At the beginning of this year, Angela Woosley was ready to start an exciting new chapter in her life. After 10 years as a senior teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Program of Mortuary Science and five years working as a mortician in a number of Twin Cities funeral homes, she had decided to go into business for herself.
Woosley had grown increasingly disenchanted with the modern Western approach to death and dying, the idea that families needed to be separated from their deceased loved ones, that funerals must take place in impersonal chapels, that the terminally ill must spend their last months on earth fighting death rather than reflecting on their lives.
“Somehow we have this idea that the dead belong to somebody,” Woosley said. “That feels weird. You’ve been caring for your mom all this time, maybe hospice comes in and helps, but she’s still your mom. Then, when she dies, all of the sudden strangers in suits come in whisk her away. It almost starts to feel like they own her.”
These strangers, known as funeral directors, take control of your loved one and how they will be memorialized.
“They control when you can see her, when you can spend time with her, when you can mourn with her. That never really made sense to me. Nobody owns anybody — living or dead.”
Woosley decided she wanted to take a different approach to death, so she created Inspired Journeys, a natural death care company that provides alternative end-of-life options for clients, including doula services for the terminally ill, legacy project planning and planning for in-home vigils and funerals.
“I felt there were ways I could use both my background as an educator and my background as a mortician to help enhance other end-of-life options that had a lot of value and meaning for me,” she said.
She gave her notice at the university, earned end-of-life doula and funeral celebrant certifications, created a website and set out to build connections for her business. “My next step was going to be outreach to nursing homes and senior living facilities, to start forming connections with staff and residents,” she said.
Then everything changed.
Starting in late February, senior-living facilities around the state limited visits from outsiders as a new virus began circulating worldwide. The virus, COVID-19, was proving especially deadly to the elderly. As residents began to fall ill, senior housing around the state went into lockdown mode, and elderly people still living in the community sheltered in place.
Suddenly it didn’t feel like the right time to talk about natural death. People were focused on doing everything they could just to stay alive.
“My original plan for 2020 was thrown off the rails,” Woosley said. “I realized that the coming year wasn’t going to be anything like what I’d expected.”
Ready to help
While she understood that plans for her new business would need to shift, Woosley recognized that she had the skills and experience that could be used to help others in this time of crisis.
“I know I have these different talents that I can share,” she said. “When I thought about that, it felt like a really wonderful challenge to put on my creative hat and start thinking of ways I can use my skills to help people right now.”
She decided to take shifts at a local mortuary trade service, a company that provides transportation for a deceased person from their place of death to a funeral home or mortuary. Woosley is on call several days a week. Her phone rings at any time of the day with information about the location of a deceased person and their destination.
These days, many, but not all, of Woosley’s transfers are people who have died from COVID-19. When she does her work, she wears an N-95 mask and nitrile gloves, a face shield and an isolation gown over her clothing. She moves the deceased person from a bed to a cot using a folded bed sheet before placing them into a protective plastic shroud.
Because there may be a risk of disease transmission from breath left in the lungs, the CDC has recommended that a deceased person’s face is covered at transfer. Otherwise, Woosley said, the risk of infection is relatively low.
Though these transfers are generally performed out of sight of family and friends, Woosley said she makes a point of acknowledging the humanity of each person she encounters and how their death changes the lives of their loved ones.
“I think it is important to bring some level of ceremony to what is otherwise a perfunctory task for many funeral homes,” she said. “Because of the context we are living in now, for me this has taken an even deeper meaning.”
If family members are able to be there at the time of transfer, Woosley makes a point of encouraging them to participate in the transfer or moment ceremony.
Many of Woosley’s transfers are from nursing homes. Woosley said she feels honored when staff make time to speak with her about the residents they have lost. This is another time when her experience working with grieving friends and family feels particularly helpful.
“It has been extremely rewarding to connect with staff and validate their feelings of grief from losing residents,” she said. “This has been a terrible time for them and they need to be able to talk about how they are doing.”
Once a deceased person is moved to a funeral home, family members may have questions about the level of contact they are allowed to have with their loved one. Many people are under the impression that they are not allowed to visit deceased family members who have died of COVID-19. This is not true, Woosley said.
“There are plenty of family members who are going into a funeral home after a COVID death and spending time with their loved one,” she said. These visits can be emotionally important and are not dangerous to visitors: “The dead themselves don’t pose an immediate infection risk.”
Woosley thinks it is important that families give themselves time to mourn. The state of emergency may give people the sense that they have to speed up the funeral, cremation or burial process. She wants to let people know that they don’t have to rush. No matter the circumstance, death is not an emergency. While a person’s remains need to be cared for fairly quickly, a funeral or memorial service can happen on its own time.
Many of the families Woosley has spoken to at the time of transfer have a number of questions for her. “Some may ask, ‘Can I even have a funeral?’ Should I do a direct cremation and pray for the best?’” she said. “I’m making sure that people know about options like virtual services or an online memorial.”
