Returning after death care back to families and communities

By Sarah Tolmie – Life & Love

An often quoted statistic in end-of-life conversations is that 70% of people wish to die at home.  Whilst not nearly close to that figure actually manage to die at home, palliative care and home hospice services across the country are improving and increasing to support families to achieve this outcome.

Death literacy amongst the general community is gaining strong momentum and there is a growing trend for families to be more aware of the many choices and rights around end-of-life, dying and funerals.

What may still be less charted territory is the home-vigil and home funeral. Did you know you can keep or bring your loved one home after death and even have a funeral at home?

Not only can families support a loved one to die at home, but a death care professional like myself, and end-of-life doulas, can help families to facilitate after death care, home vigils and even the funeral taking place at home.

What is a home Vigil?

The act of vigil is to stay in a quiet place and wait. It is often associated with prayer and acts of sacred presencing.

An end-of-life vigil is the act of being with another as they journey towards death. Family and significant others gather by the bedside of a dying person in the weeks, days, or hours prior to the death event.

Working as a death care professional for many years (as a holistic celebrant, non-religious hospital chaplain, funeral director and end-of-life consultant), I know one of the hardest things in the process after a loved on dies, is parting with their physical presence.

Having been at many homes or hospital bedside occasions, this transition can be very traumatic and often too fast.  An after-death home vigil, however, extends time with your loved one for intimate home viewing, care-taking and private rituals.  You can even do the first funeral rites from home.

The value of extending time at home after death allows for close friends and community to gather and bring comfort, support and essential ‘witness’. It gives you precioius time.  Sometimes it takes our soul and spirit and body longer to catch up to what our brain ‘knows’ – our loved one has died.  Pacing things a bit slower, in your own private environment, allows us to gentle our way through this new and hard reality.

In my work as an end-of-life consultant helping families to support their loved one dying at home we almost always include a plan to support their stay at home after the death. This helps to provide a safe and gentle pacing and caretaking of their departure.  The family can even participate in looking after their loved one – washing, dressing, shrouding – ensuring their loved one’s personal physical dignity is maintained and all the family is emotionally and physically supported in this delicate transition phase.

Even if your loved one does NOT die at home – but rather dies in a hospital or nursing home – it is still possible with the support of myself or your own death doula (or a progressive funeral director like the team I partner with at Picaluna Funerals) to have your loved one brought home. NSW Health regulations can allow a person to stay home after death for up to 5 days.  This may need to involve the use of a cooling plate to maintain care and integrity.

In my experience though, 24-48hrs is generally enough for families to have their time.  Sometimes we don’t even use a cooling plate at all if we just take a few more hours after the death (maximum is generally 8hrs) before they need to be taken into mortuary care.

What happens at a Vigil?

In addition to having time to give care and be in the presence of your loved one – often the home becomes a place of additional sacred activity around the death process. During the time of vigil, a number of lovely activities can be considered to create a rich and nurturing environment and experience for families.

These can include:

  • bringing the coffin home to be painted or decorated
  • making a homemade shroud/silk screen burial cloth
  • making your own flower arrangements
  • cooking up family meals and preparing the catering for the celebration
  • going through photo albums and preparing a photo tribute
  • sharing in bespoke rites, prayers and song

The Home Funeral

Even if you haven’t done a home vigil, the funeral itself can take place at home.  It is treated like any other funeral venue option (and we have many these days – parks, surfclubs, function centres, community halls, national parks etc) – so why not at home?

Certainly, in terms of costs, it is great value, and it offers a many layered experience.  You can have time before ceremony in quiet vigil, which may include a viewing.  You can really take your time in rich ceremony without fear of chapel timed-sessions running out and being too short.  You can stay in the comfort of your home and garden and host the wake and reminisce (and even have your own shindig) into the wee hours if that is what you want.

