What Happens When we die? Funerals help grieving process

As people near death, there can be a forced intimacy, said Pastor Lisa Talbott of Homer United Methodist Church. For the elderly or those with terminal illness where death is expected, the last conversations with the dying can help ease the passing. It’s the time for healing and resolution to say the things that need to be said.

“If we can heal the relationship while someone is here, then guilt and regret is not going to be part of the grieving process,” Talbott said.

It can also be a time for telling stories, to listen to the dying person’s recollections. Sometimes the dying need to be given permission to die, to be told it’s OK to let go. They need to know those left behind will be taken care of, she said. 

After the sadness when a loved one dies comes the necessity of caring for a loved one’s remains.

People may not be prepared for what happens when someone dies, Talbott said.

 “We have medicalized death to the extent that very few people have seen a dead body,” she said. “There’s not a lot of modesty in death. Body functions happen. It’s not clean and it’s not neat.”

The Kenai Peninsula’s only funeral home, Homer Funeral Home and Peninsula Memorial Chapel, has staff on call at its Kenai office. It takes about 90 minutes to two hours for staff to arrive in Homer, said Graham Wisniewski, a funeral director with Peninsula Memorial Chapel.

Often just one funeral director comes to receive the body. Wisniewski said family often are willing to help move the body. 

Troopers and police also help. Funeral directors will leave information on things like obituaries and arrangements with family to review and discuss later. Peninsula Memorial Chapel has a Homer office at Main Street and the Sterling Highway where directors can meet with family. A private vigil also can be held there.

Sometimes people want to spend time with a deceased loved one and transport the body up to the funeral home later. In that case, a family needs a Burial Transit Permit to move a body. Peninsula Memorial Chapel has its own permits to move bodies, and can also issue permits by fax, Wisniewski said. 

Sometimes people build their own caskets. People can dress loved ones themselves or have them dressed by funeral directors, he said. 

Cremation has become increasingly popular as a way to handle human remains. Nationally, about 50 percent of the dead are cremated. At Peninsula Memorial Chapel, about 70 percent are cremated.

Cremation takes three hours at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. All that’s left are bones. Before bodies are cremated, directors remove pacemakers or implants with batteries. Implants like artificial hips or knees stay with the body during cremation and are recovered later. All implants get sent to a company in Detroit, Mich., Implant Recycling, Wisniewski said. Pacemakers get sent to a company for refurbishing and use in developing nations. Metal from artificial hips or knees gets recycled and is melted down for reuse. 

Some people have the perception that funeral homes take gold from teeth and melt it down to sell. That’s not true, Wisniewski said.

“It’s so minute, you’d be lucky to even find it if you’re looking for it,” he said.

Cremated remains are ground into finer ash. Whether a person is large or small, what’s left can fit into an urn about 8-inches-by-6-inches-by-4-inches, Wisniewski said. Urns can be buried in cemetery plots. Cemeteries in Kenai and Soldotna also are building niche walls, vertical rock walls that can contain urns.

If buried in cemeteries, two urns of cremated remains can go in one single plot, or above a casket. For a body buried in a cemetery, the cliché of six-feet under is true — a 6-foot-deep, 8-foot long and 3-foot wide hole. 

Peninsula Memorial Chapel has a contract grave digger who will dig and later fill a grave. In winter, jack hammers are used to break through frost.

“It just takes a little longer and is more expensive,” Wisniewski said.

Some families wish to dig graves themselves, but they should remember that after the burial they also have to fill the grave, too, he said. At Hickerson Memorial Cemetery, the city of Homer’s public cemetery on Diamond Ridge, less than 11 plots remain for sale. The city plans an expansion of the cemetery, though nearby residents have raised concerns about issues like preserving trees and potential pollution from embalming fluids.

Wisniewski said bodies don’t have to be embalmed unless being transported by plane or if families will want an open casket viewing later. Wisniewski said caskets can be buried in plastic vaults to prevent embalming fluid from leeching beyond the burial.

In Alaska, bodies also can be buried on private property. Burials should be from 100 to 200 feet from any water wells and septic systems. There’s one catch, though, Wisniewski said.

“The biggest thing that people don’t know is the property has to remain in the family indefinitely,” he said.

If there’s a future sale, the owner has to disclose a body is buried on the property. If the new owner is uncomfortable with that, the family has to disinter the body and bury it elsewhere.

Funeral arrangements may occupy a family’s attention in the days after a death, but it is with memorials and celebrations of life that grieving can begin.

“I look at planning memorials as part of the grieving process,” Talbott said. “Memorial services are partly about comfort, partly about storytelling, but also about hope.”

Grieving will be an ongoing process, she said. Talbott was a teacher when her step-daughter Carrie died of brain cancer at 20. That experience called her to the ministry.

About Carrie’s death, Talbott said people told her things like “you’ll get over it.”

“I don’t want to be the person who gets over my step-daughter’s death … I want to feel grief is with me,” she said. “Grief can’t end but it can transform.”

That’s an important point Talbott emphasized.

“Death ends a life. It doesn’t end a relationship,” she said. “The influence someone has over us doesn’t end when we die. We have our mother’s voices in our heads still.”

One thing she and her husband Joe did after Carrie died was to set up a little shrine. Carrie liked turtles, so they have a turtle table, with collections of turtle figurines friends have given them.

“It’s something that keeps her present with us. It keeps her spirit with us,” she said.

Another thing people can do to remember a loved one is to honor them on anniversaries like their birthday or their death date.

People may feel uncomfortable knowing what to say to someone grieving. The grieving go through a range of emotions, from joy to anger to sadness and even laughter. That’s OK. Friends should recognize those emotions. Don’t be afraid to say the dead person’s name. 

“Sometimes it’s better to say nothing and be present,” Talbott said. “Platitudes and euphemisms are not helpful.”

As a pastor ministering to the grieving, Talbott said one thing she considers is physical needs, “making sure they have something to eat, making sure they’re resting,” she said.

When someone dies a tragic and unexpected death, grieving becomes crisis management. It’s a time to give people your presence instead of words, Talbott said.

“There is no justification for tragic death,” she said. “Where do we see blessings that come out of this? It was in those people who fed us, those teachers who wrote my substitute teacher plans, those people who did our laundry.”

Grieving can be a balance between feeling and doing. Sometimes people get caught up too much in grief and don’t take care of themselves. Or, they might deal too much with the details of death. “As a spiritual care provider my job is to nudge,” Talbott said. 

Talbott spoke of a grieving workshop she did with Judy Lethin of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. A weaver, Talbott had prepared a loom for the workshop where people would weave fabric into the fiber art. She made a mistake and dropped a thread, leaving a gap. She was disgusted with herself at the mistake.

“I woke up the next morning,” Talbott said. “We’re talking about how to make something whole when there’s something missing.”

Instead, the grief workshop participants picked out yarn or fabric to weave into that hole. In the weaving, there’s a line of multicolored fabric in that gap.

“It is a cloth with integrity. That hole is where the person shines in our lives,” she said. “That person shines through in our life. We feel a sense of loss with them.”

Dying is a part of life, Talbott said.

“How do we live as people prepared to die? How does that change our daily activities?” she asked. “The more comfortable we become talking about death, the less the shock it is. The less a tragedy it becomes. It can be a time for reconciliation and forgiving and hope.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.