As a certified funeral celebrant, Woosley has been able to lead memorial services. Some have been small, socially distanced affairs in funeral home chapels. Others have been online. “What’s been helpful and heartening to me is that I can still encourage and help people plan services,” she said. “Even if it is going to look different from how services have in the past, it is still important to honor the dead.”
The past few months have been hard on everyone. While Woosley’s grateful that her skills can be put to use, she admits that there are times when she feels exhausted, like the weight of these distanced losses sits heavily on her shoulders.
“Just like everyone else, I have ups and downs,” she said. When her work feels particularly hard, Woosley tries to focus on the moments when she can provide care, guidance and compassion to families in distress: “That is absolutely why I wanted to start this business in the first place, and the fact that I am still able to find those moments even in these difficult times really fills me up and warms my heart.”
Life focused on care
Raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Woosley always knew that she wanted to find a career in a caring profession. Her focus came naturally, she believes.
“My mom was an RN. My dad was a pastor,” she said. “If you cross your eyes and squint, that’s a mortician.”
She was inspired by the way her parents approached their work, and she hopes that she has been able to bring their well-honed skills into her chosen career: “I really appreciated my mom’s ability to think clinically and have a skill set that was unique to her profession,” she said. “I adored my dad’s ability to listen compassionately and help people through tough times.”
It wasn’t always clear to Woosley that her life’s work would be in mortuary science. After a first, unsuccessful attempt at college, she was in her 20s when she landed on the idea of being a funeral director. Because she thought there are few women in the field, she felt it was important to earn the best credentials possible; she wanted future employers and clients to see her as qualified and capable as any male mortician.
“I moved from Wisconsin to go to the University of Minnesota because it had one of the few bachelor’s of science degrees offered in mortuary science,” Woosley said. “It is also the first in the country to be connected to a medical school.”
She loved the decade she spent teaching at the University of Minnesota. The job gave her the opportunity to inspire passion in her students and helped her stay on top of the latest end-of-life trends. This was how she learned about the “green death” movement.
Woosley said she was inspired by a more natural approach to end-of-life care — learning about people who have moved away from mainstream funeral practices like embalming and pricey caskets inspired her to launch her own business. She planned to use her teaching skills to educate clients and their families about the benefits of a more natural approach to death.
“To me there is some beauty in giving families permission to do what they already had permission to do anyway — to be able to partner with them in the transition from this world to the next and to not have to worry about grieving on command,” Woosley said. “I want to be able to talk with families and help them understand what their options really are.”
‘Death is coming back to the home’
While death can be sad and painful, it is a natural process, and Woosley would like to encourage more people to lean into it, to step forward and be part of the dying process. In the not-so-distant past, and today, in many non-Western cultures, people are more directly involved in the care of their loved ones after death. Many mainstream funeral providers don’t offer many opportunities for between the living and the dead: Woosley believes that this sense of separation may actually make the grieving process harder.
When she worked as a funeral director in a number of Twin Cities funeral homes, Woosley was often called to pick up a deceased person from a hospital or nursing home. Too often she felt like well-meaning staff ushered grieving families out of the room as she came to take their loved one away.
“It was really common for staff to say to the family, ‘Would you like to wait outside and let the funeral director do her job?’” Woosley said. “The truth is, you don’t have to step away. I like to invite families to join into this process, to make this moment special. It is not a secret what I do when I transfer a person from their bed. To be part of it is special and profound.”
It used to be common for families to care for deceased loved ones at home, holding visitations or wakes in bedrooms or living rooms. Today such a practice, while still legal in Minnesota, is relatively uncommon.
Woosley said that more people are showing interest in returning to the old ways of honoring the dead. “Death is coming back to the home,” she said. The growing use of home hospice care makes the idea of a dying at home feel more acceptable. And if a person dies at home, a family may want to continue to care for the body there, rather than calling in a funeral home and quickly sending their loved one away.
Woosley’s next goal is ambitious, and she said she is using some of the open time that COVID has left in her schedule to work to make it a reality: She’d like to become licensed as an independent funeral home, so that she could help families with basic care tasks for their deceased loved ones at home, like “washing the person’s hair; helping to dress them; helping to place them in a casket; explaining non-invasive, natural solutions to embalming.”
In accordance with state law, Woosley would maintain an office at another funeral home, but she’d like to be licensed to provide services in private homes. So far, though families can legally do those things in their own homes without supervision, the Minnesota Department of Health has told her she cannot provide those services in private homes.
“I can be present in a home but I can’t touch the deceased,” she said. State law, she explained, says that “any business that a funeral director usually does can’t be done outside of the funeral home where their license hangs.”
Woosley wants to let more people know about this alternative approach to end-of-life care. She’s partnered with Anne Murphy, a St. Paul-based home funeral guide who runs a business called A Thousand Hands. The two have developed an online course about natural death for end-of-life doulas. She’s also spoken on the topic to the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, a community of wellness and healing justice practitioners who identify as indigenous, black or people of color.
“Caring for and honoring our dead is a right and a responsibility,” Woosley said. “I want to share that with as many people as possible.”