A Community Coming Together for Viroqua Teens
By Charlene Elderkin
On a Sunday afternoon in early June I headed to the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells to give a presentation on Home Funerals. I had been invited to speak to the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners conference by the Columbia County Coroner who located me through the organization I founded in 2006, the Threshold Care Circle. TCC serves as a community resource for southwestern Wisconsin to educate and empower families who wish to care for their own at the time of death. Although it is perfectly legal to care for a deceased family member at home in Wisconsin, it is not well known, even among coroners. I hoped to shed some light on the subject.
I had been working on my 90-minute presentation for weeks. The PowerPoint I’d prepared articulated what a home funeral is, why families make that choice, the benefit of doing so, and how Coroners and ME’s could be of service to home funeral families. It included photos from home funerals that the Threshold Care Circle was connected to. I kept rearranging the slides to find just the right flow.
Four weeks before the conference our community in Viroqua, WI had suffered a terrible loss. At 2 AM on Mothers Day my co-worker, Arwyn, got the knock on the door that we all hope never to answer. A group of teenagers driving on a country road after prom went off the road and the two teenage boys sitting on the passenger side were killed when the side of the car hit a tree. Arrow, Arwyn’s firstborn, 18-year-old son died along with his 17-year-old friend Nate. The two girls in the car survived.
As Arwyn sat in shock next to her deceased son at the hospital, Janet Reed, the Vernon County Coroner asked her which funeral home to call. Arwyn answered, “I want to wash him at home.” Janet, who was no stranger to families caring for their own at home, understood.
Susan Nesbit, one of our five TCC consultants, was one of the first to know about Arrow’s death. Arrow’s stepfather, Frank, called her in the early hours of the morning trying to get a message through to one of Arrow’s siblings who was staying at a friend’s. The phone number he had been calling was not being answered; maybe Susan would know who else to call. “He should hear the news from me,” Frank said.
As the sun rose and word spread like a dense fog settling over the community, grieving teenagers, neighbors, and friends instinctively began gathering at the Wildingway home. No one was turned away and there was no holding back. The grief shared by every parent, every teen, every child was too new, too terrible to be denied. Arwyn was literally held up by a woman on either side of her for the next two days. Later that morning when Susan called to offer assistance, Arwyn affirmed that she wanted to bring Arrow home.
There were so many grief-stricken people gathered at the house, and so many things that needed doing. Susan arrived at the Wildingway home and started delegating. She made cleaning assignments. She gave a trusted family friend the task of gathering all the required paperwork and seeing that it was filled out properly. The open front porch was designated as the place Arrow would lie in honor, so fabric needed to be draped to give the space privacy.
Susan located a handmade wooden casket for Arrow to be placed in during the home visitation time. Another TCC member delivered a cardboard cremation coffin, setting it up outside on a stand, along with art supplies to encourage mourners to artfully adorn the coffin. She also brought our “death midwifery kit” containing the supplies needed to care for the body, along with a massage table upon which Arrow would be washed and dressed.
Around 3 PM it was time to pick up Arrow’s body from the hospital morgue. Susan drove her van as the transporting vehicle, and Arwyn rode behind in another car with a small group of friends. Arrow’s body was in the body bag required for transport. It would be a relief to get him home and release him from the bag. A circle of friends assembled at the house to care for the body, not really knowing what to expect. Arrow had donated eyes, heart valves, bones and tissue. All willingly stretched beyond their comfort zones to support their grieving friend. Arwyn washed the face of her son; the circle of women cared for the rest of his body with tears, prayers and gentle caresses; washing, dressing and placing him in the wooden casket on the porch.
Although dry ice is often used for cooling the body, in our rural area it is not very accessible, so we utilize a reusable product called Techni ice™. The ice that had been divided up among TCC members was now gathered and delivered for use. Susan assigned two women to “ice duty”—changing the ice every eight hours to ensure the body was kept cool. Vigil assignments were given so that Arrow would always have someone with him, but Arwyn chose to spend that first night alone with her son on the cold porch.
It was a windy and cool Monday morning when I arrived at the family home to pay my respects. The sidewalk was already filled with chalk drawings of hearts and arrows. The cardboard coffin set up in the driveway was being decorated with drawings and farewell messages.
Blooming lilac bushes surrounded the porch with a palpable fragrance. Arwyn sat on the open porch wrapped in blankets, at times receiving teary and whispered condolences, at times sitting in silence. Arrow lay in the simple pine box, covered with lilac flowers and handmade cards placed by friends and loved ones. “Two hours in a funeral home would not have been enough,” she declared. Indeed.
After three days, those caring for Arrow’s body transferred him from the wooden casket to the cardboard coffin. The family then drove him to the crematorium, sent off with love and song by a large group that had spontaneously gathered outside the home that morning. Later in the week a standing-room-only memorial was held in a local church.
Our community had had a real initiation in supporting a family choosing to provide after-death care for their beloved at home. For four years the Threshold Care Circle had quietly and steadily held this possibility as an option, and now there were enough people who knew what to do that a whole network sprang into being in a few hours. I knew I could share Arrow’s story with the coroners as an amazing example of what is possible when a family chooses a home funeral.
My comfortable room at the Chula Vista was on the sixth floor with a balcony looking into the treetops and a faint glance of the river through the tall pines. I took a walk around the hotel and conference space, locating where everything was so I could get my initial confusion over before the big day. I stayed up, rearranging my slides one last time. While my presentation wasn’t until 3 PM, I planned to attend the entire conference, which started at 8 AM. Finally at midnight, I set my alarm for 6:30 AM and went to bed.
When the phone rang I was confused, thinking it was my wake-up call. But when I picked up the phone and heard Susan’s voice, immediately apologizing for waking me before my presentation, I knew there had been another death. No one calls with good news at 3 AM.
By day Charlene Elderkin is the marketing and membership manager of the Viroqua Food Cooperative, where Arwyn is the assistant produce manager. As a founding member of the Threshold Care Circle Charlene co-wrote My Final Wishes with Kathy Neidert, an advanced planning book available for sale at www.thresholdcarecircle.org. Charlene is gathering death stories for a book with the working title Where the Tree Falls, the Forest Rises. If you are interested in contributing your story, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.