After Death Care for Jack

Jack Heckelman

When my second husband, Jack Heckelman, died recently, he had thought about his plans, and he knew that he wanted to have a home vigil, and wanted to be cremated. Even so, we had not made exact plans for taking care of his body after death. We had been so busy living, and taking care of every day. And so, when he died, I had to figure it out in the moment. I called close friends who would help wash his body and make that a special time. I called other friends to come and help place his body in the casket. I called another friend to call people and set up a 24 hour vigil for three days. Then I got very quiet and the friends arrived, and we had time to say our first goodby as we took care of his body, and dressed him in his favorite clothes.

Then, about four hours after he died, I called the Hospice to let them know so they could let the coroner know. Since we were in Hospice, this part of the process was very simple. Then I called the Cremation Society to put in place the process. I told them that we had washed the body, and wanted a home vigil, and that in 72 hours, we would like the cremation. I told him we had a casket, but needed a stand. He brought that to the house, and then we did the paperwork. While he was on his way, I found “dry ice” in the yellow pages, and we called, and the ice was delivered within a half an hour.

Then the next set of friends arrived, who placed Jack’s body in the casket, and arranged the dry ice, with help from the man from the Cremation Society. We placed the beautiful casket, hand made by Jack’s niece and Native American friends from Wisconsin which had just been delivered the day before, in the living room with candles and flower. And so, we were ready to receive family and friends in our home who wished to say goodbye to Jack. I had quiet time with Jack after he had died. I took my time to be with him for a while before I made any of my calls. And now that the home was prepared for him, and he was ready, and friends were coming, I took time to slip away, to walk and be with my thoughts and memories and sadness. As I walked down to the lake, a saw a hawk land on a tree very close by. We looked at each other for a long time, he flew away, and I continued on my walk, feeling the impossible mixture of sadness and peace. I had begun my vigil – knowing that there were people at the house with Jack allowed me to find my own way as I needed. The next three days were full, arduous, and rich with love and peace surrounding them.

Following Lisa’s reflections is a more detailed story of the after death care for Jack, including the body washing.

“In Sacred Service”Personal Reflections on the Home Vigil for Jack Heckelman By Lisa Venable, close friend

I woke unusually early the day Jack made his transition back to Spirit. A crystal clear spring morning, the birds sang with the rising sun as I drifted into deep prayer. I could feel something was different.

“Jack, are you still with us?” I asked his soul with trepidation, knowing his days on earth were numbered. Cancer had planted itself deep in Jack’s body.

“No,” he said gently. “I have gone.”

Feeling at peace, I went back to sleep. I knew Jack didn’t struggle with his death because he didn’t fear it. I knew he gladly embraced the light for we had watched him prepare for this moment for many weeks. It all felt so easy and so right.

Never before had I witnessed someone “show up” for their death with such open arms and a ready heart. When Jack was first diagnosed with cancer, he was persistent in seeking all healing measures possible for a cure. But there came a point when he finally surrendered and let go, welcoming his transition. And, he took all of us right along with him. We helped him die and it left our hearts wide open. Little did I know we would also help him live in the Light.

When I finally woke up again, I ran to the phone. Sure enough, Linda had left a message saying he had crossed over. I expected to hear tears and feelings but instead she invited me to “come and help wash the body.” I took a deep breath. This was all completely new to me and yet ancient at the same time. “Wash the body.” Not, “what am I going to do?” or “I can’t live without him” but, “come, wash the body.” Jack’s passing was not a mourning or a fear of the future but a sacred service. This was a time for pure, holy giving. I ran to the car, tears strolling down my face for Linda, for Jack, for myself and for the opening this created for what I now call, “beautiful death.”

Magic swept the crisp morning air as I looked up at the sky. This was a day the angels had made not only for Jack but also for all of us who would be touched by what lie ahead. I arrived at Jack and Linda’s house and quietly entered to the sound of low, chanting voices. I saw Jack’s casket, carved in love, sitting empty in the dining room. I fell into more tears knowing Jack was truly gone now. Linda greeted me with open arms and invited me into the space where Jack was being washed.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Real people (not morticians!) were actually caring and gently loving this dead body as if it were a newborn child just entering the world. There was no fear or unbearable grief, only nourishment. Reverence. This was a holy being now, fully clothed in the Great Spirit and we given the privilege to be in sacred service. I felt fully honored to be in the room as they finished the washing and then began to anoint him with oils. I touched Jack’s forehead and heart and laid my head gently on his chest. “Thank you,” I whispered. “For being like a father to me and for showing me how to die so gracefully.”

