How Nellie Hickerson was loved all the way to her grave

The following feature by Holly Stevens appeared in the May 18, 2008 Greensboro News-Record. Since she owns the copyright to the piece, she has reposted it here.Visit Holly Stevens' blog Thresholds for more information about the movement in North Carolina back to simpler, more family-centered and earth-friendly care of the body after death.

Nellie1When Nellie Hickerson, 90, died in late February, she went to the grave in the same manner that she had lived her final years -- lovingly tended by her son C.L. Hickerson, 58, and daughter, Suzanne Poorman, 54, on the family's 80-acre homestead in rural Randolph County.

For four days Nellie's body lay in the bedroom of her brick and cedar home, cooled by dry ice and the frozen bottles of water that grandson Matthew Poorman had stashed ahead of time in the freezer. Captured earlier on a CD, Nellie's voice sang out now and then in a hauntingly ethereal Southern twang:

    "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see."

nellie2A third sibling was en route from Wilton, N.H., for the Friday burial in the two-plot homestead graveyard, where C.L. had reinterred his father's remains several years before. An unlined cedar casket made by a neighbor waited nearby. Meanwhile, friends were preparing meals, taking pictures, bringing shovels. Someone even thought to stash tampers and a rake for finishing the site afterwards.

Except for the freezer and the CD recording of Nellie's "Amazing Grace," everything in this scenario would have been familiar to families at the turn of the 20th century, when home parlors served as centers for wakes and vigils. But with the emergence of the funeral industry as a specialized occupation, notions of what constitutes a proper disposition changed. Embalming to restore a "natural" complexion, luxury hearses to transport the dead, specialty caskets to retard the intrusion of elements and concrete vaults to help keep cemetery plots from sinking began to distance the care of the dead from those who loved them most.

nellie3"I didn't know you could do that!" C.L. and his sister would hear time and again as they went about arranging to bury their mother on the homestead. But for the two siblings, the motive was not so much bucking convention as providing their mother with care that befit her view that "death is a season of life."

"Death is not a scary thing," says C.L.

* * *
The Hickersons lived with an intimate awareness of passing seasons after moving to rural Franklinville in the mid-1950s. Nellie's husband, William, worked in a nearby textile mill, but the family augmented his wages by working the land, raising tobacco, hay, corn and other vegetables and keeping cattle.

Nellie's universe was small by choice, tied to family, garden, kitchen and the Primitive Baptist church of her childhood. "I am just a country woman," she would often say, says Suzanne.

So when Nellie began to show signs of dementia, C.L. and Suzanne wanted to keep Nellie on the homestead, where C.L. continued to live in an adjacent house. At first, C.L. worked second shift so he could share lunch with Nellie on a daily basis, providing her with some structure and oversight. As Nellie's judgment deteriorated, Suzanne and Matthew moved in with her from their residence in Winston-Salem. Suzanne, a former nurse's aide, had confidence that her care would surpass any nursing home's.nellie4

"There never was a question but that caring for her at home was what we would do," says Suzanne.

C.L. took over on weekends so Suzanne and Matthew could return to Winston-Salem, where Suzanne's husband, Douglas, continued to live.

More than once, Suzanne and C.L. thought their mother, by then diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was failing. But she would surprise them with her resilience. Still, Nellie's mental confusion continued to worsen. Sometimes Nellie would forget the nature of salads and fry the lettuce on the stove top. Suzanne kept canned foods on hand, just in case.

Nellie rarely complained. In fact, C.L. believes that her dementia enabled her to perceive things that she could no longer experience firsthand. Unable to venture outdoors, she would nevertheless speak of forays through the woods to the creek, describing the blooming flowers she'd found there, as if she had just returned from the outing.

"Through some kind of grace, she was able to create a happy life for herself despite her limitations," says C.L.

But around Christmas, Nellie told C.L., "I am so sorry. I just can't think anymore. My mind won't work anymore."

By mid-January, it was clear that Nellie was dying. She began to eat less, to sleep more. But still in the evening, she would become talkative, chattering almost nonstop about people whose names C.L. and Suzanne didn't often recognize, or making nonsense statements.nellie5

But when the minister from Hospice of Randolph County paid his last visit at the end of January, she sang all four verses of "Amazing Grace" as he accompanied her on a guitar.

* * *
I was privileged to follow Nellie's final months because C.L., a phlebotomist for Moses Cone Regional Cancer Center in Greensboro, draws my blood for laboratory tests before my weekly chemotherapy treatments. He told me the story of his mother's passage with a refreshing candor that invites inquiry and a sharing of the heart.

In early February, he told me that when he had gone into her bedroom one evening, Nellie had turned to him, speaking firmly in the third person: "She's not speaking."

C.L.'s eyes twinkled with amusement at the telling.

The next morning, finding her awake, he asked if she would like something to sip.

"When I'm finished with what I'm doing," she replied, lying still.

"She's detaching, doing her inner work of dying," C.L. told me.

At my next appointment, he described how he and Suzanne had arranged for Frankie Powell, a shamanic practitioner in Asheboro, to visit and give them suggestions for supporting their mother's transition.

"Use images of light in talking to her," Powell told them.

Nellie was no longer speaking, but as Powell entered the room, Nellie's eyes followed. Powell moved about in the streaming daylight, telling Nellie how the room was "filled with beings who love you so much." C.L. said he could sense his mother feeling released to die.

