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Inviting Death Home: Home Funeral Guide Sara Williams on Reconnecting with Death and Dying

Published Thursday, Sep. 14th, 2023


Photo: Celebrant Sara Williams (photo courtesy of Sara) & an old forest cemetery (background image serjiob74 / Adobe Stock)

AMM interviews Funeral Officiant & Home Funeral Guide Sara Williams 

 

 

“It used to be – Aunt Bessie died, she was laid out on the dining room table, the neighbor built the pine box, they borrowed the donkey or the mule and the wagon, and they took Aunt Bessie to the lower forty…  And then, [in] the early 1900s, that just vanished. 

 

We’re so removed from death. We can’t bear the thought of touching a dead body. It’s just ridiculous. It’s unfortunate.” - Sara Williams, Home Funeral Guide & owner of Shrouding Sisters

 

skull clip art


The idea of touching a dead body might send shivers up your spine, but why? Why are we so desperate to distance ourselves from death that we can barely be in the same room with it? 

 

That’s a question that Celebrant Sara Williams has been asking and answering for decades. 

 

As a home funeral guide, she’s touched a lot of dead bodies… and teaches other people how to reconnect with death and dying in a sacred way.  

 

‘Home funeral guides’ are a unique type of celebrant that help families care for the dead in their own homes, instead of in a funeral home. They act as an important alternative to morticians and funeral directors, giving the living a chance to reconnect with and participate in the natural process of death. And home funerals are legal in every U.S. state – anyone can choose this service.

 

When called to perform a home funeral, Sara guides the family on how to wash the body and anoint it in essential oils, offers instruction on how to keep the body cool to prevent decay, and performs rituals that celebrate, acknowledge, and honor the deceased’s life and transition into death. The body might be adorned in flowers and herbs, covered in a decorative shroud (burial sheet), and laid out for friends and relatives to view. 

 

Learn more: Body Care & Cooling Techniques (National Home Funeral Alliance)

 

 

body wrapped in burial sheet shroud and flowers resting on burial sheet

Photos (cropped): Adobe Stock

A funeral guide wraps a body in a burial shroud made of natural fibers; flower and herbs may be laid on and around the body as part of the ceremony

 

 

It’s important and sacred work. Instead of rushing a body off to a funeral home to be embalmed, posed, covered in cosmetics, and kept alone in storage for days, families can take their time to mourn together, to come to terms with the death and grieve in a productive way. 

 

If cared for properly, Sara tells us that a loved one’s body can remain at home for up to three days. Afterward, the remains are transported for final disposition – usually natural or green burial, fire cremation or aquamation, composting, or donation.

 

Sara began working as a home funeral guide and funeral celebrant about ten years ago, although she’s been interested in death for as long as she can remember. Neither dreary nor macabre, her fascination with death is refreshingly down-to-earth and lighthearted. Speaking with her, it’s clear that a passion for living life fully underpins every after-death service she provides.

 

Her ‘death’ credentials are impressive: Sara owns and operates Shrouding Sisters, a small business which provides education, celebrant services, and other resources for natural death care and green burials. In addition to her work as a trained home funeral guide and Certified InSight Funeral Celebrant, she’s also the current President of Funeral Consumers Alliance North Carolina and National Funeral Consumers Alliance, and served on the Board of Directors of the National Home Funeral Alliance from 2014 to 2017. 

 

She facilitates workshops, training, and consultations as a Green Burial Consultant and Natural Death Care Educator, volunteers regularly with local hospice facilities, and leads a popular Death Cafe hosted by Endswell Urn Gallery and Reliquarium, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. 

 

She’s also an experienced Wedding Officiant and has been ordained with American Marriage Ministries since 2018. 

 

As Sara says, “I can marry you AND bury you!” 

 

 

I spoke with Sara last week to learn more about her work, the importance of home funerals, and how she helps people reconnect with death and dying through Death Cafes and community events. 

 

Here’s what she had to say!



Two photos side by side: Sara as a young girl in a homemade style skeleton Halloween costume, and Sara recently, dressed in black and smiling happily as she holds a decorative orange skull cake

Then and Now: Meet Celebrant & Home Funeral Guide Sara Williams (Photo courtesy of Sara)

 

 

You’ve been interested in death since you were young. How did that start? 

