A Tomb of One's Own

A course that explains how to celebrate and dispose of a dead loved one at home seems creepy. And then interesting. And then as natural as death itself.

I'm painting a coffin in the sunshine on the deck of a Sonoma County home that overlooks a gorgeous meadow, and the only really strange thing is that it's not creepy. Five other painters and I have paid a few hundred dollars apiece to learn how to clean, celebrate, and dispose of dead friends and relatives in a weekend workshop titled: "Midwifing Life's Final Passage, Level 1."

Our leader is a charismatic, statuesque woman with short, gray hair named Jerri Lyons, whose background in massage therapy and Costco marketing has uniquely prepared her to be an advocate for and paid consultant to people who want to handle their dead without the assistance of the professional funeral industry. There is, in fact, no law requiring such professional assistance, though disposing of the body is tricky, unless you happen to have your own designated cemetery. So my mission here is to find out why anyone in her right mind would want to host a dead loved one in the living room for a few days, and how to accomplish such a thing.

The mission starts with a Friday evening advance through the combat traffic zone that is Highway 101 north through Marin and into Sonoma County. Eventually, I make my way down a winding road that leads to Calistoga, and the Temple of Radiance, home to our weekend retreat. As it turns out, the Temple is a very nice but unremarkable suburban home on the edge of Santa Rosa; Jerri's borrowed it from a friend to conduct our workshop. An unrelated sign advertising the Petrified Forest stands not far from the driveway entrance.

While the other participants trickle in, all commenting on the traffic, and Jerri turns her attention to the minor chaos attendant to unloading supplies and parking more cars than logically fit in the Temple of Radiance's driveway, I wander through the open living room, where chairs and notebooks have been set out for us.

Off to one side of the room are tables that display pictures of dead people who are lying in decorated boxes and tips on funerals and Jerri's nonprofit organization, Final Passages. It's clear that this is her traveling trade-show booth; there are books and CDs and informational packets for sale. Another end of the room is devoted to a slide projector and screen.

In the kitchen, Mark Hill, Jerri's husband and assistant, is helping set things up. When he's not assisting Jerri with a home funeral, Mark repairs appliances and computers. A gentle and soft-spoken man, Mark shares with me that he has a background in paranormal activity and used to work with police in Southern California, looking for missing persons. Shortly after he met Jerri, he tells me, they went to a hospital where her friend's Aunt Mildred was dying. Apparently, he explains, Mildred died only a few moments after they walked in, and Mark suddenly felt her presence inside him, wanting to get out of the hospital. Mark walked to a tree outside, where he felt Mildred's spirit leave him and shoot up toward the sky. He went back into the hospital room and told Jerri that Aunt Mildred was gone. That was their second date.

Not really sure what to say, I mutter something about the weather in Southern California and meander back to the trade show spread to resume small talk about the traffic. Erin Murphy, another weekend participant and a meat cutter from Rohnert Park whose long, straight brown hair makes her look much too young to be a grandmother, remarks that it takes nothing more than a farmer painting a fence to knot the roads up around here.

Over dinner, we (there are six participants, along with Jerri, Mark, and Jerri's sister Donna, who also is helping out for the weekend) settle in to learn more about the home funeral movement.

It's impossible to be in the orbit of Jerri Lyons -- who was born Jerry, and changed her name to Jill and Jillora before finally settling on Jerri because of its more favorable numerology reading -- and be unaware that she came of age in Northern California in the late 1960s. She left San Francisco State University during its historically turbulent years, when students went on strike and clashed with police daily over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. As an adult, Jerri lived in a commune in Oregon, where she raised a daughter and ran a restaurant, before eventually making her way back to California.

Jerri and Mark share a home in Sebastopol, between Santa Rosa and the Sonoma County coastline. Now a grandmother, she is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, an institution best known for its quickie ordinations that allow friends to conduct wedding ceremonies, and that also come in handy for guiding people through a funeral. She also turns to spirit beings, angels, and other entities for assistance.

As with most of her previous career paths, Jerri didn't really plan to go into the home funeral business; the road just sort of manifested itself in front of her.

In 1994, Jerri's friend Carolyn died unexpectedly. A nurse, Carolyn worked at a healing arts center with Jerri, who had trained in Reiki and Trager massage after being injured on the job working in marketing at a Costco discount superstore. As it turned out, years earlier, Carolyn had penned instructions in the event of her death, noting that she did not want to go to a funeral home. Instead, Carolyn wanted her closest friends to take care of her body, host a celebration in her honor, and then have her cremated.

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