Doulas for Families of the Dying (New York Times)

An article about doulas to the dying in The New York Times [article], May 20, 2006

For the Families of the Dying, Coaching as the Hours Wane
By Jange Gross

Greg Torso’s death announced itself with a long exhale and then silence, as the breath literally left his body. His mother had been told to expect this, so she was not scared.

Ms. Torso had worried that an undertaker would barge in moments after her 42-year-old son died, before she had had time to say goodbye. She had been assured she could spend as much time with the body as she wanted.

Could she bathe and dress him? Save a lock of his hair? Commemorate his passing with wine and reminiscence at the bedside? All of that was fine, she had been told, setting the stage for a death that she later said had left her “on the edge of euphoria.”

Ms. Torso was coached and consoled through the final days and hours of her son’s life, a rarity even under the umbrella of hospice, which for three decades has promised Americans a good death, pain-free, peaceful and shared with loved ones at home.

But there is a growing realization that hospice has its limitations. Doctors, nurses, social workers, clerics and volunteers are rarely there for the final hours, known as active dying, when a family may need their comforts the most.

Now those final moments are a focus of new attention as hospices broaden their range of services, inspired by a growing body of research on the very end of life. More are encouraging the calming properties of music, meditation, aromatherapy and massage for both patients and families. Some are increasing the training for so-called 11th-hour companions who families can request be with them.

Holding a dying person’s hand may be frightening for a loved one alone at the bedside. Relatives and friends may not know that hearing is the last sense to go, and neglect to soothe the patient with a steady, reassuring murmur. Leaving the room briefly may mean missing the moment of passing and always carrying that regret.

“These final moments matter, but often, when families and patients need us most — to explain the process, calm the situation, take away the negative energy and allow them to be more present — we aren’t there,” said Henry Fersko-Weiss, vice president for counseling services at Continuum Hospice Care in New York City, which has a new program that has been keeping vigil with the dying and their families.

The American hospice movement has grown from one program in 1974 to 3,650 in 2004, serving eight million Americans, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. And more people are expected to choose hospice care as it extends its reach into hospitals and nursing homes, where palliative care is not routinely available. At the same time, those who seek aggressive treatment up to the end are welcome at hospice programs that once turned them away but that are now “open access.”

Despite all these changes, most people, in fear or denial, wait until the last minute to enroll. That robs them of the preparation that was so vital to Greg Torso’s mother, Carol, and that hospice leaders, like Andy Duncan of the national organization, say should be routine.

“Actually coaching and counseling people through the time of active dying,” Mr. Duncan said, “is something we hope to convince every hospice in the nation to do.”


The Torsos were the first to use Continuum’s vigil program, which has coached and consoled a dozen families in its first year.

Greg had survived 15 years with AIDS and related cancers. When his doctor said further treatment would be useless, Mr. Torso enrolled in hospice, and welcomed extra help from Mr. Fersko-Weiss and 29 specially trained volunteers who call themselves doulas.

That is a Greek term for women who serve, more commonly at home births to assist both midwife and mother. But the guiding philosophy is the same and borrows from Eastern religions: to honor the end of life as well as the beginning.

Mr. Fersko-Weiss is a gentle man who insinuates himself slowly. When he first described the dying process to Ms. Torso, she found it hard to listen. So they shifted gears, talking about Greg’s life and looking at photos of him in better days.

On a subsequent visit, Ms. Torso sought reassurance that she would not “just fall apart.” On another, Mr. Fersko-Weiss told her there might come a moment when she would have to give her son explicit permission to die. She did — “You can go, Greggy. You can go whenever you want” — toward the end of what would be a 68-hour vigil, involving 10 doulas (pronounced DOO-lehs).

Gwen Lee’s needs were different as she prepared for the passing of her eldest sister, Vivienne, who died at 60 after a 10-year battle with brain cancer.

Years of pretending that all was fine had given way, for both of them, flight attendants from Ireland, to acceptance. As Gwen put it, “We were prepared for the end of her life, but no one else was.” Some friends and relatives began second-guessing the decisions, arguing at Viv’s bedside, arriving uninvited and creating a “soap opera,” Gwen said, “where we were left trying to keep them happy.”

It is not uncommon, hospice workers say, for those not involved in day-to-day care to bring their own fears and conflict to the deathbed and inadvertently become a burden. Into the tumult came Mr. Fersko-Weiss, a Buddhist whose religion says that “what happens to the soul is partly determined by how it leaves this life.” The scene of death, he said, is a “sacred space,” and the doula’s job is to protect it.

To that end, he and Gwen, 51, considered moving Vivienne, and her two beloved cats, to an in-patient hospice where they could control who visited. Just knowing there was a fallback position reassured them.

“It made all the difference,” Gwen said. “Henry pulled me out of the chaos and kept my head on the goal.”

The Vigil

Chloe Tartaglia, a pre-med student, yoga teacher and former birth doula, had never seen anyone die when she volunteered for the vigil program.

She learned the signs of imminent death in her 16-hour training program, how to match her breathing to the patient’s and use visualization and aromatherapy to calm everyone in the room. On the subway, headed to her first case, Ms. Tartaglia, whose father was a hospice physician, concentrated on her goal: to be “like water and flow to the place where there’s need.”

She found herself in a shabby apartment near New York University. A tiny woman lay in bed, wasting away from “failure to thrive,” Ms. Tartaglia had been told. The woman’s husband was terrified, venturing into the room only to give her morphine, as he had been instructed by hospice nurses.

The woman’s daughter, none too fond of her stepfather, was at work, having left behind a phone number. Ms. Tartaglia pulled a chair to the bedside.

For five hours, Ms. Tartaglia said, she sat beside the woman and held her hand “with intention,” as she had been taught, enclosing it between her own. She had no sense of time passing until her shift was about to end.

“I told her I’d be leaving soon but that someone else was coming and she wouldn’t be alone,” Ms. Tartaglia said.

Five minutes later the woman died.

Ms. Tartaglia called the daughter, who arrived calm and efficient, ready for the logistics that follow death. “I can’t deal with him,” she told Ms. Tartaglia as the old man keened.

Ms. Tartaglia guided him into the kitchen and fixed tea. “You deal with yourself and your mom,” she told the daughter. Ms. Tartaglia followed her heart and suggested a deathbed ritual. As she slipped from the apartment, the daughter was combing her mother’s hair.

There would be more vigils for Ms. Tartaglia. One of the most memorable, she said, included the chance to hear Gwen Lee take her sister on whispered journeys to places Vivienne had most loved in the days when being a stewardess was glamorous.

With one of Vivienne’s cats at her head and the other draped over her legs, Gwen would set the scene: An overnight flight to Africa. Glaring sun as the cabin doors open. Days between flights to romp at the beach with captain and crew.

While Gwen soothed her sister, Ms. Tartaglia lighted candles. She massaged Gwen’s feet, helped choose the music for Vivienne’s grand exit, Sarah Brightman singing “Time to Say Goodbye.”

Ms. Tartaglia’s shift ended three hours before Vivienne died. As she left, Ms. Tartaglia removed the oxygen mask that was intended to make Vivienne more comfortable but was chafing her face.

The Aftermath

A month to the day after Dominggus Pasalbessy died, Mr. Fersko-Weiss visited the three daughters who had cared for him. This was a formal opportunity for Pat Jolly, 62, Helen Santiago, 58, and Anita Pasalbessy, 55, to review their experience. After a death, Mr. Fersko-Weiss told them, “something said or not said, something you wish you had done differently, can stick inside you like a splinter.”

The lights were low in Ms. Pasalbessy’s Riverside Drive apartment, and Mr. Fersko-Weiss suggested a CD their father had loved, music from the South Moluccan islands, now part of Indonesia, the native land he had left as a teenager on a tramp steamer. The sisters sat for a brief meditation, letting the bustle of their day be replaced with images of their father, who died of lung cancer in the same bed where his wife had died a dozen years earlier.

All three described feeling peaceful and reverent at the time of his passing. It was like being “inside a cocoon,” Ms. Pasalbessy said, “just me and my sisters, and Daddy, all together, in a place where nothing bad could touch us.”

Only when pressed did each recall her particular moment of distress.

Ms. Pasalbessy agonized that she had compromised the independence of a man who “never wanted to be fussed over.” Mr. Fersko-Weiss reminded her that eventually her father had stopped resisting his daughters’ ministrations and had told them, “You’re good girls, such good girls.”

Ms. Jolly’s concern was whether they had adequately medicated him. But her father’s mantra had been “mind over matter.” Perhaps, Mr. Fersko-Weiss suggested, he chose a measure of pain, rather than unawareness, as an assertion of strength.

Ms. Santiago had trouble forgetting the sisters’ squabbling as they tried to dress him, three strong-willed women each with her own idea of how to get his arm through a pajama sleeve. “He had to have felt our tension, our nervousness,” she said. “But that’s when you guys walked in and everything fell into place.”

Three doulas were with the family, in shifts, from dusk on April 9 until late afternoon on April 11. At 3:10 p.m., after a telltale rattling in his chest, Mr. Pasalbessy let out a breath. Then another, as two tears trickled down his cheek.

“It was like we could hear you talking to us,” Ms. Jolly told Mr. Fersko-Weiss. ” ‘You’ll see this. You’ll hear a certain breathing pattern.’ This dying was such a wonderful experience, if death can be that. And it’s because there was no fear of the unknown.”

Fortney: A different way to deal with death (Calgary Herald)

An article about home funerals in the Calgary Herald [article], June 18, 2014

Fortney: A different way to deal with death
By Val Fortney

sarahOn the night he died, his family cleaned his body, dressed him in his favourite outfit and laid him in his bed. His wife crawled in and fell asleep beside him. The next morning would see the start of a four-day celebration of life that included visits from friends and relatives, a circle of remembrance and a ceremony to send off a man loved by many in his 63 years of life.

In days gone by, this is the way we said goodbye. Life’s final passage was intimate, personal and observed by our nearest and dearest.

The event described above, however, happened just a few months ago. Working with the man before his death and his large extended family throughout, native Calgarian Sarah Kerr ensured that his parting was recognized with rituals that were healing for all involved.

“I don’t see life and death as opposites; life encompasses both,” says the woman who goes by the job title of death midwife. “I see what I’m doing as community therapy.”

While death midwifery is in fact an ancient practice, it has only been in the last decade that it has resurfaced in mainstream North American society. While their approaches can vary, death midwives — some call themselves death doulas or spiritual midwives — offer families an alternative to the usual funeral home send-off. It’s an unfamiliar term that “everybody’s defining differently,” says Kerr, who keeps in touch with fellow practitioners through the Facebook group Death Midwifery in Canada and services clients through her business Soul Passages (

One thing’s for sure: thanks to the Baby Boomers, the first wave having turned 65 in 2011, the popularity of such an alternative is on the upswing.

“They did home births, home-schooling,” says Kerr of the generation that changed the cultural landscape.

Thursday at 7 p.m., Kerr is hosting a Family-Led After Death Care film screening and presentation at Wickenden Hall (1703 1st St. N.W., tickets $14 at the door), during which she will share both her philosophy of death midwifery and its practical implications.

Kerr’s alternative approach to dying is in keeping with the pioneering approach she’s taken most of her life. In her early 20s, the eldest of two daughters of Sheila and Bill Kerr, a Calgary geologist, was a vocal advocate for the environment.

“I became passionate about it while working as a back-country guide,” she says. “I realized I had to move back to the city in order to help make any change.”

By the late 1990s, she was a prominent figure in the peaceful protest movement, a commitment that found her in a Seattle jail for five days during World Trade Organization protests.

“I went in one person and came out another,” she says of the transformative experience of sharing a three-by-five metre cell with 35 other women, along with being among 600 protesters who refused to leave until all were released. “Like any kind of initiating experience. something hard can be a great gift to make you realize what you’re capable of.”

After more than a decade as a social and community activist, she recently received her PhD from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

“After graduating, I spent a long time thinking about where I wanted to put my energy next,” says Kerr, who has also worked as an instructor in the University of Calgary’s environmental design faculty. “Eventually I came to working with death because I think it’s one of the deepest cultural shadows we have.”

Kerr’s mostly word of mouth clientele come to her with a wide variety of requests, from helping those facing imminent death with creating their own rituals to those looking for a way to formally say goodbye to a beloved pet.

While she is passionate about her work in helping families say goodbye in their own unique way, Kerr says is quick to point out that for some, the traditional mode works just fine.

“This isn’t for everybody,” she says. “I just tell them these are the options, with a lot of respect for funeral homes and what they do.”

Aiding those who seek a different way to acknowledge death, though, has become the passion of her life.

“If I can help people have a more comfortable relationship with death, she says, “it’ll not only be a service at a personal level but it’ll have an impact culturally, too.”


How to find the home funeral laws for your area (US & Canada)

If you live in the United States you can fin the home funeral laws for your area

(1) through contacting your local Funeral Consumer Alliance affiliate; and/or

(2) by reading Lisa Carlson’s and Josh Slocum’s book, “Final Rights”;  and/or

(3) contacting another home funeral guide in your state; and/or

(4) researching the laws through your state’s health and safety regulations; and/or

(5) looking up your state’s brochure from the Funeral Ethics Organization site (state-by-state-brochures) which lists the funeral consumer rights for each individual state.

If you live in Canada you can find the home funeral laws  specific to each province/territory from the CINDEA website:

(1) Legal Information and Regulations 

(2) General Timeline (what to do when)

(3) Organ Donation issues

changing the conversation about death (Courier-Mail, Australia)

An article from the Courier-Mail in Australia about choosing to stop medical treatment [article], June 7, 2014

How terminally ill artist Joannah Underhill is changing the conversation about death
By Leisa Scott

Artist Joannah Underhill is sitting in her “lovely Grandma chair”, which helps the 35-year-old stand up, and telling why she decided to stop fighting the cancer that has been corroding her for eight years.

Why she does not consider saying no to yet another round of debilitating treatment as giving up, but taking control. Why she called a halt to last-ditch medical interventions and alternative treatments and weird juice concoctions and decided to eat whatever she damn well pleases for as long as she can. Especially cheese.

“Time to stop pushing and looking for a cure,” she says. “Stop looking to escape the inevitable and accept that I am palliative. The way I work now is the future doesn’t exist. You live in the moment.”

Outside, a bird sings. Underhill’s mum, Primrose, is heading to the shops for some milk. Life is going on. Someone, somewhere has been told their cancer is gone.