I sat alone with Jack awhile feeling this deep, sweet presence. Nancy, his sister, had said that death is birthing yourself back to the Spirit, only you do the labor. Jack had and now his Spirit was in the room with me. The energy felt strong and I sensed I was being lifted right up with it. It was remarkable for me because I am sensitive to energy, but I wondered how it might feel to those who were not so used to such things.

Then the house began to stir as practical concerns for the body emerged such as moving it into the casket and keeping it cool. People began to appear out of nowhere to move Jack, dry ice arrived and even the Cremation Society director showed up to help. Despite the hubbub, the room remained amazingly calm and expressions were again reverent and sacred versus tears and sadness. The only person I really saw cry in those first hours was the funeral director as he watched in amazement at what we were doing.

We did the necessary work as if we were caring for the Christ. I thought, Jesus would have wanted this for all of us! Why have we denied ourselves sacred death for so long? It is all part of the cycle of eternal life after all. We are all spirits on a holy journey who deserve a supportive, loving transition from whence we came.

What happened next left me further in awe and grateful beyond measure. I witnessed a community of people come and go for 3 days, keeping close vigil with Jack’s body and spirit. Linda was an integral part of the Waldorf School that came with a built-in support system that surrounded her in all of her previous family deaths. Beautiful people streamed through the house all longing to help, ready to serve by taking turns sitting with Jack.

The hours were filled with thanks, prayer, inspirational reading, poetry, long evenings of beautiful singing, socializing of all ages and telling “Jack” stories. Even the children watched the process in wonder, albeit some were timid, knowing they too, would someday meet this fate. This unique and yet not so unfamiliar ritual blessed us all. Imagine a farmhouse 100 years ago where someone has died and how normal it must have been to take care of the body right then and there. Communities used to care for their own before someone figured out how to make money at it and it’s still an ancient ritual practiced in many faiths and cultures.

Friends, encouraged by Linda’s great openness, warmth, and gracious invitation for good byes at any hour, came to what all experienced as a truly unique and uplifting life celebration, blessed by Jack’s spiritual presence. Whenever I walked in the house, I often experienced joy, yet it was okay to show any emotion. What seemed different to me was that people were in service to one who had made his way through life and now to another. It was a time for blessing and hope. A time for honoring and helping Jack gently cross the threshold into his new and glorious life.

At the end of the third day, those closest to Jack closed the vigil with an intimate ceremony. As people gathered around the body in a circle, I sat close to Jack hoping for one last exchange. The smell was slowly creeping through the silks and flowers that surrounded him now and I flinched. I felt rather human once more wishing for another seat but I sat still, embracing the whole of life. No matter how unpleasant, this was all part of the journey. I began to drum in hopes of creating sacred space once more and others joined in. We shared our memories of Jack and our blessings from his conscious life and death. We sang and we cried and we rejoiced!

Then, one by one, we cascaded by the casket garnishing him with flower after flower and whispering our goodbyes. Tears showed up in full force and we cried and hugged one another in great love. A few wrapped the body in a maroon colored shroud and carried Jack to the hearse waiting in the driveway. As I watched the pall bearers bring him out, I realized for the first time that my dear Jack was really dead. For the last 3 days, he was so alive around us and the house felt full of his breath. Now he was going back to the earth. I finally felt the true loss of this sweet man.

When we arrived at the crematorium, I figured we would be dropping him off and then have one last prayer and drum together. But I was gravely mistaken. We were going to accompany his body into the burning chamber and stay with him some more while his body turned to ash. I was dumbstruck and not sure how I missed this minor detail but I took several deep breaths and remembered the sanctity of what we had been doing. This was simply the last step in accompanying his body to the final release and we would support him in the journey. Not knowing if I could handle it, I followed the group down into the basement and let myself be led by these brave and beautiful people. They had done this before and I trusted I would be transformed by the experience. And, I was.

Nancy said a prayer and then we literally put him in the oven. I wanted to say “No! This cannot be! He can’t go,” but I kept breathing. They shut the door and we drummed softly with our tears. A chant was started, “the earth, the air, the fire, the water, return, return, return, return…” and we walked in circle for a long time repeating the words over and over. We were returning this body to earth with a resounding zest and our voices grew louder and stronger. Again, we were in service to this soul and body and we took it most seriously. We began to drum louder and faster and the energy built upon itself.

Time seemed non-existent until Linda finally said, “we are done.” It was time to go and we went quietly leaving the rest to Jack. I found a space on the ground outside and sat for a while integrating the whirl of life and death energy I had just experienced. I felt nothing but gratitude and a deepening of my own spirit.

