Minnesota priest runs nonprofit funeral service that often serves Native Americans
By Pat McCaughan, June 22, 2009
[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Claudia Windal of Minneapolis believes everyone, regardless of ability to pay, deserves a dignified burial. So the Episcopal priest became a mortician to help make it happen.
Since she opened the nonprofit Oyate Tawicohan Funeral Services about two years ago, Windal estimates that she has provided low-cost burials to about 223 people; about 90 percent were Native American. But the no-frills, shoestring-budget burials are available to anyone who can't afford standard funeral fees.
Now she hopes her efforts will catch on elsewhere. "Oyate Tawicohan means 'the way of the people' in Lakota," said Windal, 59, who is part Lakota. "I'm so excited to have the ability to bring some dignity and respect to poor people to give them some choices in funeral care. What we do, we do in a good way."
For Windal "death care" is as much about "doing death in a good way" for the living as for those she buries.
Doing 'death in a good way'
Windal never had a desire "to do funeral work" but in 2000, a Lakota elder from nearby Red Lake telephoned, asking for help "to return her cousin to a final resting place here on the reservation. The funeral home wanted $2,000 to transport the body and she couldn't pay it," Windal recalled.
The two women rented a van, drove to Chicago and brought the body back to Minnesota themselves. "On the way home, she told me that I 'must do this for our people'," Windal recalled. After that, the phone calls kept coming.
She estimated her basic, no-frills funeral fee at about $2,500, often reduced to county allotments of $1,900-$2,200 provided for the indigent or those on public assistance. Comparable services in a for-profit funeral home typically range from at least $6,000.
She helps make up the difference using "cremation caskets" and has made use of some donated graves but acknowledges that keeping costs low is increasingly a struggle. Her funeral home has space for a small coffin display and an embalming room. Visitations are held at nearby St. James on the Parkway Episcopal Church, where she serves as a priest in residence.
"Cremation caskets" are wood with a pine or oak veneer "but not cardboard at least. It is very nice looking," Windal said. "It's called a cremation casket simply because the sidebars, the handles don't move, don't swing so they're stationary because they don't expect to carry it very far."
She added that cremation, often touted as a low-cost burial alternative, isn't considered an option. "Most of our native people refuse to be cremated. That's tradition."
Tradition figures prominently elsewhere. She invites family participation in body preparation, includes ceremonial drums and smoldering sage at funeral services, and helps next-of-kin fill graves in with dirt.
"Most funeral homes don't let you get too near the body once someone's died and is in the funeral director's care," Windal said. "But there is a real beauty in being able to as closely as possible approximate the way families have been involved with death care in our Native American communities."
In once instance, when several male family members wanted "to do something useful for their loved one" she had them pick up the casket from the warehouse while she and the women ritually bathed and dressed the body.
"They got back just as we finished dressing the deceased," Windal recalled. "Two of the men and I picked the body up and put her in the casket. The women did her makeup and fixed her hair. It was a wonderful, wonderful gift."
There was also the woman whose five-month-old infant suffocated. "In our native community we have a lot of infant deaths and I really encourage the parents, the mothers especially, to be involved in the care of their deceased child," Windal said. "I'll invite whoever wants to come in and do the bathing after the baby's been embalmed."
After bathing him, "we wrapped him in a blanket and she just sat there and held him and talked to him. It's gut-wrenching to watch but it was apparent that it was a very helpful thing that needed to be done."
When Windal's phone rings, it is often "a call to multiple ministries." Sometimes, the request is to give last rites to the dying, or to help a family navigate a mountain of forms, to take charge of a body, or plan a funeral service.
Multiple ministries are nothing new for the former nun and registered nurse. A few months after graduating from a Chicago high school, she entered the novitiate of the Roman Catholic order of Dubuque Franciscan Sisters. She trained to become a registered nurse.
When she graduated from St. Ambrose University in Iowa in 1975 "the Episcopal Church (TEC) was talking very seriously about ordaining women." She left the order after seven years, joined the Episcopal Church and in 1981 earned a master of divinity degree from Seabury Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. After she was ordained to the priesthood she served in congregations in the Diocese of Minnesota and also ministered to people living with HIV/AIDS.
She has a doctorate of ministry and in November 2008 professed perpetual vows in the Ecumenical Order of Servant Franciscans. Her business is also known as the Franciscan Funeral Services because "helping the poor is very Franciscan." She enrolled in a one-year licensing program for morticians at the University of Minnesota after "it became obvious that funeral directors wouldn't talk to anyone but other funeral directors," she said.
The Rev. Theo Park, rector of St. James, calls Windal "a saint. She saw a need and responded. She took action into an arena that a lot of folks wouldn't even have seen as calling for action."
It keeps her "very busy," Park added. "That's one of the reasons we try to support her as much as we can. We're a small church and we can't offer a whole lot of financial assistance but we can offer hospitality as a way of participating."
Maureen Davidson said Windal stepped in "from start to finish" when Davidson's 58-year-old brother died suddenly with few funds in early January. "We hadn't had much time to think about anything. He was diagnosed with cancer on Monday and he died on Saturday. There hadn't even been time for hospice to get involved," recalled Davidson, director of senior services at the West 7th Community Center in St. Paul.
"When you're in that situation, you need a compassionate person, a good listener. Claudia was phenomenal. She has such a passion for what she does and such a belief in it. She did a beautiful job of putting together a funeral at a very low cost, that was respectful and dignified, and she did the service for my brother."
-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Provinces VII and VIII and the House of Bishops. She is based in Los Angeles.