It’s people like Underhill, though, the dying, who are concentrating the minds of the Australian Medical Association, emergency department doctors, specialists, ethicists and palliative care experts. When is enough enough? How does a medical community driven to preserve life accept that to do more, to try everything in the rapidly expanding medical arsenal, is sometimes a cruel hoax? Can a Google-diagnosing populace swamped with stories about miracle recoveries and medical breakthroughs come to terms with the fact that at some point – birth, middle age, our twilight years – the best thing a doctor can offer is to make us comfortable while we prepare to die?

This week’s Qweekend cover. Picture: David Kelly Source: News Corp Australia
“Talking about cure is what we do,” says Steve Hambleton, the AMA’s immediate past federal president, who called for a national debate on medical interventions and end-of-life care. “We forget to say, ‘Dying is part of life, so we should be talking and thinking about it’. Doctors can get caught up in feeling that we can’t talk about it, that we’ve got to keep talking about the next potential of finding a cure. Proper medical care is a continuum from curative to palliative to end-of-life, and there should be a seamless transition.”

When Underhill’s personal horror began in October 2006 while she was working in London, she gave no thought to such transitions. She would beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Others had overcome the blood cancer, so would she. She embarked on lengthy chemotherapy. It worked for a while, but the cancer came back. She tried homeopathy, qigong, kinesiology. “When things have failed for you in the medical profession, you want to feel you have done absolutely everything possible,” she says. She paid $10,000 a month for placenta suppositories from Israel and apricot kernels from Mexico. She attended “cultish” seminars. In early 2009, she returned to Brisbane for four months of aggressive chemotherapy before a bone-marrow transplant using her stem cells. She had Stage 4 Hodgkin’s, the most advanced.

“[The transplant] made me so shaky, it’s like your body is made of tissue,” says Underhill, a talented artist from Alderley in Brisbane’s inner north-west. “It’s so invasive, they weigh and measure everything, you have sweats and fevers, I completely lost my hair, it brought on early menopause and it takes so long to recover.” She relapsed about a year later and had radiation. The doctors missed a spot, and she had some more.

By early last year, her remaining curative possibility was another bone marrow transplant, this time with donor cells. The testing was done, a donor found. She saw a psychologist. As Underhill sat in that room, one of hundreds of consultation rooms she’d been in and out of during her years of searching, she said: “I’m having doubts.”

She had a 30 per cent chance of being cured, with some limitations. A 30 per cent chance she’d die soon after the transplant. And a 40 per cent chance of a relapse combined with a raft of new problems. Where once she only saw the 30 per cent cure rate, now she considered the 70 per cent that didn’t look good. “The psychologist said, ‘Most people are in a state of paralysis, they’re like a rabbit in the headlights and they just do whatever they’re told to do’. In the end, I said ‘No’.

“I’d had eight years of lots of different types of chemotherapy,” she says. “I was in a really good state of health and I just felt there was an opportunity for me to support the health I already had, rather than whack my body with more stuff. For me, it wasn’t ‘If I don’t have this treatment I’m going to die’. It was more, ‘What does it look like if you opt to live with cancer rather than trying to beat it, and work with the health you have?’ I decided I’d rather have a week of really good quality health than ten weeks of being hooked up to a drip feeling really unwell.”

Joannah Underhill with a gallery of her paintings, many of which depict cells, at the Roy
Joannah Underhill with a gallery of her paintings, many of which depict cells, at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in 2012. Picture: Mark Cranitch Source: News Corp Australia
Underhill tells her story calmly, sometimes with a welcome levity, and with compelling insight. She has grappled with questions some of us never entertain. She gets weepy twice, once when she talks of never having children. And once when she explains her oncologist’s reaction to her decision not to try the second transplant. “I felt he treated me like I was a naughty child,” she says, dabbing at her tears. “And I thought, it’s my right to choose and if you want to help me you need to listen to me. And they don’t. They can’t be with death. It’s like a personal failing if they lose a patient. They will keep going and keep injecting you up until your last breath. They won’t let you die.”

To lighten the mood, Underhill tells a joke, popular in cancer wards. “Why do they nail down coffins? To keep oncologists out.”

* * *

[photo of The Royal Brisbane’s acting emergency medicine director, Dr Bill Lukin]

KERRY PACKER COULD HAVE STAYED ALIVE longer. Money was not an issue. But the billionaire and legendary gambler who’d survived multiple heart attacks, a bypass and a kidney transplant did not want another throw of the dice. The 68-year-old told his doctors not to artificially prolong his life by dialysis, that he wanted to die with dignity. A statement released after his death on December 26, 2005, said: “He died peacefully at home with his family at his bedside.”

That’s how we used to shuffle off this mortal coil. At home, a visit from a religious leader perhaps, our family near. Surveys show about 70 per cent of Australians still want to die at home – but only 16 per cent manage it. Some die in hospices and nursing homes but most die in hospitals, hooked up to machines, with doctors claiming an increasing number of elderly in particular could have had less traumatic last days if they – and their family – had accepted their time was limited and taken steps to ensure a “good death”.

When intensive care specialist Dr Michael O’Leary (the 2009-11 president of the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society) heard of Packer’s decision, he penned a letter to his local paper. “That Kerry Packer … chose to turn his back on continued aggressive medical support should be an example to us all,” O’Leary wrote. “Frequently the effects of treatments outweigh any likely benefits in prolonging life … Only through an open, realistic and caring approach to these issues will we be able to ensure that most Australians achieve the dignity in death that was afforded Kerry Packer.”

It seems the letter was futile. O’Leary, now a senior staff specialist in intensive care at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, says the years since Packer’s death have seen an increase in ICU admissions that should not have happened. He gets “very despondent” about the machine-driven existence of some patients. “I think, why are we doing this? I cannot believe we are doing this.”

In April, Bob Wright AM, an intensive care pioneer, retired after 43 years at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, saying elderly people were being treated more intensively and expensively than ever before and “sometimes you wonder whether it’s the right thing”.

Some of what occurs in the ICU is “cruel”, says the director of intensive care at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Professor Jeff Lipman. “We can keep patients alive. We can put them on the kidney machine, give them something for the heart, put them on a breathing machine and we can support a whole lot of other organs; we can feed them, but unless there is some chance of a meaningful outcome … that’s cruel.” He says some relatives want “everything” done to save a relative, believing it their right, even if some interventions are futile. “ ‘Nana’s paid taxes all her life. I want everything done.’ It’s a classic statement,” says Lipman. “The perception of ‘everything’ is the problem.”

Doctors die differently. The US-based Johns Hopkins Precursors Study, one of the world’s oldest longitudinal studies, found that of nearly 800 older doctors surveyed, nearly 90 per cent did not want CPR if they were in a chronic coma. Only 25 per cent of the public said the same.

In 2011, American physician Ken Murray wrote about the disconnect between doctors’ desires for their death and the way patients end their lives: “[Doctors] know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen – that they will never experience, during their last moments on Earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).”

Talking openly about the issue is inhibited by some of society’s hot button issues: euthanasia, healthcare costs, a death-denying society that figures a spot of Botox and a fasting diet will keep us forever young, doctors’ inability to tell it to patients straight, and patients’ inability to accept that doctors’ reasons for not offering a certain treatment may not be because they want to save money but because they want to avoid pain with no benefit.

First up, says Hambleton, this debate is not about euthanasia. The active ending of a person’s life because of suffering is not a topic the AMA would have led under his presidency. But he says palliative care is an integral part of the medical model, giving those with an incurable condition access to pain relief and psychological and spiritual counselling. It should be talked about and respected in the same way as life-saving brain surgery.

Sometimes palliative pain relief will hasten death, but the AMA’s 2007 statement on end-of-life says this is not euthanasia. Neither is failing to initiate, or discontinuing, life-prolonging measures. Hambleton says that, contrary to the claims of euthanasia advocates, palliative care – at home or in care facilities – combats the pain of all but a small percentage of the terminally ill. The 2007 statement is being updated, with euthanasia separated from the AMA’s end-of-life policy.

It’s not about money, either, says Hambleton. He insists the reason for raising the issue is to get people to seriously think about how they want to die and make plans for a good death, because doctors are seeing too many bad ones. The pressure of ageing baby boomers looms, but Australia’s healthcare spending is not in crisis – at 9.5 per cent of GDP, it’s less than Canada’s (12 per cent) and that of the US (18 per cent). “If you are sick, you get care,” he says, adding doctors will always give finding a cure “a red hot go”.

[photo The Royal Brisbane’s neonatology director Dr David Cartwright.]

But Hambleton concedes less hospital intervention in the last months of life would save money, savings that could be directed to the underfunded palliative care sector. A 2013 Medical Journal of Australia paper reported that up to a quarter of health dollars are spent on in-patient care in the last 18 months of life without real prospects of extending survival or improving quality of life. “So being stewards of the healthcare dollar, you’ve got to look at appropriate levels of care. Every dollar needs to be spent effectively, and spending money where it shouldn’t be spent is bad for the person and bad for the economy.”

He points to a US study that found patients with advanced lung cancer lived about three months longer and reported better quality of life and less depression when they received palliative care early. “With better palliative care people live longer, they have a better quality of life. And it costs less. That’s the last thing we want to talk about but the last thing is, actually, this will cost less.”

Sarah Winch is not as coy. The former nurse, now University of Queensland healthcare ethicist, says Australians need to accept that the healthcare system – which she says is world-class – is not obliged to offer them “everything”. “The system is obliged to offer you what [doctors] think is clinically appropriate and what they can offer within their budget. If you’ve got a little old person in a nursing home who’s starting to get kidney failure, do you dig them out and put them on haemodialysis which costs about $80,000 a year? Or do we say: ‘No, they’re a little old person, they’re in the foetal position, their kidneys are packing up, yes, they’re dying. We’ll let them die’,” says Winch. “Do we accept we have finite resources as well as a finite life, and do we have those conversations? We’ve lost the sense of our own mortality.”

Winch is not just talking from theory. In 2007, just before Christmas and soon after a New York sojourn, her husband Lincoln, 48, felt unwell. Scans showed the fit non-smoker who had taken a run in Central Park only weeks prior was riddled with cancer. He was offered surgery to remove some disease in a bid to extend his life a little, and stereotactic radiotherapy to the brain to treat four tumours. Lincoln said no. “As it was, the radiotherapy wouldn’t have helped; it was secondary liver cancer that killed him,” says Winch, who has written a book, Best Death Possible, about Lincoln’s diagnosis and how to navigate the health system when dying. Lincoln died four months after the cancer was found. The specialist had given him two weeks.

“We got four months; we could have spent two months sitting in and out of waiting rooms with a lot of pain with this thing screwed into his head when something else killed him,” Winch says. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be in hospitals, I want to walk, I want to be outside, I want to be with the kids [Brandon, then 21, Zoe, then 11].”

Still, she adds, as all doctors interviewed for this story stressed, every case is different. As a single parent in her fifties, Winch says she would probably want life-prolonging treatment if diagnosed with a terminal disease, just to be with her children as long as possible. She even wished Lincoln had at least considered the surgery. But she says one of the most important things loved ones can do for the dying is respect their wishes. “I think people are silenced from saying, ‘Actually, I don’t want this treatment’ because they don’t want to upset Mum or their partner,” Winch says. “But it’s their call.”

Babies don’t get to make that call. Decisions about the futility of treatment are left to the devastated parents of pre-term babies, guided by doctors. Winch says the question of a good death for these babies is fraught, and will be an issue society needs to address in terms of ethics and costs as we “pull out all stops and resuscitate babies at smaller and smaller gestation”. “At some point it’s medicine, at some point it becomes science,” she says.

Neonatal units can now save some babies born at 24 weeks; in rare cases, 23 weeks. Many will have ongoing chronic issues. RBWH neonatology director Dr David Cartwright says more parents are opting for resuscitation. When the baby survives but with severe problems, Cartwright says “we reach a point where we say ‘We shouldn’t be doing this any more’, knowing we will never get back to a situation where they’re non-ventilated, likely to grow, lungs get better”.

Some parents, though, “cannot come to the point of thinking that medicine can’t do it”. That’s when his team has to “take the parents along the path a little bit”. “Most parents want their baby to live,” he says, “but when they dig deep into their feelings, they want their baby to live a relatively normal life.”

Cartwright points out that neonatal units have learned much over recent decades, with outcomes for 28-week-old babies “enormously improved” since the ’80s. But he ponders: “Are we doing the right thing? If you look at it in a biological, evolutionary sense, what we’re doing is crazy, isn’t it? It’s very anti-survival-of-the-fittest, but that’s not the way our brains treat it. Our brains have given us a lot more compassion for the weak, and if we can take the weak and make them strong, then we’ve probably done a good thing.”

Dr Bill Lukin sees many of those whose days of strength are behind them. As the RBWH’s acting director of emergency medicine, he is often the first contact for elderly people with chronic disease, their lives in the balance. Decisions need to happen fast in the emergency department. “Our default measure is to treat people without asking questions,” says Lukin. “A lot of the things we do put people into an acute care trajectory in the hospital. Some of my work here is trying to make sure that what we’re doing is what the patient wants,” he says. “You can die well, or you can die badly; if you’ve got a choice, you should be giving patients, or relatives, those choices.” Lukin, whose concern about appropriate treatment for emergency patients led to eight years of study of end-of-life and palliative care, says most of the time, the patient or family is grateful for the frank approach.

“It’s quite a confronting discussion to sit down and say, ‘Your dad’s got pneumonia, the treatment is an antibiotic but he’s in a nursing home, he can’t walk, he can’t talk, what would he be telling you to do right now?’ ” he says. “Doctors are a little afraid to have that conversation,” adds Lukin, who says some of the concern is fear of legal action. The law is tricky in some areas, but substitute decision-making is legal under the Guardianship Act.

There’s a more human element at play, too. “I think doctors are worried they might get misjudged around judgments they’re making about the life of that person and whether it was valuable or not. We’re not doing that at all; what we’re trying to find out is what the person wanted.”

That would be a lot easier if we’d thought about our death and what interventions we wanted. A caveat: palliative care cannot end all trips to the emergency department. Some relatives with the best of intentions find the stress of caring for a loved one in their final days or hours too much and call an ambulance; understaffed nursing homes rely on hospital services, especially after hours.

But if, while cognisant, we learned about the dying process in a medicalised system and made it known we do not want to be ventilated but would accept resuscitation, will have antibiotics but not a feeding tube, or would just like to be kept comfortable while we slip away, we could end up dying on our terms. Next month, the Queensland Clinical Senate will hold the first meeting that the multidisciplinary forum of clinicians has opened to community leaders to discuss end-of-life care. One topic, says Senate chair, emergency doctor David Rosengren, will be a proposal that elderly patients about to be transferred to a nursing home be asked to fill in an advance care plan.

