelation can assist the grieving process and be a very healing experience. Therefore, if anyone wishes to participate in any way, or lead their own end of-life rites and rituals then I will help with advice and assistance if I can or alternatively put them in touch with someone else who can.
For those of you who believe you would find it difficult to have a body at home, and do not wish to even think of doing this, I do understand. When we talk about the dead, it is often the images we see on the TV or in films which are paramount in our thoughts, complete with dreadful smells and a decomposing corpse, but in actuality, that is generally not the case.
When we look at other cultures around the world, there are many whose death rituals are based around keeping a loved one at home for three days or three nights. It is only our distance from death these days and the fears that are triggered by these images that highlight the problems. In addition, with the help of air conditioning or ice packs, we can keep a body at home for a week if necessary, so three days generally will cause no problem.
However, if your loved one died in hospital or in a hospice, as long as you haven’t appointed a Funeral Director they will generally keep hold of them until you can collect them from there to take them to the crematorium or to the burial ground. These same facilities can sometimes be used if the deceased has to be kept for some time, e.g. a son/daughter has to travel from abroad to say their goodbyes. if your loved one dies at home, some modern funeral directors will work with you, while some green burial grounds have facilities to keep the body, or you can call upon an *End of Life Transition/Threshold Guide to help you.
If you belong to a spirituality which sees death as a rite of passage, then this usually begins with laying out your loved one after death. Washing them, combing their hair, anointing them and placing them in the clothes they wished for their final journey. Whether you are family, a friend or someone who has been called in to help. I can assure you (being a Grandmother myself now) laying out someone is a service of love and one which I always feel privileged to perform.
If you are leading a private celebration of the deceased’s life as part of a rite of passage, then first identify what it was the deceased achieved in life. It could be a major thing or something they might not themselves have classed as an achievement, e.g. bringing up a family. Honour their achievements, whatever they were, and understand their passions, their hopes and dreams. Open sacred space. (If you are helping a family that is not your own always ask them how the deceased would have done this.) Work with other members of the family to get them involved choosing, prayers, poems, and songs that express the deceased’s journey through life, get them to tell the stories that they love and want passed down to the family, share photos, etc.
The decoration of the coffin can have its own place in these celebrations, whether it is weaving flowers into a willow coffin, painting or pasting photos onto a cardboard coffin or choosing a more conventional coffin and the items to be placed in or on it. You are only restricted by your imagination – and the practical requirements of the burial ground or crematorium.
If it is to be a spiritual ceremony, then call upon the deities/spirits that were significant to the deceased and mark a sacred space where you can hold the ritual and invite those with whom the deceased wished to share this special time. Many spiritualities believe that the spirits do not begin their journey for a while after they seem to have gone, e.g. some open the window to let the soul fly out. Whatever their ways, find out beforehand; if it’s family then, of course, you will already know.
When taking your loved one to their final resting place, you can use an estate or a van, as long as the body is covered it really is not disrespectful. Getting friends and family to gently lift and carry the coffin into the crematorium or to the graveside feels somehow more natural, personal and meaningful to me. If you do not feel that you will be able to speak, then you can always hire a celebrant who will understand and honour the spirituality of your loved one and the family.
If you decide to have a home funeral and venture down this road, I promise you will find it a rewarding, moving and deeply transforming experience.
* this is the name agreed by the National Home Funeral Alliance in the USA to cover End of life Midwives, Soul Midwives, Death Doulas, Home Funeral Guides and any group or person who works with the dying before, during and after death.
For further information on Family led Funerals or how to train to be a Transition /Threshold Guide contact: firstname.lastname@example.org