 

“[In] 6th or 7th grade… a classmate died. He had cerebral palsy. And they marched the whole school through the funeral home to see Lewis in an open casket. And that just did a number on me… ‘cause I thought, ‘This is not Lewis. Why does he look waxy and fake and I hate this… all this.’ And then I think that image just stuck in my mind. 

 

I also always loved cemeteries, the histories, you know… ‘What could these stones tell us?’ 

 

So… It’s always been with me, not in this goth, macabre way,  just like, ‘This is a fact of life, people, and if you don’t embrace it, it’s going to be a shitshow at the end. ‘Cause your family’s gonna have to pick up all the pieces, because you were like, ‘If I die,’ and never ‘When I die.’”

 

 

‘This is a fact of life, people, and if you don’t embrace it, it’s going to be a shitshow at the end. ‘Cause your family’s gonna have to pick up all the pieces, because you were like, ‘If I die,’ and never ‘When I die.’”

 

 

How did you start working in the death business? 

 

“I didn’t get really, officially, quote unquote involved until I found the National Home Funeral Alliance, in 2011 or 2012. [Then] they had their annual conference in Raleigh in 2013, and the next thing I knew I was on their Board of Directors. 

 

I just knew, here’s my tribe, these mostly women – because you know the women have been the caretakers throughout history…

 

It is a passion. I think it’s a ministry, it really is. I just see it as a calling. And you just go with the flow. You know, the calls just come in, or they don’t, and I have my Death Cafe work. I'm very involved with the Funeral Consumers Alliance, my state and my national affiliate, [I’m] the President of both. 

 

…It’s usually like, ‘If it has to do with death, just call Sara!’”

 

 

Funeral celebrant Sara Williams stands with two women at an open grave in the forest during a natural burial green burial service

Celebrant Sara performs a funeral service during a natural burial in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Sara)

 


Most people are familiar with a memorial service or funeral service. How is a home funeral different? 

 

“It’s the caring at home before the service. …When I’m called to do a home funeral, that’s [to] guide the family in how to wash the body, and I always do an anointing with essential oils. I have a ritual service, and then the body can actually be at home, kept cool, for up to three days. 

 

And you know, lo and behold, it doesn’t stink. They don’t start rotting, they actually get this very peaceful glow. It is so natural, but people, you know, their first reaction is ‘Iiiick. Ick! How can that be?’

 

And then I have to meet the family where they are [for the service]. If they’ve made the decision to do fire cremation – I’m not a fan, I never have been a fan, but I can’t be judgy Sara – if they choose to be cremated, that’s what they’re going to do. Usually my families are going to a natural burial, or their bodies are donated.”

 


I’m glad you brought up the ‘ick’ factor! People get really squeamish at the idea of a dead body… 

 

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Why is that?’ Because, people, you removed yourself from death a hundred-fifty, two-hundred years ago. 

 

This all started with the Civil War, there’s a lot of backstory here, with the Civil War. The Union families wanted their soldiers to come home, the railroads refused to take the bodies because they were rotting and smelly. So here come the field embalmers, with their arsenic and mercuric chloride, and, ‘Hey, it worked! We can get these bodies freshened up a bit before we put ‘em on the railroad cars.’ 

 

Then, Lincoln’s assassinated. He has to be embalmed at least twice, if not three times, to get home to Springfield from DC, and people are like, “Dang! He doesn’t look dead, he just looks like he’s sleepin!’ 

 

Learn more: When You Die, You’ll Probably Be Embalmed. Thank Abraham Lincoln For That ( Smithsonian Magazine)

 

So then, the elite now want to be embalmed, and this whole trade takes off. Furniture makers are now gonna make coffins… schools are founded, mortuary schools... And this is what our funeral industry was built on…

 

It used to be, Aunt Bessie died, she was laid out on the dining room table, the neighbor built the pine box, they borrowed the donkey or the mule and the wagon, and they took Aunt Bessie to the lower forty. And then…the early 1900s, that just vanished. 

 

So yeah, we’re so removed from death, we can’t bear the thought of touching a dead body. It’s just ridiculous. It’s unfortunate.”

 

 

"We’re so removed from death, we can’t bear the thought of touching a dead body. It’s just ridiculous. It’s unfortunate.”


