SHIRLEY -- Peg Lorenz is an interior house painter who moved to Shirley from Groton three years ago. She and her partner, Trish Garrigan, live in the former house of Earl Tupper's (of Tupperware fame) sister Ruth.
What is unique about Lorenz is neither her profession nor her historic home. Rather, it is her capacity for compassion and her ability to make one of the most stressful events in a family's life into a loving tribute to the one they love.
Lorenz is one of many in a growing movement to take back death, to relearn what it means to care for one's own dead.
Her journey to becoming a home funeral guide and consultant began 20 years ago when she became a hospice volunteer.
"I just got a certificate of appreciation for 20 years of service," she said recently in her cozy Hazen Road home. Nashoba Nursing Service & Hospice, located in Phoenix Park, bestowed the award.
"Twenty years ago, no one in my family had died and my parents were already in their 70s, and I thought somebody in my family ought to know how (their deaths are) going to feel -- what the experience could be like. And then I saw the ad in the paper that they needed volunteers and I went through training."
"Imagine that for 20 years you are volunteering and meeting all kinds of people doing respite care, which means I sit with the dying person while the primary care person takes a break," Lorenz said. "I love it.
Lorenz said that learning how to listen and "just be" with a person as he or she is dying is a big part of the hospice care experience.
From hospice to home funerals
"After the death, I would sometimes be invited to the memorial service weeks later. I would see the family again, and there was a nice bond there," Lorenz recalled.
"I would say, 'So how was it at the end?' because we are never there. It happens in the middle of the night.
"From a few families I heard that they loved hospice, but then at the end they felt abandoned," she said. "A nurse pronounces the death, and then they leave and nobody is there."
Once the funeral home pays a visit, "two strangers arrive, and they put their loved one in a plastic body bag and on a gurney, and take them out. These families said they were traumatized by that.
"At that moment, (family members) are in an altered state, really in shock. It is like you are thrown into a totally different state. And then these people come and whisk the loved one away."
Lorenz said she decided that there must be another way. She did some research and "poked around" about after-death care.
She saw the beginnings of a small movement of people saying that you could keep loved ones who had died at home. At the same time, she happened to see a PBS documentary called "A Family Undertaking," a movie about home funerals.
The movie, which interviews funeral directors, home-funeral guides and four families, is available on Netflix.
Eventually, Lorenz and a friend went to Connecticut to take training in home funerals from Elizabeth Knox, a Maryland mother who was interviewed in the movie. Knox started a home-funeral and green-burial resource center called Crossings after her daughter died at age 7.
At the time, Knox says on her website, crossings.net, the hospital told her that her daughter's body could only be released to a funeral home. That turned out not to be true.
Knox says that she cared for her deceased daughter at home for three days, bathing and watching her, and gradually coming to terms with her grief, sharing the experience with friends and family.
Lorenz decided that if she was going to get trained in being a home-funeral guide, she might as well start her own business. Becoming a home-funeral guide is a specialization that has been around on the east and west coasts for some time, she explained. Her business is called Peaceful Passage at Home.
"It is really a service to educate families about the in-home vigil after death, and anybody can do it anywhere in the country. There are no restrictions about that. You can keep the person at home, and in those restrictive states the restrictions are generally about transporting the body and doing the paperwork.
"In Massachusetts the family can do everything themselves if they want. It's not for everybody, but some families really, really want it. Others do not, and that's fine; it's just that you have that choice."
Some people choose to have home funerals for economic or environmental reasons as well as to pay their respects to their loved ones on their own terms.
The average American funeral costs about $6,000 for the services of a funeral home, not including the costs of cremation or burial.
A home funeral can be as inexpensive as the cost of pine for a coffin for a backyard burial, or a few hundred dollars for cremation or cemetery costs. Embalming is not required.
"There is no health risk associated with a home burial," said Lorenz. "There is no reason you have to have a body embalmed or call a funeral home unless you are in one of the restrictive states.
"You're in the privacy of your own home. There is a silence that is there; it is respectful, it's sacred, and within that context, the body is beautiful. I have not heard one family not say that the body is beautiful."
That the body is somehow not something to be viewed without the administration of a funeral director is among many misconceptions around the body of the deceased, said Lorenz.
"People have this idea of it being really awful, and I have to tell you that the body changes, but very gradually... What families report, and I have felt it too, is that there is sort of a spirit that lingers, and I think most religions do say that for a few days it is customary to feel some presence."
A home wake, said Lorenz, allows the time for those closest to the deceased to slow down, gather the family, and "have those wonderful conversations in the presence of the person."
Reclaiming a loving tradition
During and after the Civil War, the U.S. began to drift away from the home funeral tradition. Until that time, most people died at home; thus, most funerals were home funerals. Bodies remained unembalmed and were usually placed in pine caskets and buried in pesticide-free cemeteries.
But the war and the need to transport bodies from the South to the North led to widespread embalming, and with the rise of modern hospitals, death became much less a part of daily life.
As a home-funeral guide, Lorenz said she feels "like a bridge of information from our great grandparents to now, because in that interim, we lost that knowledge of how to do this.
"The families I have helped nearly all will say that at the end of this experience they are less afraid of death. And, you know, if our culture were less afraid of death, it would be an incredible change. We would not be so afraid to have end-of-life conversations, call hospice sooner or be more forthright in discussing our end-of-life decisions. We would be more like, 'I see how this goes, and it's OK.' That's what families report to me."
Lorenz plans to share more of her expertise on caring for deceased loved ones at home during two free workshops on Saturday, May 18, at First Parish Church of Groton, at 1 Powderhouse Road.
The first workshop, from 10 a.m. to noon, is an introduction to home funerals. It will describe the personal benefits that come with beginning the grieving process in the privacy of one's home, and include the legal facts and logistical details of home funerals.
The second is a hands-on workshop, from 1-4 p.m., for those interested in the details of performing a home funeral. A basic knowledge of home funerals or attending the first workshop is recommended.