One week later, on Feb. 26, I was back at C.L.'s station. Nellie was no longer opening her eyes or sipping liquids, he said, but he and Suzannellie6ne were keeping her lips moist and she seemed to be comfortable. And he'd found a source of dry ice. It wouldn't be long now, he said.

Moments after I left, C.L. got the phone call that his mother had died.

Family friend Deb Andrews had come to the home that morning to help Suzanne turn Nellie's body to keep her comfortable. Deb was warming her hands and talking softly with Suzanne when Nellie opened her eyes for the first time in more than a week.

"We began talking to her about heaven, and what a beautiful day it was there," Suzanne recalled later. "Mom's face seemed to shine."

Nellie breathed out once, a bit more, maybe again another time, and then became still.

Deb and Suzanne sat for a few minutes beside Nellie's body before placing the call to C.L.

* * *
The Hospice nurse made arrangements for the death certificate and came to remove Nellie's catheter for the last time. Suzanne lovingly washed and dressed her mother's body, packing dry ice and bottled ice around it to keep it cool. A neighbor notified others in the community about Nellie's death and the plans for the burial that coming Friday afternoon.

Small glitches were bounnellie7d to happen: The obituary writer for the Asheboro Courier-Tribune at first was skeptical about a death notice coming from a source other than a funeral home.

Then the death certificate's filing hit a snag, and the backhoe operator refused to prepare the grave before the certificate was in hand.

Then arose a problem of aesthetics: When they transferred Nellie's body to the casket the morning of the burial, C.L. and Suzanne realized Nellie's clasped hands were raised into the air.

Suzanne stashed a bouquet of flowers between Nellie's clasped hands and her abdomen, perfectly filling the space. Suzanne noted with amazement how natural her mother's skin tone seemed without embalming or even cosmetics.

On Friday afternoon, friends helped to lift Nellie's casket into the bed of C.L.'s pickup truck for the brief trek from Nellie's house to the family graveyard in an adjacent field. Two pastors -- one Primitive Baptist, the other United Methodist -- officiated. Together, friends gingerly lowered the casket into the ground. Then C.L., Suzanne and their brother, William, closed in the dirt and tamped it down, placing the flowers on top.

* * *
C.L. and Suzanne hold nothing against others who choose to have funeral homes make arrangements. They believe most funeral directors genuinely want to offer comfort and care to grieving families. They recognize also that many families, even if they knew they could care for their own dead, would rather not. Still, they express gratitude for having been able to tend to final arrangements themselves.

"Things are so much more possible than we give ourselves credit for," says Suzanne.

C.L. says he is thinking of planting rosemary, a symbol of remembrance, on the grave. Maybe some thyme, too.


He's tinkering with a notion of opening a natural cemetery on the homestead, fashioned after Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, S.C., which permits only biodegradable caskets or shrouds without embalming or vaults.

He hasn't yet investigated what the legal hurdles would be; he's content simply to let the idea "season" in him for now.

Suzanne and Matthew are back home in Winston-Salem. Life for them goes on pretty much as before.

But both siblings still freely share their experience, hoping their example will embolden others who might want to walk the same path.

(Photos courtesy of Friends of C.L. Hickerson and Suzanne Poorman)


Life and death

Thank you again for sharing this. My maternal grandmother from the West of Ireland was a character and extremely proper. Like an Italian widow, her wardrobe of choice was a black lambswool sweater set or a black cardigan with starched white blouse, contrasted with silver hair always constrained by a hairnet. She taught me to tie my shoelaces. She had a hard boiled egg with toast and tea for breakfast every morning. She hated to travel because she did not want die away from home and put her family to the trouble of shipping her body home.

She died in her 90s after a brief illness with her daughters at her side. At her wake I was some 13 or 14 years old and had my first acquaintance with whiskey upon the insistence of my uncles, much to my mother's dismay. After my grandmother's morning funeral in the picturesque ruins of a church overlooking a rocky ocean inlet the funeral party retired to a local pub for food and libations. The undertaker became so inebriated he began to walk home and had to be recalled and reminded of the hearse he drove.

Later in life I had a girlfriend in Dublin whose elderly paternal aunt lived with the family, her closest relatives, co-existing with throat cancer in a raspy communicative haze, tempered by whiskey and cigarettes. The aunt died while my girlfriend, her father and sister were on vacation in Greece and could not return for the funeral. She lay much like Nellie's body in the casket, a waxy, sleepy, facsimile of the person I knew. I traveled with my girlfriend's mother, whose fear of flying kept her home, again to the West of Ireland, to the aunt's funeral and carried her in her casket to the grave.

While the person with whom I was intimate was thousands of miles away sunning on the island of Samos, her mother, related to the aunt only by marriage, and I, unrelated entirely, bore witness to this woman's passing and consoled each other in our helplessness. It taught me that we are more connected as human beings than we ever are separated by our differences.


At least to me.

I read your post with reverence, Greg. You are indeed right that "we are more connected as human beings than we ever are separated by our differences".

The two most profound moments in my life are the birth of my son, and the death of my father. I was privileged to cradle both Davids on their journeys, one within my body, and one in my arms.

So often, we celebrate the beginning and mourn the end, but a death well lived is something to be aspired to. We all know we don't have the choice on how our days are ended, but to the extent that I can, I would choose to end as Nellie did, in the arms of my family, my body going back to the Earth from which I came.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors