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Celebrating life at the time of death - Ecumen Bethany strives to make death a time of celebration and remembrance

Pastor Andrea Olson and Margaret Kirkey show the "honor quilt" that Kirkey made in 2008. In the forefront is the comfort care basket given to family members while their loved one is in the dying process. Photo by: Lowell Anderson, Echo Press1 / 2
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When living or working in a long-term care facility, death is a common occurrence.

The staff at Ecumen Bethany Community in Alexandria strives to make the dying process a positive experience and a time of celebration.

According to Pastor Andrea Olson, chaplain at Ecumen Bethany, a lot of focus has been placed on end of life care in the past few years.

"Our goal is to try to change the perception of death, to provide dignity to dying residents and to honor the relationships involved," she explained.

About five years ago, a group of staff members, residents and residents' family members came together to discuss the dying process and determine what could be done at Bethany to make it a time of dignity and respect, as well as to offer guidance to those involved in the process.

"Putting the person into a body bag and taking them out the back door just didn't feel right," Olson said. "It also didn't give others the opportunity to pay their respects and say goodbye."

What was born out of that planning group was an end of life process that involved bringing death into the open and making it a time to celebrate that person's life.

At Bethany, when someone's health is declining, an angel is placed on his or her door.

"This lets everyone know - staff and residents - that this is a sensitive time and that they should be attentive and pray for the family," Olson explained.

The family is offered a "comfort care basket" that includes a CD player and CDs, a candle, candy, reading material and care notes.

"A lot of times the family members don't know what to do during this time," Olson said. "Some of the reading materials help them work through what their loved one wants or needs, and gives them guidance through the dying process.

"It can be a time of closure and forgiveness - significant things can happen," she added.

The family is also given a prayer shawl donated by area churches that take part in the Prayer Shawl Ministry program, including Calvary, First Lutheran, Bethesda and St. Mary's churches.

At the time of a resident's death, chimes are played that can be heard throughout the building.

That person is listed "in memory of" on all activity boards for the next 24 hours. Remembrance sheets are also put out for residents and staff members to write down their memories, condolences, etc.

A bedside service is held for loved ones. Following the service, the body is draped with the honor quilt and processed through the building. Staff and residents line the hallways to pay their respects.

"It's a powerful experience to see the halls lined with staff and residents," Olson noted. "It gives a strong sense of family, love and care."

The procession ends at the building's circle drive, were there is a time of shared remembrances, reflections, prayer and a farewell blessing before the body is taken to the funeral home.

At that time, staff members return to the resident's room and cover the bed in a white bedspread and lay upon it a long-stemmed red silk rose.

"It offers the image of resurrection and of love," Olson explained. "The rose is a gift to the family members who return to the room to take care of their loved one's belongings."

Monthly memorial services are also held to honor those who died that past month. Photos and memories are shared.

"A lot of our residents and staff are not able to go to the funerals and this offers them the opportunity to be part of a special service.

All who died in the past year are honored on All Saints Sunday, which is on Sunday, November 6 this year.

Again, photos and memories are shared, along with music and fellowship.

"Often the staff and residents get to know some of the residents' family members quite well," Olson explained. "They often miss them as well as the person who died. This allows them to see the family members who come back for the service. We make it a special celebration."

"Our goal is to support the family, provide a dignified service for the resident, and give staff and residents the opportunity to celebrate their relationships," Olson said.


The "honor quilt" used when someone dies at Bethany was made by Margaret Kirkey in 2008 when her husband, William "Quack" Kirkey, was a resident there.

When a resident dies, the quilt is draped over their body during a procession through the building. When not in use, the quilt is on display in the Bethany chapel.

William died this past year, and the quilt that his wife had lovingly made was draped over his body during his final procession through Bethany.

"It meant a lot to have it draped over him as we walked out together," Kirkey said.

After the bedside memorial service, Kirkey came out of the room to see a large crowd of staff members lining the hallway.

"There were so many staff, some of them were up the stairs and in the balcony even," she recalled. She noted that was meaningful to her, as was the gathering at the circle drive where a farewell blessing and prayers were given and people shared comments about Quack.


All Saints Service


Sunday, November 6 at 2 p.m.


Bethany Community, Alexandria



When Minnie Winkels died in August, her family experienced the "end of life" process at Ecumen Bethany Community.

Cathy Shea, Winkels' daughter, recalls the experience as comforting and helpful during a difficult time.

"All these people - staff and residents - came into the room for the bedside service," she said. "It was packed. We sang a song and everyone could share. It was so precious to hear the words of the residents and to see the tears rolling down their faces.

"It was like a healing for me," she added. "It meant that they cared as much as we did. I never dreamt it would be that comforting to have that service. It was such a special time - beyond words."

Following the service, Winkels' body was draped with the honor quilt and processed to the circle drive. The family was comforted by the many residents and staff members lining the way to bid their final farewell.

Shea noted that the process helped the family know their loved one was surrounded by others who cared for and loved her - something that was evident in the days leading up to her death as well.

"The day before she died, one of Mom's favorite nurses, Shannon, was with us in her room," Shea explained.

She noted that her mother was not responsive but seemed restless. Shannon massaged her head and then took a comb and carefully combed her hair and said, "Minnie, you look beautiful now."

"After that, she rested better," Shea said. "Mom always had her hair done and liked to look nice. Here was this nurse who knew that about her. She knew so well and was able to help her rest.

"They care about these people," she added of the staff members. "They were crying just like we were during her service. They really care."

Follow #AlexMN @EchoPress Life Editor Tara Bitzan on Twitter at @TBitzan.

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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