For many of my funeral families, bringing the funeral home has been a powerful choice for intimacy and meaning making.  It is a most poignant option for some whose loved one has had an extended hospitalisation or time of separation in nursing home or aged care.  The importance of “bringing them home one last time” can be incredibly healing and comforting.

I remember for one dear nonagenarian I farewelled, we brought Ed back to his farm where he lay in rest in his drawing room…with an open fire on….open casket ……and quiet time with family.  Surrounding their beloved patriarch, the family gathered for morning tea – 11am as always on the farm (with the extra addition of some good champagne to go with the scones and cakes).

I conducted Ed’s funeral service in his garden and his grandchildren pallbeared him past the plaque of his already deceased wife where we paused and took a shot of whiskey before he was placed on his beloved vintage tractor & flat bed trailor for one more lap of his farm.  The neighbourhood had lined the driveway and streets and the local fire brigade lead the hearse through the small mountain town for his final departure.

The day continued with Ed’s famous vege soup…and more champagne….and sitting around the fire pit.  Couldn’t get more perfect.

Sarah Tolmie
Marriage Therapist
Holistic Celebrant
End-of-Life Consultant
Funeral Director & Planner with Picaluna Funerals

Sarah Tolmie – Life & Love: Sarah is a marriage therapist, life & love and relationship coach, end-of-life consultant, an independent and bespoke funeral director and holistic celebrant.

She provides holistic care, mentoring, guidance, healing and transformation for individuals, couples and families at their most important times of life & love – at end-of-life, in love & relationship, and in ritual and celebration.

Sarah partners with Picaluna Funerals to provide bespoke, authentic and transformative funerals.

Sarah has created a free resource and video series for families facing dying, death and grief called “Landscapes of Life & Love and Loss” .

In this 4 x video series Sarah discusses how to begin the conversation about death – why we need to think about death; how to prepare for death; how to manage the shock of death; how to caretake the grieving; and how to integrate death into life & love.

A FREE downloadable handbook is also provided to help you.

Summary of Sarah’s Consulting, Funeral and Doula services

  • Emotional, relational and spiritual ‘pastoral’ care and personal coaching through illness, dying and death (as well as grief & bereavement specialist counselling);
  • Development of support plans and facilitating the conversations at difficult times of treatment/or end of treatment, palliative care and final living pathways;
  • Presence and guidance for the family during the active phase of death;
  • After death care (including body rituals such as home vigils, washing/dressing, anointing, shrouding and funeral rites);
  • Complete & Holistic Funeral Directorial Service – funeral planning & arrangements, funeral conducting and bespoke ceremonial services.

To find out more about Sarah and her services in Life & Love, visit


There was a team of close friends supporting Cat to live out her days at home – with Magnus and a view of the ocean. When Cat died, I provided a cooling bed to extend her time at home. We lovingly washed, anointed and dressed her. Magnus and the family could gentle and slow down the pace of her departure so that everyone could say their goodbyes. Photography by Lisa Haymes

The next day we had a small breakfast feast and I conducted a simple home ceremony and we carried her out. It was profoundly homely, simple, beautiful, intimate and dignified. Photography by Lisa Haymes

The same friends that helped ‘carry’ Cat and Magnus through her end of life care, completed her home ceremony by carrying her coffin for her final farewell

Before Ed’s  funeral service in the garden, his family spent time for an open casket viewing with Ed in his lounge room while ‘morning tea’ was served

Ed took a final lap around the farm, first stopping at his wife’s plaque in the garden for a shot of whiskey

After dying at home and a couple of days laying in rest at home with his wife and children, Ryan was farewelled in his front garden.

The family had time to decorate Ryan’s coffin – and language warning 🙂

After Ryans private home farewell a larger community memorial was held at his parent’s in-law property – complete with pizza van and beers.

Julie was an artist and before she was brought back to home for her funeral, the family spent time painting, be-jeweling and decorating her signature ruby-red coffin. Further messages were also writtin on the coffin before the ceremony by all the guests.

Julie’s service was held in front of her home, in her beloved garden.