[photo Healthcare ethicist Sarah Winch at her husband’s grave]

Less detailed than Queensland’s advance health directives, which have had a slow take-up, the plan would give patients, their doctors and relatives a “best death” model to work towards. Patients could opt out. “It saddens me when we see elderly patients with a poor quality of life come into emergency in the state of almost death when clearly that’s been something that was likely to happen for a period of time, and it’s apparent no-one’s ever had a conversation about what’s going to happen at the end,” Rosengren says. “We want to encourage patients to put up their hand and say, ‘Can you tell me where this is heading, can I have an opportunity to tell you what’s important to me?’ ”

And if we don’t do that, or at least tell our loved ones our desires? “We continue to impose on you the entire power and might of this extraordinarily functional health system, and do a whole bunch of stuff on you that has no impact and puts you through misery and pain and then you die on the end of a ventilator three months later having had zero quality of life.”

* * *

AFTER THE AGONISING DECISION NOT TO HAVE the bone marrow transplant, Joannah Underhill knew some loved ones would find it hard to accept. She wrote a letter that she recalls went something like, “Unless you’ve done this, unless you’ve walked in my shoes for eight years, you can’t comment and if you do have a problem, please sort it out in your mind before you speak to me.”

By July last year, she was feeling unwell again and by October, she accepted palliative care. She’s stopped the chemotherapy she was having but still has blood transfusions, and takes steroids and morphine to combat the pain. There’s a flipside: the body deteriorates with extended use of the steroids, hence the Grandma chair, and there’s weight gain which Underhill jokes makes her resemble “a Buddha chipmunk”.

“But I can paint. I can sit at an easel and paint for five or six hours and I’m really enjoying it,” says Underhill, who adds she could barely lift her head off the couch before the steroids. “It reduces my pain, my nausea, I’m able to eat, I have energy and a sense of humour.”

She also has a committed team of palliative care experts from the Brisbane-based Karuna Care and the RBWH – and a new oncologist. Her anxiety has reduced considerably. “I have never felt more held, I haven’t felt more looked after or more supported than I do now,” says Underhill, who plans to die at home. “You don’t want someone who is going to give up on you, but someone who can accept that death is a part of life and there is a limit to what we all can do. It’s much more powerful because they give you the freedom of choice.” And she’s lived longer than expected. Christmas was supposed to be it for Underhill. Her mother and nurse, Primrose (there’s also her dad, Tim, and sister Gerry Pearce, 34), told her: “As soon as you focused on quality of life, longevity showed up.”

Underhill has not requested a lot of detail about what dying will be like. “I don’t need to be freaked out but I need to be heard.” She has filled out an advance health directive, however, and carries it with her. No ventilation, no resuscitation. “By the time I get there, I’ll be so exhausted and [will have] gone through so much suffering. You know, there’s only so much you want to take and I’ll be quite happy to call it a day. I’m very peaceful about that.”

For now, she’s living every day as it comes. She’s thrilled the person who commissioned a massive four-metre work depicting cellular activity, a style she explored after her diagnosis, has invited her for dinner to see it hung. “Wow, dinner and talking about art, when are we doing that?” she says, beaming. Finishing the painting was something she’d vowed to do before dying. Now, she’s adding things to the list.

“I just fill it with as many joyful things as I can. I’m at home, we’re getting this really precious time as a family and I get to be comfortable and around the things I love,” says Underhill. “It’s peaceful, and I get to wander around and eat my cheese until my heart’s content.”

Help with home funerals: when it crosses the line

Help with home funerals: when it crosses the line
By Lisa Carlson, Funeral,  November 13, 2011 [post]

As a grandmother to the home funeral movement since 1987, I have been thrilled to see the interest in home funerals taking hold around the country. And how wonderful that there are significant learning opportunities to help spread this movement.

However, I am growing alarmed at one of the trends I see: women (typically) calling themselves death midwives (not just home funeral guides) and asking to be paid for being present with the body, to help prepare the body, get the paperwork, and transport the body. Why am I alarmed? For two reasons. One, it is “acting as a funeral director” without a license. When the industry gets riled enough (as they have been in Pennsylvania and in Oregon), there are likely to be measures taken to limit the possibilities for home funerals, to take away that right that we have in all but eight states. That would be tragic!

Secondly, the very activities that some of these death midwives are doing or offering to do thwart the therapeutic involvement for friends and relatives. Having something to do takes away the sense of helplessness. Those in the helping professions often have an enormous need to feel needed, and this can lead to overbearing behavior. In at least one situation I know of, the personality of the helper was so aggressive that she offended others.

Of his wife Ann’s death, Jack Manning wrote “No Grey Suits: End of Life as a Team Sport.” Because I get “high” on empowering others, I’ve put together a checklist of the kinds of activities Jack assigned to those around him when he needed help. He didn’t pay them. They all felt privileged to be asked, to be included in such an intimate way. Your friends and relatives will surely feel the same. I am hoping that this checklist will be helpful to the home funeral educators, too. It’s fine to charge a fee for a workshop or written materials, but any hands-on activities at a time of death should be given away for free in order to stay within the law. That’s also consistent with the practices of religious groups that bury their own dead without charge or the Colonial women of the community who were the layers out of the dead.

When a death occurs, many people don’t know what to say or how to act. They might add to their condolences, “Please call if I can do something.,” not being at all sure what they could really do. Will you be smart enough to ask for help, especially ahead of time when the death is expected? Not all of these will apply to every home funeral, of course. Leave your suggestions as a comment!

Who will–
Help with notifying family and friends, by phone or e-mail, Facebook or Twitter? Website?
Be in charge of obtaining the required paperwork (death certificate, burial transit or disposition permit, permit to cremate)?
Contact the cemetery, crematory, or med school to schedule delivery of the body?
Bathe and dress the body?
Make or purchase a casket, shroud, or cardboard container?
Obtain dry ice or frozen gel packs if needed?
Arrange for music?
Contact any clergy desired?
Arrange for flowers?
Arrange for cleaning or housekeeping or pet-sitting?
Arrange for meals or other refreshments?
Meet out-of-town guests at the airport?
Provide overnight accommodations for those?
Collect and display photos or other memorabilia?
Plan any service to be held, with or without the body present?
Help if there will be more than one event or more than one location?
Write the obituary?
Write a eulogy?
Video any events for the benefit of out-of-town family?
Serve as pall bearers?
Transport the body?
Send thank you notes?
Apply for veterans benefits such as a marker and flag?
Notify Social Security if not already a part of EDR (electronic death registration)?
Extend support to the bereaved after everyone has gone?

DIY Death: Natural, At-Home Funerals And Their Boomer Appeal (Boston)

An article about home funerals from wbur’s Common Health in Boston [article], November 22, 2013. Please visit the above site for excellent photos accompanying the article.

DIY Death: Natural, At-Home Funerals And Their Boomer Appeal
By Rachel Zimmerman

WELLFLEET, Mass. – When 20-month-old Adelaida Kay Van Meter died of a rare genetic disease last winter, her father, Murro, gently carried her body out of the house to his wood shop in the pines near Gull Pond. He placed her in a small cedar box and surrounded her with ice packs. For three days, the little girl’s grieving parents were able to visit her and kiss her and hug her. Then, on the third day, after the medical examiner came to sign the last bit of paperwork, Van Meter and his wife, Sophia Fox, said good-bye to their baby, screwed the lid on the box and drove to a Plymouth, Mass. crematorium, where they watched the little coffin enter the furnace.

“We took care of Adelaida when she was an infant, we took care of her when she was healthy, we advocated for her in the hospital, we took care of her when she was sick,” her father said. “Why wouldn’t we take care of her when she was dead?” Sophia Fox added: “There was no way I was going to hand her over to some stranger at a funeral parlor where she’d be put in a refrigerator with a bunch of other dead bodies. This way was so much more natural. We saw the life leave her body and we were better able to let go.”

Death remains a topic that many of us would rather avoid. And when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of caring for the dead, most of us tend to think it’s best — and furthermore, required by law — to let professional funeral arrangers handle the arrangements.

Well, it turns out that in most states it’s perfectly legal to care for your own dead. And, with new momentum to shatter longstanding taboos and stop tip-toeing around death — from “death with dignity” measures sweeping the country to projects promoting kitchen table “conversations” about our deepest end-of-life wishes — a re-energized DIY death movement is emerging.

This “personal funeral” or “home death care” movement involves reclaiming various aspects of death: for instance, keeping the dead body at home for some time rather than having it whisked it away; rejecting embalming and other environmentally questionable measures to prettify the dead; personally transporting a loved one’s corpse to a cemetery; and even, in some cases, home burials. Families are learning to navigate these delicate tasks with help from a growing cadre of “death midwives” “doulas” or “home death guides.”

Photo caption: When Adelaida Van Meter died last winter, her parents decided to keep her body at home for several days to say good-bye. (Courtesy Murro Van Meter)

The DIY death movement is loosely knit, and motivations vary, ranging from environmental concerns to religious or financial considerations. (Traditional funerals can cost around $10,000 or more; when you do-it-yourself, the cost can be reduced into the hundreds, experts says.) Each case is fiercely personal — there’s no playbook — but they all share a very intimate sense that death should unfold as a family matter, not as a moment to relinquish loved ones to a paid stranger or parlor.

This Is Legal?

The highly personal nature of home funerals appealed to Janet Baczuk, 58, of Sandwich, Mass. So, when her 93-year-old father, Stephen, died in September, 2011, she said, “I thought, I’d like to do that for my dad.” “It’s more humane, more natural…and more environmentally sound.”

Baczuk and her sister washed their father’s dead body using essential oils, and got a permit to drive the corpse to the cemetery in their (covered) pickup truck. A World War II veteran, Stephen Baczuk was buried at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, where officials allowed his simple pine and cherry casket to be placed directly on the ground, covered by an inverted concrete vault with no lid, “like a butter dish,” Baczuk said. When her mother died back in 2006, Baczuk said, she had no inkling that home funerals were an option — but wishes she did. “I didn’t know it could be done,” she said. “I think a lot of lay people don’t know this is legal or possible.”

She’s right.

“When it comes to death, it doesn’t matter where you are on the scale of education or socioeconomics, many people are shocked to find that it’s legal to care for your own dead at home,” says Josh Slocum, Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a Burlington, Vermont, nonprofit that works on all aspects of funeral education, from helping consumers reduce costs to advocating on DIY methods. “And I think this speaks to how distant death has become for us in just over a century. In the late 1800s, even turn of the century, caring for the dead was as prosaic and ordinary as taking care of the children or milking the farm animals.”

Slocum offers this analogy: If a woman wants to run a restaurant, she needs approval from the health department and officials, of course, would be permitted to inspect her kitchen. But the health department would have no jurisdiction over the same woman’s own kitchen at home. “They cannot come in and tell her that her refrigerator is subpar, and they have no authority to tell her she is not allowed to cook dinner for her kids. They can’t compel her to order dinner from a commercial, licensed restaurant,” Slocum says. “The same holds with state funeral regulatory boards. Their job is to ensure public welfare and protect paying consumers. Bizarrely, however, many think their jurisdiction extends to telling families they must pay an unwanted third party funeral home to do something the family could do for themselves.”

Photo caption: Kyle Gamboa, 1995-2013 (Courtesy Kymberlyrenee Gamboa)

What characterizes the DIY death experience is that it’s so very personal. Consider these vastly different snapshots:

• In northern California, Kimberlyrenee Gamboa’s son Kyle committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in September, three weeks into his senior year in high school. A seemingly happy 18-year-old with lots of friends and into competitive lasertag, Kyle’s death was such a shock, his mother said, she doesn’t know how she’d have managed it through a typical funeral. Instead, with help from her church and and home death guide, Heidi Boucher, Kyle’s body was returned to the family home one day after his death. Boucher washed Kyle and helped arrange the body on dry ice changed every 24 hours; she gathered information to fill out Kyle’s death certificate and managed all coordination with the mortuary. For three full days, Kyle’s body lay in the family living room in an open casket, not embalmed. During that time, day and night, surrounded by pictures and candles and flowers, all of his friends and family could say good-bye and remember his short life. For Kyle’s mother, that time was critical to her healing.

“If I had to hand him over to funeral parlor, have him embalmed and get two hours on a Tuesday afternoon for everyone to see him — I couldn’t have done that,” she said. “It would have been extremely hard, not only for me, but for everyone who knew him…I still have my ups and downs, but I had three more days with my son — of him physically being there and accessible to me. I didn’t want to leave the house because I knew these were my last three days with him. Until you go through it, you don’t realize how very important that time is for your healing.”

• Kanta Lipsky, a yoga teacher in West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, compared her 66-year-old husband John’s “home death” to a “home birth.” “A couple of days before I could see it coming,” Lipsky says. When he died of cancer in March 2011, she said, a nurse from the local hospital prepared his body. “We did a very beautiful ceremony at the house. Friends came over to wash John’s body, a rabbi said prayers during the washing. There was lots of water and towels all over the floor. We put him in the traditional Jewish white loose pajamas; my tradition is Hindu, so we placed rice balls in the casket and had a garland of roses. We did a waving of lights and we all sang — there were 20-25 people in the house. He was wrapped in beautiful comforter, and we lifted him up and passed him hand to hand through hallway. It was very moving…It was like a home birth, but it was a home death, very hands on…there were no rules, it just unfolded, evolved and we all felt really comfortable with it…it was such an easy slipping out, his spirit just slipped right out and we were with him, it was a part of life.”

• In Hubbardston, Mass. near Worcester, it took three months of haggling with town officials before Paul Flint was allowed to bury his 14-year-old stepson, who died in a car accident in 2011, on the family’s property. Because the accident happened in Minnesota, Flint said, the family was keen on having the boy, Daniel Davis, laid to rest at home. “My wife wanted him buried on the property,” Flint said. “There’s a couple of favorite spots he liked and he’s buried there, near the rope bridge across the creek.”

Even Bill Cosby chose to bury his son the family property in Shelbourne, Mass., “beneath the hills and trees where young Ennis played as a child.”

Not All Victorian Sitting Rooms and Cadillacs

Obviously, families taking care of their dead loved ones isn’t new. Indeed, it was the norm until the last quarter of the 19th century, when a burgeoning funeral industry evolved. Today, “the funeral business is so effectively insulated from free-market competition that many families can’t even imagine a funeral home free of faux-Victorian sitting rooms and a fleet of Cadillacs,” writes Slocum, also the co-author of Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.

The home funeral movement isn’t new either, Slocum says (think of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death and on to the funeral business reformers of the 1960s and 70s). But even as interest grows in the DIY death movement, many people still believe that death should be left to the professionals. “Americans have a neurotic relationship with death,” Slocum says. “Most people are convinced they are physically or emotionally unable to handle it.” He says death should be no more legally controversial than any other “do it yourself” matter:

We’d never put up with this in any other sphere; it would be laughable to contemplate state workers going around forcing citizens to go to Jiffy Lube instead of changing their own oil, or to hire licensed daycare workers instead of staying home with the kids. But that’s what some funeral boards do. The only reason we accept this is that we’re so psychologically removed from and afraid of death that we assume such absurdities are normal even when we’d recognize how ridiculous they are in any other context.

But emotional complexity is another story. Many people are profoundly grateful to leave funeral arrangements to outside professionals. Still, there’s often an assumption that the grieving are simply too fragile to cope with death head on.

While caring for his wife through late stage melanoma, another Cape Cod man, Grey, made a decision: in discussions with his dying wife and daughters the family decided to keep her body at home after death. But when Grey told a hospice worker what he planned to do, he said the worker spent half an hour on the phone trying to talk him out of it: “She said, ‘You’re going to be distraught and you’re going to have your wife’s dead body in the house and…you may think you can handle this, but so many things can go wrong, I think you should reconsider.’”

In the end, though, Grey stuck to his plan: he had attended to his wife at home through her brutal illness, and it was almost a relief (at least for a short time) to care for her after death, when she was no longer in pain. Grey and his daughters bathed her body with lavender oil, built her a cedar coffin and watched over her for three days in the house before taking her to the crematory. “We all felt it was a very important ritual. I’m glad we did it that way,” he said, but noted, “it’s definitely not for everybody.”

A National Movement

As a measure of how DIY death has flourished, Slocum says, ten years ago there were a handful of (mostly women) around the country helping families learn about home funerals. Now there’s a nationwide organization, the National Home Funeral Alliance, with about 300 members, a code of ethics and rules governing their practices (they can charge for educating individuals and families privately or at workshops, for instance, but can’t act as pseudo funeral directors.)

At their fourth annual meeting last month, about 70 home death guides, hospice nurses, doctors, students and funeral directors met in Raleigh, North Carolina, to talk about home death care and green burials, among other topics, says Lee Webster, vice president of the NHFA and a home funeral guide in Plymouth, New Hampshire. They also tried to figure out a way to more systematically collect data on home death care and build a central repository for consumer information.

Webster, a longtime hospice volunteer, says while data-gathering remains tricky, it’s clear the movement is growing. “There’s an explosion” of interest in home funerals or blended, hybrid funerals with some elements done personally and some left to traditional funeral directors, she says.

What’s driving this explosion? It’s a Boomer thing, according to Webster. “This is the generation that fought for breast-feeding in public and home births; and they want to bring back the idea of a natural death. It’s the ethic of this generation.”

Ecopods and Banana Leaf Urns

Cost and the environment are also driving factors. People like the idea of “fewer chemicals, no rainforest woods and Chinese steel,” Webster says, noting that when you avoid embalming you’re not “draining blood into the public septic system and not subjecting loved ones to violent procedures — the embalming process is quite brutal — just for cosmetic reasons and for no health benefits.”

(One casket designer in Arlington, Mass., for instance, offers artist-embellished Ecopods for burials, hand-made from recycled paper and covered with materials of silk-and-mulberry, as well as biodegradable coffins, caskets, and urns made of paper mache, bamboo, banana leaf, wicker, and cardboard.)

Webster adds: “Once people’s fears are relieved about body care, body mechanics, smells and fluids, a light goes off and they say, ‘Why would I not want to do this?” Even while many of us shudder at the prospect, Webster says the dead “can be very beautiful. To go back to the birth model: it’s like birthing people out in as natural a way as possible.”

You might think there’d be some funeral industry push-back against all this embrace of more personal, no-frills death care. (Of course, with no national numbers, it’s hard to know how many people are actually embracing the trend.) Still, it doesn’t seem like the industry is particularly threatened.

Daniel Biggins, a second-generation funeral director in Rockland, Mass., and spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, said he doesn’t have any direct experience with families interested in home funerals, but has no problem with people making their own choices.

Indeed, he said, more families want to personalize even traditional funerals to better reflect their lives. For instance, he said, last year he helped arrange a memorial service at a local golf course. The dead man, a golf fanatic, was cremated and placed in a biodegradable urn in the main pond at the course. “Several hundred people gathered around the pond,” Biggins said. “And all his friends hit a golf ball into the pond with a personal message as a final goodbye.”

The My-Choice Generation

Heidi Boucher, who says she’s helped over 100 families care for their dead loved ones, is completing a film, In The Parlour: The Final Goodbye, about the “resurgence” of the home death movement. A home death guide for over 25 years, she says: “I’ve watched from only a handful of us doing this in this country…to now, when it’s become vogue. A lot of this generation, we’re the ones who took control of where we’re going to send our kids to school, what car to drive. Our generation is the one that wants to find out what’s in it before we eat it.”

One problem is that states and local municipalities are all over the map when it comes to regulating death.

There remain nine states with laws or other impediments (from requiring a funeral director’s signature on a death certificate, to mandating that a funeral director be present at the final disposition of the body) that make it difficult for families who want to care for their own dead, Josh Slocum says.

On the other end of the spectrum, the state of Massachusetts offers clear instructions for home funerals right on its website, including what you need for a death certificate, guidance on burials and preparing the body. “The human body decomposes rapidly after death,” the website says. “Care must be taken to keep the body as cool as possible in order the slow the decomposition that results in noxious odors and the leakage of body fluids from body orifices. A human body can be kept in a cool room at least 24 hours before decomposition begins. Heat in the room should be turned off in winter, and air conditioning should be turned on in summer.”

Reclaiming A Death Tradition

But even in an evolved state like Massachusetts, many families’ first reaction to home funerals is something like: “‘You mean that’s legal?!’ says Heather Massey, a longtime home funeral guide who runs the education and consulting center “In Loving Hands” on Cape Cod. Massey says her goal is the creation of a robust home death support system, “a volunteer care circle, comprised of community members trained and experienced in home funerals, who can in turn assist and guide other families who wish to care for their own at death, thereby truly bringing this loving tradition back into the hands of family and community.”

For Adelaida Van Meter’s parents, taking personal control of their daughter’s death was “imperative,” said Sophia Fox. There were some obstacles, however. “I had several funeral homes tell me over the phone that what I was trying to do was illegal,” Van Meter said. “I didn’t try to argue with them, I just hung up.”

Eventually, with help from a pediatric social worker and Heather Massey, the family was able to fill out all the required paperwork and keep the baby’s body at home after she died.

I recently emailed Murro to check in and see if there’d been any news since we talked during the summer. It had been about a year and ten months since Adelaida died; the couple’s new daughter, Annabelle, was nearly 7 months old. Here’s what he said:

“The only news is that we continue to be head over heels in love with our daughter Annabelle, who is doing great. With that said, not a hour goes by that we don’t feel the loss of Adelaida. So I guess these things would qualify as no new news.”

A Good Death: How Boomers Will Change the World a Final Time (Time Magazine)

An artcile about home funerals from Time Magazine [article], August 14, 2013

A Good Death: How Boomers Will Change the World a Final Time
By Dan Kadlec

Surely the world has heard enough of the Baby Boomers, who have dominated the political, cultural and economic landscape for six decades. But a generation that has refused to go quietly into any life stage will, it seems, be heard from one final time on the biggest issue of them all: how to die.

For eons, folks grew old, endured the symptoms, and died when it was their time—according to God’s will, some would say, even if it involved fighting through lingering illness, pain and suffering, or years of mental or physical incapacitation. A “good” death was about having lived long enough to see grandchildren, put one’s affairs in order, and pass away surrounded by a loving family.

Boomers don’t see it that way. To them, a good death is more about a good life. When they can’t have that any longer, it’s time to pull the plug. This will be the first generation to broadly eschew painful life-extending procedures and make the most of palliative care to live better in fewer days, and then die with dignity.

“The goal post is always moving as people get closer to the end zone,” says Ruth Goldstein, a retired nurse in Baltimore who has worked with the elderly. “But the main point is that each person is in charge of when it is time to call it a game.”

Growing old and dying has never been especially topical with boomers, who brought sexuality, birth control, gender issues, and civil rights out of the shadows. In recent years, boomers have reinvented retirement, recharacterizing this period of life from one of leisure and withdrawal to one of encore careers, giving back, and prolonged engagement.

Many remain at work, youthful and energetic. But as friends have begun to grow ill and pass away and boomers bury their parents, often after long and expensive bouts of physical or mental suffering, the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30 has turned its thoughts to dying—and how to do it, like everything else, on their own terms.

“Boomers have never been a stoic bunch,” says author and gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, who has studied the generation for four decades. “They’re not going to allow their last chapter in life to be an extended period of loss, fear, pain, and suffering.” He believes more will choose to forego treatments that degrade but extend life, and when confronted with years of illness opt for the quick solution—suicide either with or without the help of a doctor.

As one boomer responding to a story in the Baltimore Sun wrote: “When I reach that stage I want bacon and sausage for breakfast, pizza for lunch and a Whopper for dinner. That menu would not only provide me with great pleasure, but might also speed up the inevitable.”

Medical science has done a remarkable job in keeping people alive longer. Life expectancy has ballooned from 47 to 78 years over the past century. But science has also gotten better at keeping people dying longer. Boomer parents have been the principle battleground for things like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, chronic arthritis, incontinence and diabetes, all of which can make life a struggle for year upon year. It’s not pretty, and boomers are starting to ask how they might avoid this nightmare.

“They’re saying they’d like to have some degree of humanity and dignity and control over the end of their life,” says Dychtwald. “They don’t want to be a burden to their children and grandchildren; they don’t want to live an extra decade in some hospital or nursing home with tubes up their nose.”

Suffering people have long sought an early end, of course, and many have done so quietly—or not so quietly in the case of patients of euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian. But we are now seeing the beginnings of a broad movement that will change the game for good. “People are starting to think about aid-in-dying as the next civil rights movement,” says Goldstein. “Death with dignity is the final frontier of human rights and freedom of expression.”

So what was once a taboo subject—how to die—is now in open discourse. The death café movement encourages people to meet and discuss the concept of a good death. This dialogue is being fed in part by less rigid adherence to organized religion, which has strong views surrounding death and dying, and advances in medicine and technology that make it easier to feel you can control pain and symptoms and the way you die.

Four states—Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Montana—have passed laws legalizing aid in dying. Six states have active campaigns to promote aid in dying—Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico. Another half dozen states are moving that direction. You can find out what’s happening in your state here.

The emerging template for a good death isn’t all about choosing your moment, though that is the biggest part of what is changing. And much of what makes a good death today has long been the case. Here are the key aspects of a good death:

Control of the process You want to make decisions around all aspects of your illness and be certain that your wishes will be followed even if you are unable to see to it yourself. “People want more control in the months and days leading up to dying,” says Megory Anderson, founder and director of Sacred Dying Foundation. “They have clear ideas of where they want to die, who is with them, and what medical intervention is used.”

Open Communication You can’t be in control if you aren’t getting an honest and coordinated discussion among doctors, patient, and family. This should include frank talk about chances of recovery and burdens of treatment on the patient and family.

Broad support You want to know the medical staff will stay to the end; that your family is on board, finances are not the deciding factor, and that professionals will help you prepare emotionally. In The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life, author Marilyn Webb writes: “There is recognition of the need for family strength, an understanding that the good or bad legacy this death creates will endure in family lore.”

Spirituality Many look to their religious traditions during the dying process. But spirituality encompasses much more than faith and traditions. It’s about creating a peaceful and comforting environment that may incorporate prayer, meditation, music, and candles. This is highly personalized and may provide the kind of signature departure that many boomers demand.

Minimal suffering Today’s powerful medications make it possible to relieve physical pain while remaining lucid longer. But mental suffering can be acute too, and one way to relieve it is by placing limitations on treatments early in the process and clearly delineating what measures are to be taken to keep you alive. “More end-of-life-care clinicians are coming to the understanding that aggressive treatment doesn’t universally deliver better quality or quantity of life, and isn’t always in the best interest or reflect the wishes of patients,” says Colleen Wadden, director of external communication for Providence Health & Services.

Meaning Boomers have always sought a better way. They want to feel their dying experience is just right for them. This is what drives the hospice care movement, where terminally ill people get the care they need to live long enough and with minimal pain to go out on their own terms. “Death is seldom good, desired or welcome,” says Dr. John Shuster, chief medical officer at Alive Hospice in Nashville, Tenn. “The task is to help patients and families bear what may seem unbearable, to work toward relief of as much physical, emotional, and spiritual distress as possible, and to enable patients to live well during this precious and important time with as much meaning and dignity as possible.”

Closure Unsettled affairs make death more difficult. You want to use your final days to make sure loved ones are cared for as best you can, mend fences, and leave memories. “Baby boomers build and preserve meaning through narrative, and the telling and sharing of important stories,” says Shuster. “This is healing for all ages. Celebrating and focusing on important relationships adds meaning to life, especially in the setting of a life-limiting illness. An advanced illness can be the stimulus to heal important broken relationships.”


Home Funerals, the expanded version

In the last several years more has been written about home funerals. Articles have appeared in the New York Times, Smithsonian, Washington Post, and more. As more people become involved with home funerals, the definition of what it is expands also.

This photo, 'golden feet,' is of an actual home funeral. The daughter gave permission to use the photo in order to encourage others to have a home funeral for their loved ones. Nowadays a home funeral can describe any part of the time from when a person is first diagnosed with a terminal disease to the funeral itself, and continuing grief care for the family.

The term “home funeral” has come to mean family or friends who care for a loved one before and/or after their death. The specifics
may include a funeral service … or not;
may include activities that are held at the home … or not;
may include guidance in how to die … or not;
may include after-death care … or not;
may include a death midwife or home funeral guide … or not;
and may include the family … or not.

The people most interested in home funerals seem to be those who want a more person-centered style of care, and/or desire a greener approach to their final disposition. So “home funeral” has grown beyond the literal words, and represents more of a perspective that people choose.

