Death Is a Great Teacher; Final Passages’ First 25 Years

Leslie Whiting interviews Jerrigrace Lyons, Founder of Final Passages and the first pioneer in the home funeral guidance movement


Jerrigrace Lyons
Jerrigrace Lyons

Jerrigrace Lyons founded Final Passages on Dec. 10th, 1995, some 25 years ago as a nonprofit Institute dedicated to “Conscious Dying, Home Funeral and Green Burial Education.” 

Now we celebrate a quarter-of-a-Century of education and being a resource for anyone wanting to learn how to prepare for their death and to know their rights concerning family-led home funerals.

Families legally stay in charge, handling ceremony, practicalities and environmentally friendly funeral practices. 

During these years Jerrigrace has trained hundreds of people through her Final Passages courses and created a healing approach to death that also instills awareness in the community, state, nation and world. She has guided, supported and served a staggering 450+ families through her own private practice and in 2015 she formed a Final Passages support Core Council of graduates who have been instrumental in helping with community outreach, forming new online programs and assisting other families with home funerals as educational guides.

Home Funeral Guides inform families about their own legal agency to care for their loved ones at home and honor them with a meaningful, co-created ceremony.  They empower family members to care for their loved ones themselves, or, if requested, may officiate at the funeral or participate in ceremony as an advocate for the family.  In such intimacy, family, friends and children also take on a special role. They may help wash the person, place flowers around the body, decorate the casket, etc. There are many ways to incorporate friends and children. This is not only healing to the dying person—it activates the first crucial bereavement stages for mourners.  A Home Funeral alleviates fear of death for those in attendance: fear of our own death and the deaths of those we love.

The Interview

To honor this milestone, Final Passages alumna Leslie Shore PhD, interviewed Jerrigrace Lyons the day before Thanksgiving 2020 about the origin of Final Passages.  What follows is a lightly edited transcription of that discussion.

As one of your loyal graduates and supporters — it is an honor to interview you, Jerrigrace Lyons, Founder and Executive Director of Final Passages.  You are an innovator in the Home Funeral Movement and a “board member emeritus” with the National Home Funeral Alliance. You have advised a number of national organizations or served as a board member, worked in study and committee groups or spoken at their conferences. You’ve taught workshops in at least 15 states and are sought internationally as speaker and teacher: especially in the UK.  You are not only a pioneer who galvanized the Home Funeral and Green Burial movement: you are also one of the most loving friends any person could know! This is a truth your beloved friend, Carolyn discovered when she chose a Home Funeral as her last wish.

How did that first experience inspire you to commit yourself to this work, with so much passion?

Carolyn Whiting

In 1994, Carolyn Whiting, RN, Reiki Master and my teacher, suddenly died at the age of 56.  All her friends and family were in shock and grieving. We wanted to honor Carolyn’s wishes to have an intimate, meaningful funeral at home. In those days, the concept of a home funeral was not common knowledge by Americans even though such customs were the traditional way that we honored our dead for many, many years and in the old days most funerals were at home and green, for that matter.  Flash forward to the 1990’s and we see how traditional knowledge became hidden from public view after a commercialized funeral industry developed in the US.  When we wanted to follow Carolyn’s wishes to have a home funeral to honor her, we didn’t know of any text books or teachers we could consult. We just followed our intuition and the guidance of her very close and longtime friend, Norma Wilcox. Fortunately, Carolyn had planned ahead and written out much of what she wanted, but carrying out those wishes took some logistical planning.

So, the knowledge you needed to honor Carolyn was not readily accessible and, at the same time, you were mourning the death of your friend. How hard to be grieving and seeking knowledge, all at once.

Yes, it was challenging in our state of mind. I sometimes think back on Carolyn’s death when I guide families today and remember how hard it was to feel numb and also know that Norma had to navigate a lot of logistics to fulfill Carolyn’s wishes. All the while, of course, we were also trying to process the loss of our friend.  Funerary knowledge was obviously known to old cultures and most American families conducted their funerals at home, anyway, prior to the Civil War.  These customs were lost after the war left hundreds of thousands of dead and a funeral industry developed to manage such a massive loss of human life.  From that era forward, we would find ourselves more and more removed from the natural death process in the US.  Which also translated to more of us becoming stuck in grief because they were also disconnected from the healthy stages of bereavement. So, 25 years ago we set out to “unlock the knowledge” that was hidden from the public by a “for-profit” commercialized funeral industry.

How did you unlock “knowledge” that was restricted due to the national funeral industry?

We asked questions of the hospital where Carolyn’s body was taken, to a funeral home, the Coroner’s office and staff at the death registration offices and anyone who could answer for us: 

  • Could we take Carolyn’s body home?
  • Can we, as everyday people, obtain a doctor’s signature on the death certificate?
  • Could we file Carolyn’s death certificate with Vital Records?
  • Could we transport Carolyn’s body to the crematorium ourselves?

