Shaniko mom fights for Oregonians' rights to care for their dead
In February 2018, 4 1/2-year-old Max Carver died.
"The babysitter called and said he was in the pond," his mother, Keelia, said.
As she drove back home, all she could think was that she hoped it was the small pond, not the big one.
She'd just seen her boys when she went home for lunch at the family's ranch in Shaniko.
He'd gone down to feed the bottle lambs — his was named Patissa.
"He was laughing hysterically and throwing snowballs," Keelia said.
But Patissa was the main draw.
"He had fed it every bottle" except for nighttime feedings, which is parents didn't tell him about because he would've wanted to stay up.
"He was fairly committed," Keelia said. "He was into it."
He loved all animals and liked to help his dad, Blaine, work with the cows.
"He wore jeans and button-down shirts just like his dad," Keelia said. He needed a belt and watch, too.
"He was also really interested in our wedding rings," Keelia said. Max had a plan to marry his brother, Eliot, who was 2 at the time, because you're supposed to love the people you marry.
But Max hadn't fallen into the small pond.
"There was the hole in the ice and the boots floating in the pond," Keelia said.
Two dogs got into the water, and so did Keelia. She tried to pull him out but couldn't.
The water was so cold she couldn't open her eyes.
"Then the sheriff's deputy showed up, like remarkably quick," Keelia said.
He had already been on a call in Shaniko.
"And he, by shear good luck, found Max's body," Keelia said.
For more information, visit Oregon Funeral Resources & Education at http://www.oregonfuneral.org.
At the hospital
"So he was airlifted to St. Charles Bend, which is where he was declared dead," Keelia said.
That's when Keelia and Blaine found their wishes for what to do with their son's body at odds with what they were told would happen.
"While we were sitting in the room right after he was declared dead, I said I wanted to take him home," Keelia said. That seemed sensible to Blaine; his mother is buried on the family ranch.
"He is dead," Keelia thought. "We're done here."
But because Max was a minor, law enforcement had to be involved, and so did the medical examiner.
First, Keelia was interviewed by Oregon State Police.
"Then the medical examiner showed up, and she was explaining the process," Keelia said.
She told the Carvers they could not take Max's body home because there would be a meeting the next day to determine if there had been a crime, and she needed to do an autopsy.
Keelia said, "I do not want you cut up my son's body, but I get it, yes, the criminal justice system should do it work."
But after that, Keelia told her, she wanted to take him home.
"She said, 'I don't think that's possible.'"
"I really took that to mean that it wasn't possible," Keelia said. "It never even occurred to me that someone in that position would not know the law."
She also believed the medical examiner because she was sincere.
"She was really trying to make the world a better place and bring justice to the world," Keelia said. "She really cared."
Then hospital Chaplain gave the Carvers a list of area funeral homes.
"That leaves you with the impression that you are required to hire one," Keelia said.
The funeral director
"So I couldn't bear to leave Bend that night," Keelia said. Plus she was in no shape to drive.
"I at least had the presence of my mind to tell my husband when he contacted the funeral home, 'Tell them they do nothing to the body. It's not their son. He's our son. We'll come back and we'll dress him, and we'll bring him home and we'll bury him.'"
She said the funeral director was also kind and well-meaning. The family just didn't feel they needed him and felt forced to pay for his services.
So she got about four hours total with her son's body — a couple of hours in the hospital, one in the funeral home, one at home.
She wanted time to grieve her son, and to grieve him privately. Hospitals and funeral homes aren't comfortable, she said, and she's not someone who likes to break down in public. She needed more time to come to terms with the fact that her son was dead.
"It's so inconceivable," she said, "especially when you have this healthy, vibrant, bouncing off the walls kid, and then he's dead. It's such an immense thing for your brain and body to come to the realization."
She said she could have used 48 hours with Max's body and that some countries dedicate a whole week.
"He was 4, and he sat in a funeral home among strangers," she said. "'You don't leave your 4-year-old with strangers. You just don't."
And according to Oregon law, she wouldn't have had to. But she didn't know that.
"Any person can act as their own funeral service provider as long as they don't accept money," Keelia said. It's something she's since learned, and she wants to help other families who want to care for their own dead.
"So in the end, after a lot of rigmarole, we did bring him home," Keelia said, "and we buried him in our cemetery at the foot of his grandmother."
That rigmarole included her husband being told he would have to wait the regular waiting period for a permit, which is usually needed for a home burial. The Carvers were able to get around that because they have a historic cemetery on their property.
They had a funeral that fit the family, with an open casket. Keelia heard that people were uncomfortable with the idea.
"By the end, almost everybody came up and touched his hair and gave him a kiss goodbye," she said.
Keelia sat and held his hand.
Blaine read him some of his favorite books. And together, as they sang "Amazing Grace," anyone who wanted could take turns shoveling dirt over the casket.
