How a nontraditional funeral helped this mom process her daughter's tragic death.

Lucia Maya remembers getting a phone call from her 21-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. She was in agony.

A creative writing student at the University of Arizona, Elizabeth had been dealing with intense pain in her chest for weeks, along with swelling in her neck and face. The student health clinic told her it was probably bad allergies.

"She called me one day in tears because she was in a lot of pain," Lucia said. "She wasn't one to cry or complain. I said, 'OK, something is clearly wrong.'"


Elizabeth was rushed to the emergency room, where an X-ray revealed a tumor in her chest the size of a baseball. The diagnosis was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Lucia (right) and her daughter, Elizabeth. Photo by Jade Beall, used with permission.

Six rounds of chemotherapy initially beat the cancer back, but soon it had spread to Elizabeth's brain. Not even a year after first discovering the pain, Elizabeth was placed in hospice care. She'd spend her final days in her mother's home.

There was nothing more the doctors could do.

Lucia was suddenly in the strange and tragic position of having to plan a funeral for her daughter while she was still alive.

The first step for many people who are grieving is to make arrangements with a funeral home. But there's another option gaining popularity with many families: home funerals.

Joanne Cacciatore, a research professor at Arizona State University who studies traumatic death, wants people to remember that caring for our own dead used to be, well, just the way things were done. It was around the Victorian Era (the mid- to late 1800s) that both birth and death were institutionalized, or shopped out to experts who had special tools and training.

She said more and more people are now bucking that norm and skipping the mortician altogether.

Photo by Jade Beall, used with permission.

A home funeral often involves bypassing the usual embalming process, instead opting for more gentle methods of preserving the body: keeping it cool with dry ice and bathing it, for example. Some families will hold a viewing at home before sending the body off to be prepared for a traditional burial or cremated. Others, depending on local laws, bury their loved ones on family land instead of in a cemetery.

While home funerals are often much less expensive then traditional ceremonies, Cacciatore said this choice isn't usually about money. For many people, it's about healing.

"I think it has a therapeutic effect, in that when the person you love has died, and they're at home, you can check in with that reality as often as you need," she said. "You can go in that room, you can sit in that room 24 hours a day for three or four days, and you can watch their body, and see that they're not there."

For other people, they wouldn't dream of doing things any other way.

"Who better to take care of someone you love so much than you?" Cacciatore said.

After two months of being cared for by her mother, Elizabeth passed away on a Sunday in late 2012.

Elizabeth's body was kept at home for two days and covered in silks and fabrics. Photo by Lucia Maya, used with permission.

Elizabeth hadn't eaten for weeks. Her mother woke up at 4 a.m. the day she passed away, sensing the moment was about to arrive. Lucia held her daughter's hand as she took her last breath.

By this point, Lucia, her partner, Elizabeth's father, and even Elizabeth herself had decided a home funeral was right for them, though Elizabeth didn't like talking about it much. She was at peace with whatever was going to happen.

"What was so lovely was that we knew there was no rush to call the funeral home to come pick up her body," Lucia said. "We knew that we had time."

Lucia and her sister bathed Elizabeth. Anointed her body with oils. Laid her on a table with dry ice packed underneath. Wrapped her in beautiful silks and cloths, with rose petals sprinkled on top.

Photo by Lucia Maya, used with permission.

On Monday, family and friends came and went, saying their goodbyes in the place Elizabeth called home. A friend brought a cardboard box that would later be used to transport Elizabeth's body, and visitors decorated it and filled it with notes of love.

On Tuesday, Lucia and close family members placed Elizabeth in the box and drove her to the crematory. They watched as her body entered the cremation chamber. Lucia thought it might be too difficult to watch, but she said when the moment came, she was ready.

By then, she felt her daughter's body was nothing but an empty vessel.

"It felt so healing to be able to do those last things to take care of her," Lucia said.

"To be the one to bathe her, gently, to be the last one to dress her, to cover her with these beautiful silks that I know she would have loved — it would have felt very, very strange to send her body off and have some strangers doing those things for her, no matter how loving and caring they might have been."

She knows a home funeral isn't the right choice for everybody, but she shared her story because she wants people to at least know that it is a choice.

For Lucia, being able to make that choice means she gets to live without a single regret about how she spent her final days with her daughter.

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Capital One

Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


Capital One

Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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