Our questions were answered and we found out that, aside from an embalming process, most funerary practices can be managed at home.  With a reliable vehicle large enough to transport a human body, we found out we could take Carolyn’s body home from the hospital in a van.  We learned that if we assumed the task of getting the doctor’s signature for Cause of Death, we could expedite the filing of paperwork, personally.  With a little research and experience, we learned to adjust the dry ice used under the body, based on body size and weight.

Remembering Carolyn’s death experience: Today what stands out as instructive and meaningful?

When we got to be with Carolyn’s body, we scanned our hands over her (as she taught us to do in Reiki) and recognized energy still coming from her heart and head or crown chakra. We felt that while Carolyn was dead, there was still “life-force energy” being exchanged. She was gifting us—in that moment—with very powerful teaching, for it takes time for the death process to be complete.  This is why being “with the body” is so important and why we suggest that loved ones “lie-in-honor” for three days, on average. As an intuitive healer, Carolyn also attracted intuitive healers to her and one told me after Carolyn’s wake: “Someday, you will share this story with hundreds, if not thousands of people.” I asked her what she meant by that statement and she said: “Carolyn has big plans for you.” Final Passages was created to support families and friends so they don’t have to spend time searching for answers. We wanted to share our knowledge. Any fear that I had around death and dying faded away while washing Carolyn’s body. I felt that I had done it all before, that I came into this world with an “inner knowing” around death and dying and it was the most natural thing in the world, to wash her body when we got Carolyn home from the hospital.

From that point forward, you created a Home Funeral approach for guides and everyday people who wanted to learn these arts—that included washing their loved one following death with essential oils, a procedure to dress the body appropriately and respectfully, you gauged “ice ratio” to tuck packs under the body to prevent decomposition and you guided families on how to have a home wake so that a loved one could “lie-in-honor” for three days. Additionally, you created three levels of training at Final Passages for students to learn from your acquired knowledge over the first years and had compiled, eventually, along with other FP trained guides. You teach us how to be Death Doulas and become End of Life Midwives, it’s a richly syncretic program and you and an early FP co-director created a Home Funeral Guidebook that you also sell on your website. How did you construct such an educational program with no proven textbooks to help you, or a foundation to support your work?

We learned one by one by one. One family at a time. As we helped each family I began to gain experience and learned how to help them more. I learned how the rhythm needed to work when death visits a family: the interplay of interfacing with various agencies and ways to navigate that and support the family, became key. While at the same time, we learned how to “not take over” but rather how to “walk beside” and support the family to do this healing work.  Otherwise, we rob the family of the medicine. We empower families, we support, advocate and advise others. It is very important for the family to engage because it is their loved one. We cannot as guides take over important rituals that help mourners cope with and absorb the stark reality of death or we would not be serving the dying and those who love them.

You have developed a deep appreciation for mourners to “be present with the body” after death and yet, many Americans are uncomfortable with that idea. Explain how this “presence” helps humankind accept death as a reality.  

It is hard for our minds to “take in” the reality that someone we loved has died and it takes a while to process it. It is especially hard in times of sudden death because mourners don’t have a chance to say “goodbye.”  In my experience, people benefit from being “present with the body” because while we are mental and emotional persons—we are also physical.  Our bodies have their own sensory intelligence and awareness, too.  So, the finality of death becomes more concrete as our own bodies absorb the reality of the death in front of us.  That experience helps us move forward and into the various phases of bereavement, productively. I realized — not right then, but over time that at some level I had made an agreement with my friend Carolyn about being the Messenger for this work. The importance of families caring for their own loved ones when they die. It had been a promise I made to Carolyn to carry this work forward.

Throughout your adult life you had taken different career paths, but when Carolyn’s death came and you say you were “called to this work”.

Everything changed. It’s what transformed my life. I told Carolyn’s story over and over again. Ittook a year and a half before I knew what I wanted to do. I called a group of people I had met along the way and they came to my house and we started what we called: The Natural Death Care Project.  That meeting was the beginning of our work in this world of natural death care.  We just kept meeting every week for almost a year, learning all the laws and the regulations and starting to assist families.

We had advisors come talk to us: a coroner, someone from the records office and other agencies. Then, we started telling hospices that we wanted to help people have this same kind of loving experience and people started referring people to us and that’s how it began. Once we began training doulas and guides, they returned to their home communities and co-created their own work in this realm.  They created such beautiful ripples out into our nation and world. It’s been unbelievable the way that our work took root so fast. People were really ready to do death differently and to return to the traditional, sacred ways and the more natural, organic, green ways to bury or cremate our loved ones.  We began small but within a very short period of time, the movement blossomed and it just keeps rippling!