~ Donna Belk

What are Soul Midwives?

The term “Soul Midwives” describes non-medical, holistic companions who guide and support the dying in order to facilitate a gentle and tranquil death. (more…)

What is a Death Midwife? by Olivia Rose Bareham

An article in “The Moon Magazine” interviewing Olivia Rose Bareham. Visit site: 


What is a Death Midwife?
Interview with Rev. Olivia Rose Bareham, Death midwife

Olivia-Bareham-for-webRev. Olivia Bareham–or simply, Rev. Olivia–is an ordained minister of healing. Originally from England, she holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of London, and a bachelor’s degree in natural theology in sacred healing from the Healing Light Seminary of Glendale, CA. She is also a certified death midwife. Her experience in the fields of auxiliary nursing, elder care and hospice volunteering inspired her to investigate a more meaningful and personal alternative to traditional funeral practices. She created Sacred Crossings, in Los Angeles, California, to offer ministerial services, education and guidance to families wishing to create meaningful funerals at home. Sacred Crossings offers a certificate program in death midwifery covering all aspects of conscious dying, after-death care and family-directed funerals. She is also a writer, producer and public speaker and a member of the National Home Funeral Alliance,

The MOON: What is a death midwife?

Rev. Olivia: Although death midwifery is an ancient practice, the actual term, “death midwife,” is a relatively new one and seems to have different meanings in different parts of the world. Other terms are death doula, or soul midwife, but in general a death midwife is one who assists an individual and their family in the transition of death, just as a birth midwife assists the baby and the mother in the transition of birth. I have been serving the Los Angeles community as an interfaith minister and home funeral guide for the past nine years, and have formulated my own definition of a death midwife, since my work expands beyond death through the wake, vigil and funeral until burial or cremation. As I define it, A death midwife shepherds individuals toward a conscious dying experience; guides loved ones in after-death care of the body; and empowers families to create personal and deeply meaningful funerals at home.

The MOON: How did you get involved in this work?

Rev. Olivia: I’ve always been naturally drawn to working with those facing end-of-life, but it wasn’t until I assisted my own mother as she made her transition that I began investigating ways to transform our experience of death from something dreaded to the profoundly beautiful experience that it is. My mother died peacefully at home, on hospice, and after she died the hospice nurse invited me to help bathe her body. It was the epiphany of my life. While I cradled my mother’s frail body in my arms, the nurse hummed softly as she gently washed her back with lavender soap. It was like falling into the abyss of eternal love, deep and other-worldly, just like it had been when holding my daughter in my arms seconds after her birth. I felt this ritual of bathing the dead held an opportunity to know something, something universal, that couldn’t be read about, could only be experienced. I knew I wanted others to have this experience, one that could help them process loss and open them to a new awareness of life and death.

My sister and I dressed mother in her white burial trousseau. We placed a yellow rose on her chest and laid her on the hospice bed in the living room. People came to visit, to say goodbye, to bring flowers. They stayed for hours; they didn’t want to leave. They could feel the presence of something profound in this liminal space. They sat at the table at one side of the room and drank tea and shared stories and welcomed more people as they arrived. My mother lay peacefully on the bed with her bible and her rose at the other side of the room. I pulled up a chair between life at the tea table and death on the bed and I felt whole for the first time in my life.

I wanted it go on and on. Something was happening…my mother seemed connected to this space, her home, these people, perhaps even her body. I felt she liked what was going on here in her living room. After four or five hours, the guests began to leave. Neither my sister nor I were ready for our mother to be gone, not just yet, but we didn’t know then about home funerals, so we called the undertakers and they took her away. They put her in a black plastic bag and zipped her up and took her out into the snow across the lawn and into the van. But it was too soon. I wasn’t finished. Something was happening in the house, something indescribable—something out of this world, yet of this world—and there had been an opportunity to get to know this “something,” but the opportunity was taken away by the kind strangers in black suits who thought they were doing us a favor.

I felt ripped off, incomplete and inconsolable. I knew that this was wrong, that we should have had more time. So when I returned to Los Angeles, I made it my mission to find out how we could keep that window open…How we could take care of the bodies of our loved ones at home. Why not? They were dead! They were washed and dressed and looked beautiful. Why should we hand them over to strangers? Wasn’t there a way we could keep them at home until burial or cremation? This inquiry led me to Jerrigrace Lyons, who taught people how to care for their own after death. I read everything I could get my hands on, became certified as a home funeral guide and founded Sacred Crossings, determined to combine my training as an inter-faith minister and now a home funeral guide to help families hold the window to eternity open and experience death close up and first hand for as long as they needed to. I was a death midwife. It felt like slipping my hand into an old familiar glove.

The MOON: How do you prepare people for dying?

Rev. Olivia: Unfortunately, because death and the dying process have been taken out of our culture, it is no longer a natural part of the circle of life. Dying is seen as failure; tragic and morbid. How do you prepare someone for that? I think that the main purpose of a death midwife today is to gently re-educate the dying, so that death is seen as the pinnacle of life—the grand finale of a long and fabulous journey. It should be celebrated whenever it comes, for no matter the circumstances, the person dying is being released into the arms of love. What could be better than that?

There is no cookie-cutter formula for preparing to die. It’s an intimate, individual process between oneself and one’s definition of the divine. I ask questions that lead to forgiveness of others and self, to acceptance of everything without judgment, to embracing fear and sorrow and loss, and that also lead to a profound sense of gratitude. I think we need to focus on these things every day, whatever stage of life we are in, whatever our health, career or spiritual path. This way, whenever our body dies, we will be prepared, and the last words on our lips will be “Thank you!”

Most people unfortunately don’t begin to investigate death until they have a terminal diagnosis from a doctor. A professional has to announce, “You are going to die,” when the fact is, we all have a terminal diagnosis; it’s called life. We are all going to die, so why not start today to investigate what this really means? What’s going to happen to my body? Is there an “I” that is separate from my body? If so, where is that going to go? I teach a class in “conscious dying,” during which we look closely at these questions. We begin to investigate in a safe, caring and compassionate space what it really means to die.

When I sit bedside with someone who is actively dying, I meet them wherever they are. I fall in love with whoever they are, for whoever they are is absolutely incredible, a marvel of nature, someone to be revered, honored and adored. When a person experiences this, they feel seen. No matter what they have done throughout their life, now it is all irrelevant. Now there is no time to change anything, no time for regrets. The only thing that matters is that someone sees who they really are…who they really were all along, but just forgot in their hurry to do something, be someone, achieve something. So I just sit and I see them. I meet “the beloved” in each person that is dying, so for perhaps one moment, they can deeply relax and sink into the essence of who they truly are.

For those who call me before they are in the final stages, which is by far the better time to call a death midwife, I help them to get their affairs in order. This includes their health care directive, which assigns an agent who can speak for them regarding their health care when they can no longer speak for themselves. I help them to identify what “life support” means to them and when they would want life support to cease and “death support” to take over. We talk about how they would like to be taken care of in their final days and write it down so that family members will know how to care for them according to their wishes.

Most of the people who call me have already been dealing with a terminal illness for some time. They are perhaps tired of treatments and are now investigating what’s next. I help them to take that step from “buying more time” in hope of a cure, to accepting the natural stage of end-of-life and preparing for a conscious, peaceful transition.

I also help them complete the death care directive. This is a booklet I created because many clients had completed a health care directive but hadn’t begun to think about what they wanted to happen after death. I saw how this caused unnecessary stress among family members who had to make important decisions about their deceased loved one’s body. So I talk to the individual about their choices for after-death care. Would they like a traditional funeral or a home funeral? Who would they like to bathe and anoint their body? What would they like to be dressed in? Do they want a pine box? A decorated cremation casket, or a simple shroud? What would they like the eulogy to include? The obituary? There are so many questions. We can gently discuss these difficult, yet important issues and, interestingly, it actually helps bring comfort and peace to the one who’s dying. Putting your things in order is the first step to consciously letting go, consciously accepting the natural process of the death of the body.

The MOON: How do you prepare their loved ones?

Rev. Olivia: Whenever possible, I ask that the loved ones be part of these discussions with the one who is making their transition. It is an opportunity for bonding and for the one whose body is dying to feel safe, heard and loved. It’s an opportunity for the family to know that this isn’t going to be a scary, strange process, but simple and natural and profoundly loving. I include them in every step of the journey. They are going to be saying goodbye forever to the physical presence of someone they love. I could try to reassure them that there is no such thing as death; that their loved one will always live in their hearts and in the collective consciousness; but these are just words and only provide temporary consolation. Instead I simply listen and attend and feel empathy and gently explain what changes to expect so that they can travel the journey with their loved one with love and acceptance rather than fear and denial.

The MOON: What is your perspective on what happens to a person when they die?

Rev. Olivia: I have spent the last twenty years delving deeply into the question and although I could share my conclusions thus far, they are only that—my conclusions based on the experiences, beliefs and opinions of others and a feeling deep within me that arose from being fully present to my inquiry. Each person must come to that truth, that deep knowing for themselves. I think cradling “I don’t know” in all its vulnerability is the true gift of death—because in that state there can be no ego. The ego wants to know and understand and protect. Death doesn’t allow any of that nonsense. The mystery is the gift. What I do know is that my heart will stop beating and electrical signals will stop firing in my brain and that life force will cease to course through my veins. I also have a sense that the accumulation of my thoughts, karma, and beliefs – the things which are not of the physical, but which comprise the luminous energy field—will separate from the physical body when the life force stops. Having watched many bodies over the three days following death, I have come to see that the luminous body, which is still quite apparent hours after death, gradually loosens and separates, and by the third day has completely gone from the physical. The physical body is made of matter, the luminous body of light. It is the light body that we feel in the room after death. The physical body is just a shell, something we need to honor, take care of, and dispose of thoughtfully, but it is no longer important. The light body—that is the real one. That is the driver of our physical shell, our whole life. That is who is listening to me now; who will read this article; who is typing these words. The luminous body is where we reside. This body cannot die. Light is energy that simply changes form.

The MOON: Can you share with us some examples of deaths you helped to midwife?

Rev. Olivia: I am helping, or rather witnessing, an incredible man right now in his process. It is an honor to be alongside Richard because he is awake to what is happening. He is courageous and open and honest and vulnerable. He is watching his body die and marveling at it, rather than recoiling in horror. He is accepting it. He is putting his things in order, selling his art and his sculptures to pay for his end-of-life needs so that he leaves no debt. I took his cremation casket to his house, and he decided he wanted it painted gold. So his friends painted it for him, and then he decided to throw a party. He wanted to talk about the mystery of life and death. He doesn’t pretend to know what’s going to happen. He hopes he will become a spark in the cosmic field or merge with eternity. But he wanted to gather his friends together and invite them to talk about the mystery. So I helped him produce that event. I took the cremation box over and he offered it to the guests for “death rehearsals.” He invited them to lay in it so they could begin to experience what it would be like to be dead and laying in a coffin. It was amazing. People are still talking about it. People who couldn’t make it to the event still write to me asking, “When is the next death rehearsal?” so I can put them on the waiting list. People are intrigued, they want to experience this. They need role models, people who have gone before fearlessly, boldly, demonstrating a “good death.”

I visit Richard every week and listen and help him define his priorities. I listen to what is really important to him, what he really needs to do and say before he says goodbye, and then I help facilitate that. Now we’re having the sale of his art so that he goes peacefully, knowing that he is not a financial burden on anyone, and that people who appreciate his art will have it in their homes.

I’ve helped Richard get signed up for hospice, so now he has the physical care he needs. He doesn’t have to worry that he will be in pain. The nurse sees him twice a week and volunteers help with errands and such. He’s in good hands, so that helps him relax and let go. It’s all a process of relaxing into it, and letting go so that dying isn’t a fight or a struggle, but simply an acceptance, a preparation for the biggest event of our lives. And, shouldn’t this be the most glorious event? After all, we’ve spent our whole lives getting here. I think it’s the grand finale, something wilder than our imaginings—an orgasm if you will. We start with an orgasm; I think we end with one too. But sadly, most people are too consumed with fear and sadness and pain to notice it. I don’t want to miss my final orgasm into the next world, and I want to help others make sure they don’t miss theirs too.

Richard has had his “mystery party.” His final art sale is coming up, and there will be other ceremonies before he transitions. As his death midwife, or “Anam Cara,” which is Celtic for “soul friend,” I will hold the space for Richard to maintain control of his dying process, honoring his soul in every possible way. That means that my opinions, judgments, and beliefs all are irrelevant. Richard being seen and heard in a way that he has never been seen or heard before is my goal and my sincere intention. Nothing else matters. When I do this for him, the gift is mine for all the while I am with Richard my own ego has to quiet down, take a back seat. The ego is about survival, and Richard is dying. He doesn’t need anyone talking to him about survival. He doesn’t need life support; he needs death support. That is the role of the death midwife—to give death support. To hold one in the days and hours of their dying; to see them; to hear them; to hold them in the Light of who they truly are.

The MOON: I understand that you also offer assistance with home-directed funerals. Please tell us about this.

Rev. Olivia: Actually, my work as a death midwife began as a home funeral guide, one who educates and supports families in caring for their own dead, at home. Most people don’t realize that they have the right to act as the funeral director for their loved one after they die. They don’t have to hire a funeral director. They can care for the body of their loved one at home and hold a wake, or vigil, for up to three or four days until burial or cremation. I guide families in how to prepare the body—bathing, anointing, dressing and creating a sacred space to lay the body “in honor” in the home for viewing. I show them how to preserve the body with dry ice and how to complete and file all the necessary paperwork. It’s a beautiful process—one that provides the opportunity for profound healing and closure. Families decorate the cremation box and have time to partake in religious or cultural rituals, privately, in their own way, at their own pace. Almost everyone who has attended a home funeral says that they would like this for themselves. It sounds new and radical, but actually it’s an ancient practice that was performed by everyone, worldwide, until the last century, when it was taken over by professional undertakers. I believe it’s time for us to reclaim this ritual, which helps people to come to an understanding about death, to integrate it into the circle of life, to begin to accept it with a sense of peace, rather than recoil from it in fear.

I help families prepare for a home funeral. I teach classes and workshops, educating people of their rights, and supporting them through the process. The home funeral movement is not a profession like the funeral industry; it is an education service, empowering families to care for their own so that they can have their own unique and profound experience of death, which in turn, empowers them to lead more meaningful lives. The Home Funeral Alliance is a national organization dedicated to educating the public of their rights and providing important resources for families wishing to reclaim this ritual for themselves.