The grave was covered with rocks that had been painted at his Celebration of Life.
"So then it was nine months later, and I was buying grief books on Amazon," Keelia said. And a recommendation for a book called "Undertaken With Love" showed up.
She ordered it. It listed all kinds of relevant phone numbers and websites, including one for the National Home Funeral Alliance.
"And there it was in black and white: Oregonians get to do their own death care if they want," Keelia said.
"They have a directory, and in Oregon there were four names listed, so I emailed all four of them."
Holly Pruett got back to her. She said she was just about to embark on a project because people in Oregon don't know their rights regarding funerals and burial.
"Keelia had an innate sense that being kept from caring for her son after his death was wrong," Pruett said in an email interview. "I cold see that with her determination, she and Max could make a big difference for many other families."
She and Keelia began working on a website, Oregon Funeral Resources & Education, at http://oregonfuneral.org, to inform Oregonians of their rights and connect them with resources, as well as to tell the stories of people who wanted to make their own arrangements when someone died.
"There's two big things," Keelia said. "One, we hope the website helps families, right? Especially families that are anticipating a death, and they can decide ahead of time."
If someone is ill, it's easier to figure out what to do to make your own funeral arrangements. Unexpected deaths, like Max's, are harder.
"But also because we have all these people — we have the medical examiners, the first responders, we have all the doctors and nurses, and they are all trying their best to ease suffering and help humanity," Keelia said. "So for them to have this hole in their knowledge" and then sit with people who are recently bereaved and give them the wrong information "is huge. It's a big hole in their integrity.
"It's an important right because it's all wrapped up in freedom of religion," Keelia added. "You would not want to inadvertently abridge somebody's religious freedom or convictions by determining how they have to handle their dead."
Pruett, who is an interfaith minister and certified Life-Cycle Celebrant, said she became interested in Oregonians' rights to care for their dead after her father was cremated with no funeral or memorial service.
"... and in my work as a funeral celebrant, I see the great benefits to family and community when even the smallest steps are taken to engage more directly in care for our dead, something humans have always done for each other until very recent times."
The last component, Keelia said, is that if you don't like your CPA or doctor, you can fire them.
"If you think that you have to hire a funeral home," she said, "you don't feel like there's any options."
She isn't opposed to funeral homes, and she said the director she worked with kind. But she wants people to know they have a choice.
Pruett said she and Keelia are working for three changes "to prevent the mistakes that caused further suffering for Keelia's family from being made with other families."
First, they want hospitals, hospice, care facilities, law enforcement and first repsonders to update their staff training and policies to "accurately reflect Oregon families' rights to care for their own dead."
To that end, Keelia contacted State Medical Examiner Sean Hurst.
"He said, 'Oh, yeah, that is a problem. We don't want to have our medical examiners ignorant and not able to respond appropriately,'" Keelia said.
Oregon State Police Captain Timothy Fox said in an email that the state's annual training course "has been updated to include information about home burials and the informational resources that can be offered to families." The information would be used at the county level, he added.
St. Charles is also "looking into creating a policy so the correct information is available to the entire staff," said spokeswoman Lisa Goodman.
Keelia and Pruett are also calling for medical and hospice staff to "lead with a different question," Pruett said, adding that staff "are trained to ask 'What funeral home should we call?' which implies that's required or the only option. Instead they should ask, 'How can we help you with arrangements?'"
Finally, Keelia and Pruett want hosptials and hospice providers to give families a noncommercial source of information.
"Hospitals and hospice providers can't be seen as recommending the services of a private entity," Pruett said, "so they hand out lists of all local funeral homes for families to choose from – but this actually IS an endorsement of private entities. By including OregonFuneral.org on the lists of funeral services providers, interested families will have both non-commercial sources and commercial sources of information to guide their choices."
Goodman said St. Charles is also working on that.
"St. Charles is also in the process of revising the traditional 'funeral home' listings for Central and Eastern Oregon to include alternative options. The website for 'Home Funeral Information' will be included. We endeavor to ensure that all the options available under the law are represented."
Goodman said most requests to make arrangements without a funeral home or to transport a body "come from specific cultural or religious groups, who normally have their own liaison with the Department of Vital Records and handle the necessarily paperwork and disposition of the body."
Families who are expecting a death because of a long illness that obtain a Home Burial Packet, which is only available through the Oregon Health Authority's Vital Records office.
Each county sets its own regulations for home burials. In Jefferson County, requests are routed through the registrar's office.
Carver is glad the word is getting out, both for families and for the professionals who help people when they are newly bereaved.
"All of them were trying so hard to be helpful, but they couldn't because nobody had set them up for success and given them the information that we so badly needed them to have," she said.
"I'm compelled," she said. "I can't shut up about it because I do think it will make a difference for somebody."
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