Why were people so attracted to this work in your community in Sonoma County?

The reason that people were drawn to our community, I believe, is that Sebastopol (and the county) are fertile communities for initiating things in a more natural, organic way. That’s what Sebastopol is like. The natural birth movement took off here way back in the day, too.  So, it was an outgrowth to introduce the natural death movement to Sebastopol and people were ready.

So, you brought together the community to create Final Passages and Home Funeral Education. What helped to advance the Final Passages program?

First the media got wind of our project and I suddenly found myself on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. From there it went like wild fire and I was on CNN and FOX news on TV. I was interviewed on a number of radio programs and that began to spread the word of what we were trying to share with the world. Then things opened up for us to travel to other states as well as other countries to carry the message: including, the UK, New Zealand and Canada.  I went to teach at the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance conference and other national and international conferences were often held in different states or communities.  I met students from Turkey and Australia.  People were hungry to learn this information that had been hidden from us.  I mean young people shouldn’t have to go to a Mortuary science school to learn how to shop for a funeral or learn about what happens to the body when you die. More recently, books have been written about what happens to the body and how to care for it after death. I think Mortician Caitlin Doughty’s  books  (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, 2014; From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World in Search of a Good Death, 2017; Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death, 2020) have really helped open up that whole subject and Caitlin demystifies it.   

Altogether you have touched people from Sonoma County to Turkey to Australia to England.

Yes, I’m thinking I’ve served more than 450 people and families but you can’t count the families that I’ve coached on the phone over the years and consulted with over the Internet or conference calls, while I held counsel with them during a home funeral, because they were too far away from me to physically be present. Then, you begin to count the hundreds of students, the thousands of conferences goers and all the workshops and presentations that I’ve taught over these 25 years. It’s a lot. It’s been wonderful.

Was it hard to create positive working relationships in your community with commercial funeral directors?

We only had one Funeral Home in town that was willing to work with us for a while.  And then he got pressured by other funeral homes to not help us and eventually he backed out. Then we had to find other places and at first we didn’t know if we would be able to find one. I was really devastated. However, I just kept calling everybody and finally found Santa Rosa Memorial Park. As a nonprofit they really were more open than all the other funeral homes which were either privately owned or corporate. Eventually two other locally owned funeral homes started up that were more than willing to meet our families’ needs. They are Adobe Creek and Pleasant Hills Funeral Homes. We have formed good relationships with their directors because they don’t feel threatened by the work that we do, and are interested in diverse ways to honor the dead. 

How does the way Final Passages “reclaim” and “re-embrace” the old ways when cultures were more cohesive?

What we do really is ancient tradition in modern times. We’re going back to old ways: back to the ancient art of midwifery, when it was common to have a wake in the home with the body lying peacefully in the parlor for visitors to pay their last respects. I’m fairly sure that many of the same women who brought babies into the world also helped assist people out of the world, too. These women who helped with birth and death were our played an important role as “midwives” and “shrouding women”, as they were often called back then.

In mythology we refer to that sharing as the “Womb and Tomb cycle” as such mortal conditions were not as disconnected as they are in today’s times. So, it wasn’t unusual for fertility goddesses to also be worshipped as Underworld deities as well. To authentic, early cultures birth and death were not as “divided” as they are in contemporary societies. It feels to me that capitalism can feed into that divide.

I feel like the corporations, well, their very basic methodology is capitalism and controlling market territory which is kind of antithetical to death: since everyone dies. It isn’t a market: it’s everyone.  Everyone’s dying all the time; you can’t control death.

What can be done so Americans are not so frightened by death? So disconnected? We live in one of the most death-phobic nations in the world.

We need to bring death learning into a person’s education when children are young. Teaching death and dying, per developmental level and teacher’s requirements—there is no reason that death and dying cannot be a part of a person’s public or private education. This would help enormously to alleviate fear around death. One school teacher did a project with her class. She said: we know what a picnic is, but do we know what death is?  Teacher goes on to say: if I say we’re going on a picnic, you know what that is—but if I say we’re going to die, well, students aren’t sure what that is, actually. So, the teachers and students talk about it and write an epitaph (the whole thing) and it’s just so great because you can see that even that early discussion will help them if one of their friends or somebody in their family dies. They’ll have discussed it and they’ll have talked about it. They may not understand it thoroughly but it’s not such a huge thing to help them get past their fears. Exposure to death and dying traditions would help remove fear too, by taking our classes and workshops when we can gather again in person.

I’ve often wondered why teachers don’t spend more time with students around death and dying. Kids get it very early on. They are honest about it. I also believe that our media and entertainment culture turn us into “violence-death-tragedy” voyeurs, almost.  We tune into violence to be “close to death” in a way that brings folks “near” but from the safety of their screen or set.  Problem is, though, these are not real deaths. Natural deaths are beautiful, not horrific. We have an entire culture terrified of the most natural process that we humans endure and experience, other than birth. We are so “disconnected” from natural death we have lost our ability to see death on its own, honest terms.