The MOON: What about a person who has died traumatically, without an opportunity to prepare? Can you help them and/or their families after the fact?

Rev. Olivia: Oh yes, absolutely. Most of the families who call me know they are dying and are usually already on hospice. This makes for a seamless transition into a home funeral. But if a loved one dies unexpectedly, they are taken to the hospital and then often to the coroner for an autopsy. Again, most people are unaware that they have the legal right to collect the body and bring it home for a home funeral. I help facilitate that process and educate and empower them to partake of whatever meaningful rituals they need to feel closure and a sense of peace.

The MOON: What are the benefits of a home-directed funeral?

Rev. Olivia: The benefits of a home funeral are numerous. Probably the main one is that the family remains in charge. Instead of being told what to do and what is possible, they have the opportunity to care for their loved one in the way that only a beloved family member can: Tenderly, personally, with great care, respect and love. And a home funeral allows more time. If a family needs to sit with the body and read prayers around the clock, they can do that. Friends can stop by and pay their last respects at any time of the day or night. Religious and cultural traditions can by honored.

The loss of the physical presence of a loved one can be a shock. It takes time to adjust. By having the body present, one has time to integrate what has happened, time to fully acknowledge that they will never breathe nor speak again. This is a huge adjustment to the psyche and having the body in the home really helps facilitate this process.

Holding a vigil at home also means avoiding the unnecessary and toxic process of embalming, which funeral homes require in order to have a viewing. Families preserve the body with dry ice, which is natural and non invasive. They can build their own simple casket, or decorate a cremation box. They can even transport the body in their own vehicle to the cemetery or crematory.

The MOON: Can home funerals be done anywhere? Everywhere?

Rev. Olivia: In almost all states the family has the legal right to care for their loved one after death, file their own paperwork and transport the body to the place of disposition. There are a few states where there are restrictions, so families should investigate their state laws. The book Final Rights outlines the funeral laws for each state and the Funeral Consumers Alliance is an excellent resource:

The MOON: What else do you want people to know about death and dying?

Rev. Olivia: Embrace death now. Become friends with death. Meditate on death every day. Let death be your guru. Honor death as the wise teacher that it is. Dive into your fear. Let it consume you until there is no “you” left—until you know that there is no death, only change. Until you know that everything that exists is created from the source, which is love—an orgasmic energy field that rises and falls like the flame of a candle. Then there is peace.

And please take the time to complete your advance directives. The Advance Health Care Directive for your state can be found at The Advance Death Care Directive at: For more information, visit

How to Plan a Home Funeral

A Home Funeral it’s green, and it’s legal.

A hundred years ago home funerals, like home births, were the norm. Slowly the care of our loved ones was turned over to professional undertakers or morticians, and we forgot how to care for our own.

Now there is a remembering of the sanctity of this final act of love, and more and more families are seeking to have a home funeral.


Having your loved one’s body at home after they have died is legal in all states in the US. Some states (about 7) require that the funeral director be involved at some point (to sign the death certification, for example. Embalming is not required in any state (except in a very, very few limited situations), nor does it take a licensed mortician to transport a body in most states. A casket for burial is also not required by law. A family can choose to do some part of the after-death care, and pay for the services of a funeral home to do the rest.

In the US, the Funeral Consumer Alliance can help you determine what is legal in your state. On their website they have information on each state’s laws. Also, there are many Home Funeral Guides in different states who can offer assistance to families.

Home funerals are more economically reasonable. The average cost of a funeral, as of July 2004, is $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That does not include cemetery costs. In contrast a dignified and loving home funeral can easily be held for less than $1000.

Usually families that choose home funerals prefer personalization over commercialized funeral practices. Like home births and home schooling, home funerals offer people a measure of control and allow you to go at your own pace.

Environmental Considerations
Because the body is not embalmed (using formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents), it has far less impact on the environment. And it does not put other people at risk,  since the long-term impact of working with embalming fluids by mortuary workers is unknown.

Home funerals can provide more meaningful end-of-life rituals and this helps the families take the time they need to grieve in a familiar environment. In the comfort of their own home family members experience less fear of death and they are free to mourn in their own way. This more natural pacing deeply honors the deceased and the experience. Additionally, being physically involved in the process helps in grieving. It gives more closure to the loss of a loved one.

It’s a relief to many people because they can “do something” rather than sitting idly by waiting for a funeral home to take care of arrangements. Sometimes a loved one may request that she wants her final arrangements to be at the hands of people she trusts and loves,  rather than be taken care of by strangers. The funeral choices that people make influence attitudes toward death for literally generations to come.

How the Body Is Prepared
Information about how to care for the body can be found in the book, .  In addition to after-death care, there are chapters on how to bring home funerals into your community, and even create groups of people to help one another with home funerals. Visit this Canadian website for how-to videos about providing after-death care:

To See Other Families
To see how other families have held Home Funerals see photos at



Dirty secrets of funeral home industry

A recent post to is calling a lot of attention to the state of the funeral industry. Read a funeral director’s perspective of the “dirty” secrets of funeral homes.secrets

Below the post is copied in its entirely, but for the interesting comments to the article please click on the link above.

Throwaway, obviously. I’m a funeral director. Our entire industry is basically a pyramid scheme. It blows my mind how blindly people accept that certain things “have to” be done to the body of their loved one. Think about that for a second: this is the last tangible remnant of someone you loved and you are now going to pay stranger thousands (oftentimes HUNDERDS of thousands) of dollars to (warning: graphic from here on out) systematically mutilate that body.

There is nothing dignified about having one’s mouth wired shut, eyelids forced closed by spiked plastic contact lenses, and ramming a trocar into the abdomen to puncture organs so that they can be suctioned out. After the embalming fluid is introduced, the anus and vagina are stuffed with cotton and other absorbent materials to prevent what we refer to as “purge.” This charming phenomenon can occur any time after death – yes, before or after embalming, at any stage of decomposition – when the fluid created by tissues breaking down is leaked through any nearby orifice, oftentimes the nether regions.

The process creates an enormous environmental problem; using toxic chemicals which are flushed into our sewers along with those pureed livers, hearts, spleens, pancreas’ which then also flow into our sewers. Oh, what’s that? I told you embalming is a legal requirement for public sanitation? That’s utter bullshit. If anything, it creates a sanitation problem if the cemetery you use is anywhere near a municipal water line, which most “commercial” cemeteries are.
In fact, in most states, the law only requires embalming if you are transporting a body across state lines or are not planning to inter for more than 72 hours and/or having a public viewing. It has not a single thing to do with public health. It’s a cash cow, plain and simple. It is barbaric, costly, and does not keep the body from deteriorating. But we’ll tell you just about anything you need to hear to get you to agree to it.

What I’m doing here is incredibly illegal and I know it, but on the slim-to-none-chance that you’re a sharp-minded consumer in the midst of your grief and call my state’s licensing board about it, all I have to do simply tell them you were mistaken. I’ve seen funeral directors force-feed families absolute horseshit – saying anything – to get them to sign a contract. Here’s a hint: don’t sign any pre-printed “form” contracts. Most of the contracts we use are super vague, so we can charge you for just about anything and justify it by pointing to your signature on the dotted line. It is in your best interest to only agree to specific itemized charges – i.e., have the hearse but no limousines. Or have hair/makeup done without any embalming. The law is very specific and on your side, but we count on your ignorance and vulnerability.

Even better, find a trusted friend or family member who is more emotionally stable right now and appoint them as your lawyer/detective. You know that bitchy sister-in-law everyone has who makes major holidays a nightmare? I can spot her a mile away and will do everything I can to keep her out of financial discussions – because I know she will take that obnoxious nagging and throw it at me for every single penny I’m trying to get out of your family. See my co-workers standing around looking somber and respectful? They’re not there to just have a presence of authority, they are studying you. They are watching the family dynamic and will report back to me with any potential angles I can play to manipulate your emotions, which family members are taking it the hardest and will therefore be the easiest prey, and their estimation of your financial well-being. If, by the way, you appear to be less affluent, I’ll tell you to take your business elsewhere. This is not a hospital and I don’t provide a service – this is a business. If you aren’t paying me (in full and up front, generally), all you’re getting is my sympathy.

Do yourself a favor and read the FTC Funeral Rule. It’s very clear and concise in stating what you as the consumer are required to do and what rights you have. Did you know the casket I’m selling you for $5000 is really just a nicely decorated plywood box? If you were smarter, you’d know you don’t have to buy that from me. In fact, the law requires me to allow you to “BYOB.” Costco and Wal-Mart sell very reasonably priced nice caskets on their websites. If you happen to be armed with that tidbit of information, I’ll try to make it a practical issue: it will be easier to use the caskets we already have here. Another line of crap. All of the caskets at the funeral home are demo models (and are actually nice napping spots on slow days). Anything you buy will be delivered to the funeral home via freight the next day, just like the Wal-Mart caskets.

Another well-worn sales tactic is to try to shame you into going along with the exorbitant cost, implying you didn’t really love grandma enough if you spend less than five figures with me. You should know, by the way, that everything you buy from me – a guestbook, prayer cards, even the damn obituary notices – is marked up at least 200%. See the picture I’m painting here, kids? Smoke and mirrors. It hasn’t always been like this, but with the corporatization of the death care industry, the almighty dollar is the only consideration anymore.

Whew, this is getting to be a novel. Sorry, hang with me just a bit longer – we are getting to the major issue here.

Right now – literally right now, August 16, 2013 – the FTC is reviewing a merger between the two largest funeral service corporations in the United States: Stewart and SCI. Stewart has 500-ish locations while SCI has 2000+. This will create a mega-Decepticon-conglomerate that will control at least 40% of all funeral service business transactions in this country – and that, my friends, is what antitrust regulations refer to as a monopoly. We are racing full speed ahead to the genesis of the McFuneralHome and nobody is doing anything about it. The reason? Misdirection. There’s no Stewart Funeral Home or SCI Mortuary in your hometown. They’re operating under the same names they always have, letting you believe that the good people of Bubba & Sons Memorial Chapels would never steer you wrong. Bubba’s been around for 50 years! Bubba’s handled your family’s funerals for generations! Let me tell you something: Bubba cashed out years ago and is pretty much a figurehead at this point. Check his website carefully: at the bottom, you’ll probably see a copyright for either “Dignity Memorials” (SCI) or “STEI” (Stewart).

Every single thing you’ve read in this thread about cutting corners, shoddy work, under-trained and under-paid employees, outsourcing certain processes, covering up mistakes… ALL OF IT HAPPENS IN THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY. Now, most of us are decent human beings and aren’t interested in getting freaky with dear old granny, but in terms of services performed and their actual value, you trust us WAY, WAY TOO MUCH.

You know how shitty the cell phone service provider market is right now and how worked up everyone gets about that? The funeral industry is worse. And we should all be raising hell, because EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US is going to have to conduct business with the deathcare industry eventually — be an informed consumer and know who you’re really giving your money to.

I know I’ve hyperlinked the shit out of this, but please read the last one from the Funeral Consumers Alliance on how horrifyingly out of control this situation has gotten:

“It’s alarming to think that a company with a long track record of abusing consumers at the worst times of their lives might get even bigger,” said Josh Slocum, FCA’s executive director. “For at least 15 years grieving families around the country have complained to us about the practices at SCI funeral homes and cemeteries. From lying about options in order to boost the funeral bill, to digging up graves to re-sell them to another unsuspecting family, to denying the legal rights of LGBT people to make funeral arrangements for their partners. You name it, we’ve heard it.”

Funeral Consumers Alliance reminds the Federal Trade Commission that funeral purchases are unlike any other in their potential to harm the customer. Families buying funeral and cemetery services are incredibly vulnerable and have been subject to deceitful and egregious conduct.

“This is not a run of the mill merger; this isn’t about whether a $20 retail product will cost consumers $5 more,” Slocum said. “We’re talking real money here. Funeral consumers often make great economic sacrifices to bury their loved ones. The average full-service funeral runs in excess of $7,000 and often for much more at SCI’s Dignity locations. Especially when it has faced less competition, SCI has increased prices and we can expect more of the same if this merger occurs. Given the lack of knowledge about funeral options and the stress of grief, we can’t just say a ‘rational consumer’ will vote with their dollars and choose another funeral home. That’s not how the unique funeral transaction works, and that reality is why the FTC specifically regulates funeral homes.”

Top Five Regrets of The Dying

Top Five Regrets of The Dying
top-5-regretsBy Bronnie Ware, November 30, 2011

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.

When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.


Based on this article, Bronnie has now released a full length book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. It is a memoir of her own life and how it was transformed through the regrets of the dying people she cared for. This inspiring book is available internationally through Hay House.

Think Outside the Box (US Catholic Magazine)

An article about home funerals from US Catholic Magazine [article], November 2011

Think Outside the Box
By Joe Seehee

It’s time we laid our current American burial practices to rest in favor of a more authentically Catholic—and eco-friendly—approach.

Last year I was contacted by a woman named Jean who was seeking to arrange a “green” burial for her mother, who was nearing her last days in hospice. In my role heading up the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable end-of-life rituals, I’ve helped hundreds of people seeking a funeral service with a minimal impact on the body and the environment. This was the first time, however, I’d aided someone whose affiliation as a Catholic seemed as strong as that of being ecologically conscious.

“My mother cared deeply about the planet,” Jean told me. “But she really cared about her faith, too.”

Knowing that being eco-conscious and Catholic are not incompatible, I set out to find a cemetery that would accommodate Jean and her mother. The first call I made was to a Catholic burial ground not far from their home. The person I spoke with at the cemetery balked at the notion of allowing anyone interred in “just a shroud,” as Jean’s mother wanted, rather than being placed in a casket. When I reminded him that Jesus was laid to rest in “just a shroud,” he told me, “Maybe so, but we’re just not comfortable with that.”

While this man was speaking only as a cemetery operator, he could have just as easily been representing the majority of American Catholics, who, like most Americans over the past century and a half, have become alienated from a way of caring for the dead that the rest of the world has always found appropriate, practical, and comforting. But thankfully, because of the burgeoning green burial movement in this country, growing numbers are getting reacquainted with the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” customs of our ancestors that better serve God’s people and planet.

Green burials allow returning to the earth in a manner that interacts with, rather than impedes, the natural process of decay and regeneration. A family forgoes embalming their loved one’s body with toxic chemicals and avoids non-biodegradable metal caskets and burial vaults. Instead, the deceased, often washed by family members, is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a simple wooden casket before being lowered into the ground. Some families even choose to help dig the grave rather than to rely on heavy, energy-intensive equipment.

