Home Burials offer an Intimate Alternative (New York Times)

An article about home funerals from The New York Times [Article], July 20, 2009

Home Burials offer an Intimate Alternative
By Katie Zezima

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — When Nathaniel Roe, 92, died at his 18th-century farmhouse here the morning of June 6, his family did not call a funeral home to handle the arrangements. Instead, Mr. Roe’s children, like a growing number of people nationwide, decided to care for their father in death as they had in the last months of his life. They washed Mr. Roe’s body, dressed him in his favorite Harrods tweed jacket and red Brooks Brothers tie and laid him on a bed so family members could privately say their last goodbyes.

The next day, Mr. Roe was placed in a pine coffin made by his son, along with a tuft of wool from the sheep he once kept. He was buried on his farm in a grove off a walking path he traversed each day.

“It just seemed like the natural, loving way to do things,” said Jennifer Roe-Ward, Mr. Roe’s granddaughter. “It let him have his dignity.”

Advocates say the number of home funerals, where everything from caring for the dead to the visiting hours to the building of the coffin is done at home, has soared in the last five years, putting the funerals “where home births were 30 years ago,” according to Chuck Lakin, a home funeral proponent and coffin builder in Waterville, Me.

The cost savings can be substantial, all the more important in an economic downturn. The average American funeral costs about $6,000 for the services of a funeral home, in addition to the costs of cremation or burial. A home funeral can be as inexpensive as the cost of pine for a coffin (for a backyard burial) or a few hundred dollars for cremation or several hundred dollars for cemetery costs.

The Roes spent $250.

More people are inquiring about the lower-cost options, said Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group. “Home funerals aren’t for everybody, but if there’s not enough money to pay the mortgage, there certainly isn’t enough money to pay for a funeral,” Mr. Slocum said.

Baby boomers who are handling arrangements for the first time are particularly looking for a more intimate experience.

“It’s organic and informal, and it’s on our terms,” said Nancy Manahan of Minneapolis, who helped care for her sister-in-law, Diane Manahan, after she died of cancer in 2001, and was a co-author of a book, “Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully,” about the experience. “It’s not having strangers intruding into the privacy of the family. It’s not outsourcing the dying process to professionals.”

While only a tiny portion of the nation’s dead are cared for at home, the number is growing. There are at least 45 organizations or individuals nationwide that help families with the process, compared with only two in 2002, Mr. Slocum said.

The cost of a death midwife, as some of the coaches call themselves, varies from about $200 for an initial consultation to $3,000 if the midwife needs to travel.

In Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York, laws require that a funeral director handle human remains at some point in the process. In the 44 other states and the District of Columbia, loved ones can be responsible for the body themselves.

Families are typically required to obtain the death certificate and a burial transit permit so the body can be moved from a hospital to a cemetery, or, more typically, a crematory.

But even in states where a funeral director is required, home funerals are far less expensive.

“I think with our economy being the way that it currently is, and it’s getting worse, that many people who may not have chosen to do these types of things may be forced to because of the finances,” said Verlene McLemore, of Detroit, who held a home funeral for her son, Dean, in 2007. She spent about $1,300 for a funeral director’s services.

Some families, like the Roes, choose burial on private land, with a town permit. In most states, those rules are an issue of local control. “Can Grandma be buried in the backyard? Yes, for the most part if the backyard is rural or semirural,” said Mr. Slocum.

(Some members of Michael Jackson’s family have spoken of making Neverland Ranch near Santa Barbara the singer’s final resting place, but officials say no one has submitted an application to the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, which would have to approve the home burial.)

Recently, some states, with the backing of the funeral industry, have considered restricting the practice of home funerals. Oregon legislators last month passed a bill that would require death midwives to be licensed, something no state currently does.

Many death midwives are like Jerrigrace Lyons, who was asked to participate in the home funeral of a close friend, a 54-year-old woman who died unexpectedly in 1994. Ms. Lyons was initially frightened at the prospect of handling the body, but she participated anyway.

The experience was life changing, she said, and inspired her to help others plan home funerals. She opened Final Passages in Sebastopol, Calif., in 1995 and said she had helped more than 300 families with funerals. Weekend workshops for those interested in home funerals have a waiting list.

Ms. Lyons educates the bereaved about the realities of after-death care: placing dry ice underneath the body to keep it cool, tying the jaw shut so it does not open.

Mr. Lakin, a woodworker, makes coffins specifically for home funerals. Ranging in price from $480 to $1,200, they double as bookcases, entertainment centers and coffee tables until they need to be used.

He became interested in home funerals after his father died 30 years ago and he felt there was a “disconnect” during the funeral process. Mr. Lakin is now a resource for funeral directors in central Maine and a local hospice.

His coffins are sold to people like Ginny Landry, 77, who wants a home funeral one day but is content to use her coffin to showcase the quilts she makes. It once stood in her bedroom, but her husband, Rudolph, made her move it to a guest room because he pictured her in the coffin every time he laid eyes on it.

“It’s very comforting to me, knowing I have it there so my children won’t have to make a decision as to where I’m going to go,” Ms. Landry said.

During her battle with cancer, Diane Manahan also requested a home funeral, and the family did not know then how much it would help them with their grief.

“There’s something about touching, watching, sitting with a body that lets you know the person is no longer there,” Nancy Manahan said. “We didn’t even realize how emotionally meaningful those rituals are, doing it ourselves, until we did it.”