Community-Led Death Care: Jennifer Stevens

Jennifer Stevens died at home on Cortes Island on July 26th, 2022, surrounded by her family. Her body was tended to and remained in her cabin for three days. The friend who built an exquisite casket said, “It was really hard to build that coffin, I just wanted to keep working on it, keep adding things to it, I loved Jen”.  People had an opportunity to pay their respects and sit with her body in her home. Family and friends sewed her shroud closed, stitch by painful stitch.

One of her sons transported her casketed body to the top of the road leading down to the cemetery in his pickup truck. From there, family and friends carried her for a quarter kilometer, community members following in song. The choir she was a part of led this, with songs Jen had previously chosen. They brought her coffin close to the grave, which was softened with cedar boughs and an abundance of colourful summer flowers. The large oyster shell heart at its foot symbolized the love present.

Family spoke. It was a gorgeous summer evening; the tall trees surrounding the cemetery provided a majestic backdrop and welcome shade. Singing, soft drumming, and silence added to the natural beauty. The box was lowered into the grave, with ropes hand over hand, by people close to Jen. The family invited those present to help put the foliage, flowers, shells, and earth into the opening, covering the casket. Her three sons, with shovels, partially filled in the hole.

The next morning, the community was invited to a reception in front of Jen’s cabin. People shared stories, tears, laughter, food, and drink. A video that had been recorded several days before she died was played, in which Jen bid her community farewell.

Jen’s daughter Darshan was interviewed by Roy L Hales on CKTZ. The following are excerpts from the written portion:

Darshan believes that the Western world is trying to sanitize the death process, by taking the body away and trying to protect families from grief.  

“If we face it head on, which is what we did with my mom’s death and with other deaths here in the community, it’s very difficult, very painful and very confronting, but we’re actually with it and we move through it.” she said.

Darshan described being with her mom’s body and watching them put her coffin in the ground was one of the most difficult experiences of her life, but at least it doesn’t feel like unfinished business. 

“When people talk to me about their loved ones dying and how they couldn’t sleep, I think sometimes – not always, but sometimes – that’s because the death process has been taken away from us.” 

Jen’s family came together with her in a beautiful, personal, sad, and meaningful way. The family knew how they wanted to be with Jen, she had written down her wishes, and the Community-Led Death Care volunteers were available to guide and support.

Darshan posted a thank you in the Cortes Tideline. This is part of it:

And a very special thank you to the Community-Led Death Caring team … This organization is teaching us as a community how to reclaim the death process and truly honour our loved one as they pass … This death would have been a very different, more painful and more traumatic experience without their gentle guiding hands.

Written by Margaret Verschuur