While it can take place anywhere within a conventional cemetery (no state laws prohibit green burial, though most cemetery policies do), this kind of interment can also become a mechanism for creating sacred space within protected natural areas, which enables us to experience life and death not as separate but as closely entwined. It’s the antithesis of what we’ve been doing in this country for a long, long time.

The genesis of the American way of death goes back to the Civil War, when enterprising individuals discovered a market for the disinterment from battlefields of deceased Union Army officers. Their bodies were embalmed with arsenic and transported back home for burial. When the war ended, the practice of embalming did not, due in part to the fact that chemical companies, which manufactured embalming fluid, also founded the nation’s first mortuary schools.

The cross-country funeral of Abraham Lincoln, which took several weeks to complete, is often credited with putting embalming and the modern casket on the map, as well as the notion that delaying the time between death and burial was not only decent but perhaps preferable.

During this same era, burial vaults were developed in England for the express purpose of deterring grave robbing. We began using them in the United States in the early part of the 20th century to prevent graves from settling, which increasingly became a problem as caskets grew larger.

As vaults became more ubiquitous, so did the use of equipment needed to haul them around burial grounds. A Catholic cemetery operator once told me that it seemed less than decent to think of heavy machinery “running over loved ones,” and potentially crushing their graves. I reminded him the heavy equipment that might do this is primarily used to move vaults, a risk that could be eliminated if vaults were, too.

Vaults, along with the use of heavy caskets and the practice of embalming, were sold to the American public because of the role they played in “protecting” a body. This way of caring for our dead that we regard as “traditional” is rarely seen outside of this country. And we’ve been paying quite a price for it.

Not only does an American pay on average nearly $10,000 for the typical funeral and burial, but the environmental impact is also substantial. The Green Burial Council’s concerns include the protection of worker health, the conservation of natural resources, the reduction of carbon emissions, and the preservation or restoration of habitat.

Most embalming fluids contain any number of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde that have led to higher incidences of diseases like nasal cancer and leukemia among funeral workers. The 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in burial vaults, along with the nearly one million tons of metal that go into caskets each year in the United States, come with a great deal of embodied energy, which contributes to climate change. Conventional cemeteries, because of their often highly manicured lawns, also require a tremendous amount of natural (and unnatural) resources like water, gasoline, pesticides, and fertilizer.

Preventing people from getting in sync with the process of decay and regeneration comes with a hefty emotional and spiritual price tag, too. For Catholics, it flies in the face of some of the church’s great spiritual teachers going all the way back to early Christian monastics, who taught us that death is something we can befriend, particularly with the help of nature.

Green burials invite us to get up close and personal with our end-of-life rituals. Rather than handing over responsibilities to others, families can get involved with everything from body preparation to grave decorating to almost anything else they deem important for honoring the dead, healing the living, and inviting in the divine. It also doesn’t take away options many families have found comfort in, such as public visitations, open-casket funerals, and even cremation. The end result is often a great deal of solace.

Several years ago I presided at a graveside funeral at a green cemetery for a 3-year-old girl. Two of the girl’s grandparents were first-generation Irish Catholics, and one of them told me how each week she visits the grave of her granddaughter, which rests underneath a small tree on the edge of a meadow. She recently remarked how the experience compared to visiting her mother’s burial plot back in Kilkenny.

“Death used to feel like a form of punishment with all those tombstones,” the woman told me. “But I don’t feel any of that here.”

Catholic cemeteries have been slow to come on board, but the Green Burial Council has approved providers in more than 40 states, including a burial ground at a retreat center run by Trappist monks and two diocesan cemeteries.

One of them, Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Detroit, started a green burial section three years ago and buried Jean’s mother. Father Charles Morris, a diocesan priest and an environmental activist since the ’70s, was happy to allow her mother to be buried in a shroud made from muslin rather than a casket. He let Jean and her sisters lower their mother’s body into the ground on ropes rather than use a mechanical device. And he encouraged the family to shovel dirt onto the grave rather than let a backhoe do all the work.

Burial practices should not be industrialized, but in this country they are. What the growing number of eco-conscious American Catholics can bring about is a kind of conversion that makes it economically viable for them to accommodate families who want to live—and die—with a lighter hand on the land.

By embracing green burials, the church can allow for a more authentically Catholic practice of caring for our dead, one rooted in a long-held spiritual tradition as well as a newer call to be good stewards of our earth.

It will take Catholic cemeteries getting on board and individual Catholics demanding it, but if enough American Catholics want to make “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” once again mean something, it most certainly will.

And the survey says…
1. If I had the option I would prefer a green burial.

  • 80% – Agree
  • 8% – Disagree
  • 12% – Other

2. Our current burial practices alienate Americans from our
own mortality.

  • 83% – Agree
  • 12% – Disagree
  • 5% – Other

3. The rituals that I think would bring me the most solace after the death of a loved one would be:

  • 51% – Shoveling dirt into the grave.
  • 49% – Wrapping the body in a shroud.
  • 42% – Washing the body.
  • 19% – Digging a grave.
  • 14% – Making a casket.
  • 22% – None of these.
  • 14% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“Remaining with the body of the deceased until the time of burial.”
4. When a loved one dies I want to see their face embalmed and made up in the casket one last time before burial.

  • 10% – Agree
  • 76% – Disagree
  • 14% – Other

5. I would prefer to be buried in a natural environment like a meadow instead of a cemetery.

  • 48% – Agree
  • 37% – Disagree
  • 15% – Other

6. The thought of my body disintegrating in the earth disturbs me.

  • 8% – Agree
  • 86% – Disagree
  • 6% – Other

7. If I were to plan my own funeral now, I would request:

  • 48% – Cremation.
  • 47% – A funeral Mass with the body present.
  • 32% -Burial in a shroud instead of a casket.
  • 29% – A wake with the body present.
  • 26% – A memorial service or Mass without the body present.
  • 20% – Scattering of my ashes in a special place.
  • 17% – Entombment of my ashes in a Catholic cemetery.
  • 4% – Embalming.
  • 12% – Other

Results are based on survey responses from 151 visitors.

For in-home funerals, a 21st-century revival (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

An article about home funerals from the Minneapolis Star Tribune [article], November 30, 2011

For in-home funerals, a 21st-century revival
By Jeff Strickler

Dr. Eric Stull spent the last six weeks of his life in a hospital bed next to the bay window in his St. Paul living room. He spent the first three days after his death in the same place.

The in-home funeral after Stull died from cancer was a scene from an emerging movement. Home funerals were common until the start of the 20th century. Now they are making a comeback, fueled by environmental concerns (no embalming), the faltering economy (families can save thousands of dollars compared to a traditional funeral) and surging interest in holistic practices and home hospice care.

State law was changed last year to ease the process. Hospitals will accommodate organ donors by picking up the body, harvesting organs and then returning the deceased home. And even though the initial reaction among funeral homes was to see the movement as competition, a growing number are reaching out to participants after discovering that there’s still a need for many of their services (the burial, for instance).

Stull, a pediatrician, and his wife of 30 years, Kyoko Katayama, decided prior to his death six months ago that a home funeral would be a fitting conclusion to his in-home hospice care.

“When we realized that the chemotherapy wasn’t working, he wanted to come home,” she said. “I was overwhelmed at the way the community got involved. People started bringing over food. Neighbors walked the dog and cleaned the house. Patients’ families helped us move out of his office. Healers came to do energy healing. Friends gave him massages. A nurse offered to take care of the IV fluids he was getting.

“Literally, we had people coming through the door at all hours of the day. So when he died, it seemed natural [to have the vigil in the home]. This is where people came when he was alive, so this is where they came to say goodbye.”

Home funerals are commonly misunderstood, according to the Minnesota Threshold Network (mnthresholdnetwork., an organization that describes itself as “a meeting place for all who are interested in death, home funerals and green burials.”

The bodies don’t rot or stink; they’re packed in dry ice or chemical cold packs. There’s little danger of disease; you’re at a greater risk of catching something from the person sitting next to you at work than from a dead body. And there are no religious prohibitions against them.

In Minnesota, Linda Bergh has become, for lack of a better term, a death-care midwife who fields calls at all hours from people asking for help.

“It’s a just a question of what can I do at this point to make a difference in people’s lives?” said Bergh, a retired psychologist with personal experience in the process. She has buried her husband, her 17-year-old daughter and, after she remarried, her second husband.

She knows how nice it would have been to tap into someone else’s expertise when she needed help.

“We had to teach ourselves how to do this,” she said. “When my first husband died in 1995, we wanted him at home, close to his family and friends. But we had no idea what we were doing. In fact, now we laugh about it. We went to a bait shop to get dry ice, and when we told them that we needed 40 pounds of it, their eyes got real big and they said, ‘What kind of a fish did you catch?'”

Hands-on training

Bergh and Marianne Dietzel, who lost her daughter in the same car crash that killed Bergh’s teenager, teach classes on the topic ( On a recent evening, a dozen people gathered in Bergh’s living room for a workshop.

There are steps in preparing the body that some people might find off-putting. Cotton is stuffed in the orifices to keep liquids from escaping. And the eyes and jaw must be shut before rigor mortis sets in; the most common way is to put small weights on the eyelids and to tie a scarf under the chin.

The main step is a ritualistic washing done with warm water to which natural oils have been added. The private areas are done first and then covered. After that, members of the family and close friends often are invited to participate as a final way of bonding.

“It’s about saying goodbye,” Bergh said. When her second husband died, “I didn’t want some stranger doing this. So I did it myself, and it’s emblazoned on my memory as an important part of my grieving.”

Until last year, there were strict limits on home vigils. Children were not allowed, and the vigils couldn’t be publicized in newspaper obituaries. In the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, introduced a bill that removed those prohibitions.

“I wanted to allow more family involvement,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about home funerals until I attended one. I walked in on an absolutely marvelous experience. It was a tangibly sacred time, and I was completely taken aback. I had never experienced anything like that.”

Working together

Advocates are seeing more cooperation from funeral directors. “They used to roll their eyes and say, ‘You want what?'” Bergh said. “Now they’re open to our suggestions.”

Steve Willwerscheid of the Willwerscheid Funeral Home & Cremation Service said it’s good business and good karma.

“We are facilitators more than anything else,” said Willwerscheid, whose family’s West St. Paul chapel also has been at the forefront of so-called green burials done without steel caskets or concrete vaults. “People are coming from hospice situations in which there was a lot of hands-on taking care of the sick, and they want to continue that. Some of these people are very, very passionate about this, and because of that, the industry is much more accepting [of their requests] than they were earlier.”

In-home care accounts for only a sliver of all funerals, although no one keeps statistics. But supporters expect a jump in the next two decades as baby boomers make their arrangements.

“It’s not in the mainstream yet,” Bergh conceded. “But I think it’s coming. It’s all about choices, about realizing that you have choices and [the survivors] honoring those choices.”

For Katayama, it just felt like the right thing to do.

“We were able to express our love by caring for our beloved,” she said.



Go-To Book for Home Funeral legalities in the US

finalrightsbookJoshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson have written the Go-To book for home funerals: “Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death“.

The book lists state-by-state laws and requirements for families in an easy-to-read format. You can download the chapter for the laws in your statefrom the bookstore at for only $5.

This is a great place to gather current information about what is required for a home funeral in the different states.

Mix & Match Funeral Services

When you are arranging a home funeral you may want to do all the services yourself, or you may want to have the help of a traditional funeral home. For example, if you are waiting for a relative to come in from overseas and need to postpone burial for a week, you may want the body cooled at a funeral home after the first couple of days. Or if a body is badly disfigured, you may want the services of a funeral home to restore a more normal appearance to your loved one.


For example here are some services a funeral home can provide a la carte and approximate prices:

  • $100 file the legal forms (Report of Death, Death Certificate, Medical Examiner’s Authority to Cremate and Burial-Transit Permit). Required forms will vary from state to state, this is only an example.
  • $325 cremation
  • $ 50 cremation container (cardboard sides and top with plywood bottom)
  • $250 transport the body from home or facility to funeral home or crematory

There is not a right or a wrong way to do a home funeral. It is sometimes useful to have the assistance of a funeral home if it helps things go more smoothly for the family. But remember they are a business and be clear in your agreements and understandings.

Creating Sweet Memories

While providing after-death care for your loved one it is important to pause and take moments to be present with the experience. Doing little things to appreciate your loved one can create a special memory for years to come.


Here are some ideas for doing that, but it is more important that you do what is comfortable and appropriate for your family:

  • write a note about or to your loved one and put it in their coffin
  • when it is time to close the coffin, pause and take some time to look at them one last time. You could create a final gesture of parting by placing a beautiful scarf or piece of lace over the face, and saying a few words.
  • create a leave-taking ceremony where you speak a memory or other meaningful words before the coffin leaves your home
  • speak the lineage of the loved one. For example:  son of John Doe and Mary Smith Doe, brother to Mildred and Michael Doe, father of Leo and Charles and Catherine Doe, etc.
  • list the kindnesses you can remember your loved one doing and say them or write them on their coffin
  • place a small table by the deceased and put a rose petal on it with her wedding ring or favorite jewelry resting on it.
  • trace your hand print on the casket and fill it in with words or art to express your love for the deceased
  • bless the body of the loved one. Example: We appreciate and bless your lips which have said such kind words to us and spoken your truth. We bless your hands that have served us through the years and have cared for us so deeply.
  • hold a vigil letting friends and loved ones know the “Calling Hours”

You do not have to limit yourself to one memorial service. Take as many opportunities as you would like to create  special moments of reflection, spontaneous rituals.  Doing this will nourish your memories for years.

Can Families Have Their Own Cremations?

Lamar Hankins  is a well-respected lawyer in Texas and a board member of the Funeral Consumer Alliance. Recently he was asked if a family has the right to cremate a body using a funeral pyre. His reply is below. [On an entirely different note, there is also a very irreverent and funny video addressing this issue and also Viking funerals on YouTube.]

REPLY: I’ve tried to answer this question many times, focusing on Texas funeral law. However, I believe that my answer will apply as well to most states.

Texas law does not contemplate such a disposition, but it does not explicitly prohibit it. The problem is more practical —what to do about the remaining large bones that will not be destroyed in the fire. Those remains will need to be buried or placed in an ossuary or mausoleum, or pulverized to be placed in a container similar to the disposition of normal cremated remains in order to satisfy officials who may object to the disposition.