Yes, it’s so scary the negative images stuck in people’s brains from media around death instead of the beauty and grace that natural death care allows.…it is intimate and meaningful and offers a gentle landing for our families. But in this culture of ours, it’s so isolated with violent images, and disruptive patterns. It’s also compartmentalizing death. It removes the body which is the whole center of our focus. Entertainment deaths removes the body, or makes it macabre, and then we have this “empty space” to try to figure out what to do with our feelings.

Now that a pandemic is on and states have social restrictions, is it more difficult to have a home funeral?

It can be under these circumstances. You’re not with each other which to me, is tragic. Really, the important thing is to somehow create something that has meaning and memorializes your loved one, at home.

What do you suggest as ways to honor and memorialize our loved ones, at home?

One of the nicest things to do at home (and easiest too) is create an altar for your loved one over time. You set a sacred space, place lovely or symbolic fabric on it, a candle, set a photograph of the person on the fabric, then perhaps poems or a letter.  Maybe a special gift. . .a ring, a locket or keepsake that honors that person will bring forth a memory. You light the candle, say a few words, read a passage, perhaps a prayer, and that focuses the intention for the blessing on that altar.  You express words of gratitude or forgiveness. Whatever you need. You may place nature’s gifts upon it: flowers, feathers, shells, rocks and anything visual to honor that person’s life.  Write a letter to your loved one and place it on an altar, bury it or burn it.  In addition to altars in the home, one may wish to go out “into nature” and create beautiful Earth Altars to create a mosaic “on the ground” or spiral to symbolize your relationship, out of shells, leaves and rocks—anything that is earth friendly. Some create beach or river altars that then ebb and flow with the rising and falling tide. Perhaps a space in the garden is flat enough to set a labyrinth that recognizes the life of a person and your relationship in that spiral of a pairing. Another way to pay tribute is to create Stone Cairns that are easy to make, as they are rocks stacked on top of one another, usually in a tower or rock clusters that are monuments to remember the person who has died. Some of these same things can be done to honor Family Pets, too. Often a home altar for a dog will host a collar, leash, food dish, favorite balls, toys, etc. and family photographs of the pets, children who loved them and the entire family.  There are many creative ways to pay honor, to remember and to carry the memory of those who cross over before us.

Thank You, Jerrigrace Lyons for all you have done for the dying and their families. Thank you for your teachings and guidance. For answering the telephone when your wayward students call to ask a question or those ongoing calls from the public. Final Passages changed my life too and I’m all the more grateful for you and the work you do. I can’t think of a more caring and insightful community of healers. Thank you and Blessings to you on this Silver Anniversary.

My gratitude extends first to Mark Hill, my husband, Final Passages IT and invaluable all around logistics support for all our work, Janelle Macrae who previously co-directed, helped develop our original courses, co-authored our guidebook and is one of our grief instructors and to our exceptional Core Council, not only as notable death midwives and major supporters in every way, but who also have a wide variety of excellent skills. Those would include you dear Leslie, with your superb hand in writing, our assistant instructors, Sally Shannon and Michelle Vesser, our poignant poet, Constance Miles who has hosted our workshops for more than a decade, our health and fitness guidance and altar builders extraordinaire, Karen Cappa and Melissa Weaver, help with our online power points, Sue Gimpel and Leslie Shore and all of the members of our community who show up at our Movie Nights (when we can gather again) when we choose a film and discuss it afterwards to bring people closer to death. This life has been such a gift and this work: a profound calling. I am so indebted to Carolyn, all these years later, for believing in us, in me, for choosing me as a Messenger. We are filled with gratitude to a community that has held us all these years and will, I hope, stand with us many years longer into the future. I am eternally grateful to my angels and guides for walking beside me every step of the way on this amazing journey. What a wonderful time we have had and what an honor these past 25 years have been for all of us, here, at Final Passages.  

25 Years of News Media Coverage

Jerrigrace Lyons has been interviewed by a number of national media outlets over these 25 years, including: The Wall Street JournalUSA TodayMother Earth NewsSF Magazine, KRON 4, and CNN Headline News.  She was interviewed by The New York Times Magazine nearly one year ago for the in-depth article on the benefits of home and green funerals and how the movement changes the face of death in America: “The Movement to Bring Death Closer,” Dec. 19th, 2019. The article featured a photograph of Jerrigrace kissing her mom, Rose Lowenthal following Rose’s death in 2017.  Jerrigrace was also featured in the PBS documentary “A Family Undertaking,” in 2004 and available on Netflix.

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