As I look back now, I realize Jack’s death did not seem like a death at all, but a joyful opening for all of us who were there. Thank you, Jack, for a truly holy gift. I am forever changed.

A more detailed version written in 2007 by Linda Bergh

Jack knew he wanted to die at home, and when it was clear 6 months later that the treatments couldn’t do more, he initiated going into hospice, He signed that there would be no emergency measures. Now our focus was to comfort and care for him. It is a very delicate line between using all your forces to live, and to use your forces to live towards dying. In these last weeks he was child like and filled with wisdom, saying that his spirit was coming to take him home, and that he would be with us forever. Strangely, he was comforting us ,and helping us let go.
This was particularly true during the last days, when he was in hospice. We had created a ritual, of having on open house for music on Wednesday evenings, and people who could would come and sing. On this Wednesday, we called the circle with the added thought that we didn’t know how much longer he would live. On the day that the doctor had said he should contact family immediately – that his lungs were shutting down and it would not be long,
The room was full of light and laughter and Amazing grace, and Jack was sitting in a corner glowing in a child like way, soaking up the music and the feeling in the room. That day the doctor had told him to contact his family – that it would not be long. He died four days later, after his children, one from each coast, had come to spend the day with him. During those days, he had said goodby to each person who came to him, often with a sentence of insight, or thoughtful advice, particularly to the young people. People could give to him and he could give back. We were fortunate, he was fully conscious up to the last hours, when he said “It is enuf.” He died at home.
His wish was to have a three day vigil in our home. He had asked his niece to make his casket, and she had synchronistically delivered it the day before he died, inscribed with dragonflies and lined with rainbow cloth .He was excited to see it and it was last time he spoke or stood, welcoming his casket.
So, we held the vigil in the living room, Jack lying in the newly made casket… I have to admit that even though I had been through all these experiences, I had never gotten to calling the mortuary to make arrangements ahead of time.And somehow I don’t think I got that he was really dying. So after I had time privately with him after he died, and friends came to help me wash and care for his body. I called the same mortuary and they responded immediately with total support for the home vigil, since I was working within the 72 hour legal time frame between death and cremation.
I was able to be home, get my rest, and know that when I awoke, someone would be with Jack. The first morning at 6, 24 hours after he died, I awoke, heard music, and went to the living room where a friend was playing the lyre. I sat quietly, and felt a deep sense of peace fill my whole body. That gave me such strength for the time ahead and I was so grateful .
Jack died in April of 2005 The reason I am sharing my story today is that I wish that others, both the dying and the caregivers, could know that this opportunity of home death and home vigil is available to them.

The washing of the body is described in Nancy Poer’s book.
I want to share the experience of washing Jack’s body and having sacred ceremony after he died.
Present with me were Ron Moor, who is a minister and a healer, Ann Westfall, who is also a minister and a healer, Sally a nurse and a healer, Lisa, a minister and a spiritual counselor, and myself.
I called these people because of their background in sacred ritual, and because they had had a healing relationship with Jack during his months with cancer.

I remember mostly a feeling that is timeless and holy. With Ann and Ron’s help I have reconstructed the course of the experience for me to share at this conference.

It is early morning. Jack died at 6 AM or so. I was asleep. There was an eclipse of the sun at 6 , so perhaps he synchronized with that. It was also earth day the day before, and the first day of passover.
There is a deep sense of peace in the room. One by one the friends arrive.
We get the supplies. We light some incense. We have rosemary in the room and have had during the three days. Before we begin, we stand around Jack, and hold hands and go into a deep silent meditation.
We roll down the hospital bed, and lovingly remove his pajamas and wash his body. It is with such a feeling of reverence and love, and I am feeling such gratefulness that we are able to give him this last gift while he is so close. That is people who know and love him.

Then we take the sacred hyssop, used for millinium it is called the holy herb in the Mediterranean, and is said to help the passage of the soul as it leaves the physical body. We each took some of the oil, and said goodby to Jack in our own way. We all let the oil take us to a timeless silent place.

Then Ron took an eagle feather, and, circling each chakra beginning at the root chakra, unwound each chakra so that it could further release the body.

Then we sang Jack’s name Theodore Jack Heckelman, and then sang Soul of Jack Go in Peace Go in peace . This was also to help Jack to move to the eternal parts of the soul, and let go of the energy of the physical body.

These sacred moments helped me too to release the physical to the spiritual. I felt peace and harmony around me. This is ritual we can all do.
I think that even if we cannot be with the person, we could do this ceremony in our own space and imagination, and send it to the person involved as a gift.