A Full Measure of Devotion (Obit Magazine)

An excellent article about home funerals in Obit Magazine [article], May 12, 2009

A Full Measure of Devotion
by Joyce Gemperlein

Would you, could you, say goodbye to a deceased family member by washing the body, laying it on a bed of dry ice – perhaps, like in old-timey Westerns, on the kitchen table right where the breakfast dishes were – gather the proper burial documents and dig a suitable hole?

DIY FuneralMore and more baby boomers in the United States are asking themselves that question lately, say members of the do-it-yourself (DIY) home funeral movement, which began about two decades ago.

The reasons for this momentum rest in the harmonic convergence of a ruptured economy that demands or encourages penny-pinching, interest in “going green” by eschewing embalming chemicals, and increasing numbers of boomers opting for personalized funerals over standardized ones as a way to better cope with loss.

“It is something whose time may finally have come. It is at the other end of the spectrum of natural childbirth and a logical extension of the hospice movement,” says Lisa Carlson, whose first version of Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, a state-by-state guide to DIY burial and cremation was published after the 1981 suicide of her 31-year-old husband.
Carlson, of Vermont, is at work on the book’s third edition.

Although numbers of home burials are not tracked, she and others in the movement say they are fielding increasing numbers of inquiries about the diverse state laws, procedures, costs and psychological benefits of taking on tasks that, for decades, Americans have customarily contracted out to professionals.

In effect, these new home burials are pioneering a return to the past, notes the Rev. Lynn Acquafondata, a Pittsburgh, Pa., Unitarian minister who recently began “Final Journey Home” to assist families in conducting low-cost, in-home funeral services.

Acquafondata’s rates begin at $75 for connecting families with resources, helping with paperwork and coaching on the process of laying out a family member. (Most estimates of the average funeral-home-directed service come in at between $7,000 and $8,000.)

“Americans got away from doing it at home during and after the Civil War. Embalming began when soldiers had to be brought home for burial. It was the only way to do it. The funeral home industry began, and people began to think that they had to do it that way,” says Acquafondata.

In addition, by the 1920s, death became “medicalized.” In other words, more and more people died away from home due to the rise in hospitals across the nation, according to Gary Laderman in his book, Rest In Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America (Oxford, 2003).

Except in times of war, home had been the traditional place of death for most Americans, Laderman notes. The shift to death in hospitals showed up first in cities and gradually spread to rural areas, eventually altering Americans’ psychological view of death.

“The cultural implications of this environmental shift from death in the home to death in the hospital were profound, and contributed to the literal displacement of the dead from the everyday social worlds of the living,” Laderman writes in his history of the funeral industry.

Both embalming and hospitals boosted the establishment of funeral directors, who “achieved an air of authority in mortal matters, and became the primary managers of the corpse. . . (and the) deeply unpleasant, to some, tasks associated with that,” Laderman writes.

Carlson says her survey of home funeral organizations shows the most interest coming from people who have lost children to illness or accidents.

“There is a feeling, a need in those cases, for the families to stay involved, to stay with the child, to have something physically to do to take away a little of the sense of helplessness,” she says.

Acquafondata stresses that the psychological benefits of home funerals can outweigh concerns about performing tasks for and around a corpse.

“It really helps a family to work through and process grief instead of walking away and keeping it at arm’s length. Families engage in the process, are with the body of their loved ones, and that imposes reality. Also, in a funeral home, grief has to be fit into a particular time frame. At home, when waves of grief come, they can be dealt with at any time.”

“Fear of death is a big thing in our society because we keep it separate from life,” says Acquafondata. “We need to bring it back into the home to show that death comes in the midst of life, but life continues.”