 

A beautiful old cemetery in a forest, with fall colored leaves and gravestones

Photo: erjiob74 / Adobe Stock

 

 

How is a home funeral guide different from a death doula? 

 

“... A death doula, he or she or they, is a nonmedical caregiver. They do babysitting, they can help the dying person do a legacy project, they do respite care, they come in so the family can take a break. 

 

They usually are not trained to do a home funeral. So when the person dies, they’re usually skedaddling. They may stay for a while, but they’re usually not equipped to stay with the family.

 

…Death doulas provide such great services. And Hospice really needs to buck up and figure out how to get them on staff and pay them, to help them out.”

 

 

You facilitate a successful Death Cafe… But what is a Death Cafe? 

 

“I get that question all the time! They point to their ears and they go, ‘Did you say deaf? Is it for the hard of hearing?’ And I’m like, ‘No, death, like you’re gonna die.’

 

And you can go to DeathCafe.com to get the backstory, but Jon Underwood, in London, picked up this concept from a Swiss psychologist, and he and his mom started having people in, to discuss any aspect of death and dying over tea and cake. 

 

And then, a Columbus Ohio social worker named Lizzie Miles brought it to the United States in 2012, I think, 2011? And people are like, ‘Gosh, finally a safe space, where I can ask questions and nobody’s gonna laugh at me.’ 

 

And we come out of it, we’re usually laughing our asses off. Nobody’s sitting around crying, in a heap of grief. We’re just trying to figure questions out. And we love going down rabbit holes.”


Note: Sara ran Death Cafe Mebane from 2013-2023, including two and half years of virtual meetings on Zoom during COVID. She now facilitates Orange County Death Cafe, which meets at Endswell in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

 

Learn more about Orange County Death Cafe here. 

 


Do you have a favorite cemetery? 

 

(Without hesitation) “Oh gosh, the one in Colma, Colma California. Right outside of San Francisco…

 

And then, let me just back up. How do I choose? That’s in this country, and then, Père-Lachaise, in France.

 

And here in North Carolina, and I suppose around the country, there’s always these sweet little family cemeteries behind these iron gates, wrought iron gates, and that always makes you pause and think, ‘Oh, what history lies there, with that little family cemetery.’”

 

What do you love most about cemeteries? 

 

“The big honkin’ angels. (laughing) They’re just, you know, magical, sublime. And Père-Lachaise, you know, that’s so famous. We just spent days there… 

 

I don’t want to just keep naming cemeteries, but I could!”

 

Related: Wedding Ceremony in a Graveyard? We asked our ministers and couples what they thought...

 

 

Old cemetery in Paris

Photo: Adobe Stock

Père-Lachaise, in France

 

 

 

Celebrant Sara Williams performs traditional graveside services and home funeral services, officiates weddings and elopements, and is an experienced educator and consultant for natural death care and green burial. She co-hosts Orange County Death Cafe in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and is available to speak at local and national events. 

 

Connect with Sara!
Click the links below to connect with Celebrant Sara. 

 

Wedding Services: The Accidental Officiant

Home Funeral Services 

Funeral Celebrant

Shrouding Sisters Blog 

Home: ShroudingSisters.com 

 

Read more about Sara in the press: 

 

INDY WEEK: You’re Going to Die. The Local Death-Positivity Movement Wants You to Embrace It. 

 

QUEEN CITY NERVE: Death Expo Lifts Veil on Myths and Mystery of Funeral Planning
 

 



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Wait, why are we talking about funeral services on American Weddings?

 

 

We spend most of our time talking about wedding ceremonies here on the American Weddings blog. This makes sense... Wedding ceremonies (and wedding officiants) are awesome! And they’re our primary focus and passion. 

 

But AMM Ministers don’t just marry people. When they choose to, their roles can extend much further, supporting their communities in important ways and celebrating not just new beginnings, but endings, too. This deserves to be highlighted! 

 

Ordination through American Marriage Ministries gives our ministers all of the same rights and protections held by ministers ordained through traditional brick-and-mortar churches.

 

 

As an AMM Minister, your right to conduct religious ceremonies of all forms is protected by the religious non-establishment clause of the first amendment. While many of our ministers only conduct wedding ceremonies, others also conduct baptisms, funerals, baby blessings, and other meaningful rites. 

 

Learn more about what it means to be an AMM Minister by visiting our FAQ page

 


 


Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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