BURLINGTON, N.D. — During a recent home funeral in Burlington, N.D., Diane Herzog’s body rested in an open casket on the family’s scenic rural property, surrounded by her husband, three children, a few close friends and family pets.
The ceremony was officiated by her dear friend, Alecia Sarashun Veach, a certified death midwife who worked closely with the family since April, when Herzog’s cancer reached a terminal stage.
Veach said it was something that will live on in her forever.
“If you are open to the fact that this could help you heal, it is a beautiful experience,” she said.
Veach, 41, a native of Jamestown who now lives in Rugby, N.D., became a certified death midwife in November. She is also a Pagan minister and High Priestess with the Spiral Tree Tradition.
She’s aware of two others with the same certifications who practice in North Dakota: Nicolina Page and Omni Rogers-Mueller are friends who both live in the Fargo area.
Rogers-Mueller became the first certified death midwife in the state in December 2017, after receiving multiple requests from people to do prayers and small rites and rituals in homes and in hospitals.
“The priority is on the person who is passing, but we’re there for the family as well,” Rogers-Mueller said.
Even the pets said goodbye
Becoming certified in death midwifery involves taking and passing in-depth courses on grieving and the dying process, along with hands-on practice and role play.
Like a midwife supports a pregnant woman through pregnancy and birth, a death midwife supports a person nearing the opposite end of life’s spectrum.
Herzog had put cancer into remission for some time, but when it came back in full force in April, she decided she didn’t want to fight it anymore. She sought Veach’s help and support in the months to come, along with hospice services.
While hospice helped Herzog feel physically comfortable, Veach assisted with the grief process and with funeral and burial decisions.
“It isn't about me leading anything. It's about guiding,” she said.
Herzog, 59, a U.S. Army veteran, decided she would not be embalmed after her death.
She chose the tree under which her funeral was held, and her family made the casket in which she was buried in a Minot, N.D., cemetery with military honors.
Herzog’s emotional support animal, a German shepherd, laid near the casket, and her favorite cat jumped up on it at one point, walking nimbly along the edge as only cats do.
It’s not often that pets get to say goodbye in that manner, Veach said, noting that they grieve just as humans do.
Not in it 'for the money'
Rogers-Mueller has assisted about a dozen people and/or their families in a death midwife role and at several home funerals. She recently helped a man part ways with a beloved cat who was in pain and dying.
“It was the hardest,” she said.
Part of Veach’s interest in death midwifery is personal, because her father is seriously ill with heart and lung disease. She said it’s important to face the fear of his passing, rather than run from it.
Death is something most people don’t like to talk about, and hospitals and funeral homes allow them to distance themselves from it, if they choose, Veach said.
However, her approach isn't for everyone, either.
"Not everyone is able to accept a real hands-on approach to death, because they're not ready for that idea," Veach said.
Though she’s a Pagan minister, Veach said death midwifery and home funerals are not associated with paganism. Sometimes, she incorporates Reiki, a healing approach in her practice, if requested.
A death midwife can also serve as a contact to a coroner, police department, funeral home and crematorium after a loved one’s death.
Rogers-Mueller said no funeral she’s done, from starting the paperwork to officiating at the ceremony, has cost more than $2,000.
“I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the passionate need for individuals to be more involved with their loved one,” she said.
By seeing the death process firsthand, the aim is not to make people fear their own death. It’s to remind them to live their lives to the fullest, so that “when I'm at the end, I have no regrets,” Veach said.