A variation of this procedure is what is often termed “sky burial” — the placement of a body for disposition by vultures, insects, and bacteria. Once the bones are barren, some disposition will need to be made for them, at least for practical reasons, if not legal ones. If anyone finds human bones lying around, it could trigger a law enforcement investigation, which would be a hassle no one would want.

Texas does not have a statute which says human remains can be disposed of only by burial or cremation in a crematory licensed by the state, nor does it prohibit disposition by freeze-drying or dissolution by acid. If any of these methods start to catch on, new laws may be written to regulate such dispositions.

Code of Ethics for Home Funeral Guides

National Home Funeral Alliance

Code of Ethics and Initial Standards of Practice for the
Vocation of Home Funeral Guide

The aim of this document is to help home funeral guides practice integrity by clearly defining our goals and ethical responsibilities in relation to our clients, our peers, to the law and to society. It requires us to maintain high standards of personal integrity, competence and practice.

National Home Funeral Alliance

Definition of a home funeral:

This is a family or community-centered response to death and after-death care. Through the millennia, this was the way we used to care for our dead; within the context of the family or the community. Most state laws support the right of the family to care for their own departed. Depending on the specifics of each state’s law, families and communities may play a key role in:

  • Planning and carrying out after-death rituals or ceremonies (such as laying out the deceased and home visitation of the body)
  • Preparing the body for burial and cremation
  • Filing of death-related paperwork such as the death certificate
  • Transporting the deceased to the place of burial or cremation
  • Facilitating the final disposition such as digging the grave at a natural burial

Home Funerals may occur within the family home or not. (Some nursing homes, for example, may allow the family to care for the deceased after death.) The emphasis is on encouraging and educating on minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally-friendly care of the body.

Definition of a home funeral guide:
The role of a home funeral guide is to educate and empower families to exercise the innate right of caring for their own dead. This is also our mission.

Home funeral guides do not seek to conduct the after-death care themselves. Home funeral guides believe that after-death care themselves. Home funeral guides believe that after-death care is most meaningful when carried out by family and friends of the deceased. Home funeral guides, therefore, seek to minimize the involvement of anyone other than family and friends in after-death care. They are GUIDES and not directors.

Fees levied in exchange for the education and empowerment of families or for ministerial services are in accordance with time invested and are in keeping with the fair business practice of fair compensation for services rendered.

Home funeral guides are advocates for family-centered and family-led funerals. The speak in favor of protecting those rights. They impart the knowledge that families may need in order to be able to exercise that innate right of caring for their own dead. Home funeral guides also educate on the benefits of the home funeral.

Furthermore and specifically:
A home funeral guide will always practice with respect, sensitivity, integrity, clarity, and calmness.

A home funeral guide will maintain high standards of personal conduct in his/her role in educating and guiding families conducting home funerals.

A home funeral guide will maintain familiarity with local and state laws, ordinances, and regulations, especially pertaining to family rights in caring for deceased persons.

The home funeral guide will avail themselves of opportunities for continuing education.

The home funeral guide will see and maintain affiliations with related supportive organizations and associations, and with other home funeral guides.

The home funeral guide will conduct community outreach and education on natural death care, home funerals, and green burial.

A home funeral guide will build liaison relationships with local funeral directors, in order to engage them as n
necessary to meet a family’s after death care needs.

A home funeral guide will build liaison relationships with local officials charged with the care of deceased persons and their families, such as vital records department personnel, coroners and their deputies.

A home funeral guide will maintain familiarity with the operations, procedures and documentation requirements associated with the work of such officials.

A family undertaking: Caring for our dead (The Christian Century)

An article about home funerals from the Christian Century. October 06, 2009

A family undertaking: Caring for our dead
by Holly Stevens

When Harriet Ericson died in January 2007 at age 93, she went to the grave in the same manner in which she lived her final years—lovingly tended by her son Rodger Ericson of Austin, Texas. A former U.S. Air Force chaplain and Lutheran pastor (ELCA), Ericson bathed, anointed and dressed his mother’s body, then laid it in a casket he had built himself and named “hope chest” to reflect the family’s faith in the resurrection. The next day, with the help of his daughters and grandsons, he lifted her casketed remains into the bed of his pickup truck and secured the precious cargo for a road trek to Minnesota, where a family grave plot was waiting.

Except for the preparation of the grave, Ericson took care of all the details that would usually be handed to a commercial mortician. Ericson was, in effect, his mother’s funeral director—and it was all completely legal.

Referred to as home funerals by most who practice them, these homespun arrangements are protected by law in 44 states. “A home funeral can help people gently integrate the death into their lives and faith,” says home funeral educator Donna Belk, who helped Ericson prepare for his mother’s passing. “When the body stays at home for up to a few days, family and friends remain connected to the entire process; the gradual changes that occur in the body over this time frame coincide with the family’s adjustment to its loss.” Even in the six states that require the involvement of a commercial provider—Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York—some families have been able to work with morticians so as to participate more fully in the process.

The term home funeral does not mean that a funeral ritual is necessarily held in the home. It refers to an approach to the entire process from the moment of death to final disposition:

A home funeral is a noncommercial, family-centered response to death that involves the family and its social community in the care and preparation of the body for burial or cremation and/or in planning and carrying out related rituals or ceremonies and/or in the burial or cremation itself. A home funeral may occur entirely within the family home or not. It is differentiated from the institutional funeral by its emphasis on minimal, noninvasive care and preparation of the body; by its reliance on the family’s own social networks for assistance and support; and by the relative or total absence of commercial funeral providers in its proceedings. (From Undertaken with Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities, by the Home Funeral Committee Manual Publishing Group.)

A home funeral can include a religious ceremony in a church. The family may choose to have the body present at the ceremony or not, and may have the casket open or closed. For Christians, a home funeral can address the same religious purposes served by other funeral arrangements carried out within a religious setting: to treat the body with reverence and honesty, to proclaim the hope of resurrection and our risen life in Christ, to commend the deceased into God’s care, and to mark our common bond with all who are alive with us and who have died before us.

A home funeral protects the sanctity of the process by removing the material pressures that have shaped American funeral etiquette since the Civil War, when affluent families began paying embalming surgeons to find their fallen sons on the battlefield and inject them with enough arsenic for the body to be preserved for the trip home. At that point a commercial industry began to grow, one that was beholden less to the precepts of the church than to the material and seemingly insatiable whims of consumers—even at life’s end.

Is it any wonder that common funeral myths point back to an industry that makes its profits by catering to and encouraging material impulses? In my work as a funeral consumer advocate, families tell me time and again that they had no idea that embalming rarely is required by law or that they can buy an inexpensive casket from a source other than the funeral home or even construct their own.

“I have no problems with people requesting and using the services of funeral homes as long as morticians are not pushing or deceiving the grieving family into expenses that are not necessary,” Ericson told me. He said that an employee of Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest funeral home chain, told him that every cemetery in America requires an outer liner for cremated remains. When Ericson responded that he knew that was not so, the salesperson qualified his answer: “Well, not every cemetery, but yes, every cemetery in the country that SCI owns.”

Religious leaders are often lured into complacency by the promotional favors they receive from funeral directors. In his book Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked? (Rooftop Publishing), funeral director Robert Webster recalls that a former boss, also a funeral director, would welcome a new minister to town with a pen and pencil set. On the next visit, the funeral director would deliver tickets to Cincinnati Reds games; at other times, he’d press a crisp $100 bill into the pastor’s hand or send a fruit basket. “These people help us to stay in business,” Webster’s boss told him. “Go out of your way to treat them well.”

In a home funeral involving a parishioner, the pastor can take the lead in helping families integrate the care of the body, the funeral ceremony and the interpretation of the death into a religious context. By contrast, in a typical arrangement with a funeral home, says Ericson, “It was not uncommon for me as a pastor to receive $75 for my services—visitation of the family at the time of death, arranging the religious service with the family, preparing the bulletin, getting the church in order, preparing a personalized yet theologically sound sermon, and conducting the burial/committal service—while the mortician charged an extra $75 to have the service at my church.”

In my faith community, New Garden Friends Meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, a committee assists families in our congregation that want to care for their own dead. We’ve identified our legal rights and responsibilities in assisting with home funerals. We bring the simple, noninvasive skills involved in caring for the body at home. We bring ease and acquired wisdom to the process, offering families an option for spiritual and emotional closure at life’s end.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, the Islamic Burial Society of North America teaches groups of Muslim men and women to care for their dead in keeping with the precepts of the Qur’an. Because Muslim and Orthodox Jewish burial practices are similar, the project has fostered friendships between members of the two faiths as they work together to return death rituals to their religious communities. Death care has a way of reminding us both of our mutual human limitations and of the place of faith as a source for hope and sustenance in the face of great loss.

Granted, even if most families knew that in most states they may care for their own dead without the involvement of a licensed funeral director, home funerals would be unlikely to put any professional undertakers out of work anytime soon. Americans have become so removed from their dead that even in a home funeral they hesitate to touch the body. The practice requires more involvement from the family, although the support of an experienced congregation can greatly ease the load. Occasionally, circumstances prohibit a vigil and make a home funeral impractical.

Most people who have experienced home funerals tell me that they found the process to be enormously healing; it enabled them to participate creatively in honoring the one who died and to integrate the experience into the context of their faith in ways that commercial funeral homes and crematories cannot replicate. As Ericson says, “Home funerals mean less traipsing behind the undertaker, who is geared toward efficiency and profit.”

I see more faith communities embracing home funerals and other less commercial practices at life’s end. Some church-owned cemeteries have dropped vault requirements to allow ecologically minded parishioners to simplify their return to dust after death. In the Pocono Mountains, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church leases a portion of its forests to an organization that creates family burial sites for cremated remains at the roots of selected hardwood trees.

For the first time since embalming surgeons began to set up shop on Civil War battlegrounds, Americans are reassessing how funeral practices relate to congregational life. The growing interest in home funerals and other natural end-of-life practices offers religious institutions the opportunity to support alternatives that are embedded more deeply in community and resistant to commercial culture. The home funeral movement calls on religious leaders to honor an etiquette that is simpler, more affordable and ultimately more sacred.

Holly Stevens is a funeral consumer advocate and coordinator of the Untertaken with Love project at

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.”

Home Funerals Offer Different Way of Saying Goodbye (Austin-American Statesman)

An article about home funerals from The Austin-American Statesman [article], July 25, 2009

Home Funerals Offer Different Way of Saying Goodbye
By Chris Garcia

AUSTIN, Texas — No one wants to die, but Fleur Hedden goes ahead and volunteers anyway.

A tall woman, she clambers atop a long country-kitchen table in an Austin home, lies supine, closes her eyes and dies. Like that.

We are in Belk’s rustic home, where a workshop on home funerals is being taught on a hot June day. Home funeral advocates Belk and Sandy Booth lead the class of six, which includes Hedden, today’s volunteer dead person. Every workshop requires someone to play possum for a few hours, and the challenge for that person is to sustain a state of almost Zen-like immobility.

Belk-workshop5_300px“It’s an active role, but that active role is to be as still as possible,” Hedden says after the class.

The workshop is testimony to the small but growing popularity of the self-done, homemade funeral service, in which loved ones take funeral rites into their own hands, bestowing their own meaning on them, while rejecting the costly and more impersonal funeral home tradition that many people still believe is the only option.

Though official figures aren’t available, groups such as Belk and Booth’s have sprouted in at least 20 states, according to Booth, who, with Belk, runs the home funeral sites and and has helped dozens of families put together home funerals.

With a surge in interest in so-called green burials, which dispense with toxic embalming fluids and often opt for cremation over casket burial, home funerals, also known as family-directed funerals, are being recognized as a cheaper and eco-friendly way of putting the dead to rest.

But it’s not only about saving money and helping the environment. Many deem home funerals a more emotionally and spiritually rich experience, a way of staying close to a loved one and saying goodbye through the process of preparing the body for burial or cremation. Friends, family members or hired helpers clean and dress the deceased and place the body on dry ice for wakes that can last three days in the home.

They often build their own casket or buy an inexpensive model, such as cardboard or pine, and decorate it with personal flourishes reflecting the dead’s interests and style. A musician’s casket, for instance, might be embossed with an instrument, musical notes and song lyrics.

“I call it final gifting, because it’s a last gift, the last thing that you can give to the loved one,” says Rodger Ericson, president of the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society and a retired Lutheran pastor.

Ericson and his family performed a home funeral for his mother a few years ago, and while he saved thousands of dollars in funeral home fees, he says, “The personal benefits are far greater. It’s about what I did for my mom, and what it did for me. When we were washing her body, just the gesture of that, the sense of appreciation and cherishing — the therapeutic value was immeasurable.” Ericson chokes up as he recalls the process.

“Having a funeral at home really allows the family to take charge, and that can be quite comforting at their time of loss,” says Doran Levine, bereavement coordinator at Hospice Austin. “People are going back to a more simple and natural way.”

Ericson has seen a slow rise in home funerals, and he calls it the “resurgence of a very old concept,” in much the way home birthing has found currency in recent years. Preparing the body in the home goes back to the days before embalming fluid came into common use.

“They are not a new idea. It’s where the notion of the funeral home came from,” says Paul Beaty, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association. “It all started in the home or in the back of the hardware store, because that’s who had the lumber for the casket back in around the 1850s.”

Beaty says home funerals are far from a trend but that they could pick up in popularity the way cremations have in recent decades.

While some in the funeral industry don’t care for home funerals because it eats into their business, others like Beaty, who runs the Beaty Funeral Home in Mineola in East Texas, are glad to help in the process, be it embalming, making a death certificate, transporting the body or burying it.

“We can do as much or as little as they want us to do,” Beaty says.

Texas law allows family members to act in lieu of a funeral director, fill out and file death certificates and transport the body in a vehicle to a home, crematory or cemetery. Embalming is not required, and caskets can be homemade. In very specific cases, the law does allow the burial of loved ones on private property, but there are restrictions.
Moving the body during a home funeral workshop

Ericson and his brother built a casket for their mother, which they called a “hope chest.” They made it in Ericson’s driveway out of plywood, which they then stained. They showed it to their mother weeks before she died in 2007.

“She saw it and said, ‘That’s wonderful.’ And that’s final gifting. What more could I have given her?” Ericson says.

Belk and Booth met at a home funeral workshop in Austin in 2003, where they joined forces and “stepped into the role of community leaders on this topic,” Belk recalls.

Each had an abiding interest in funeral alternatives after bad experiences with the funerals of loved ones. When Booth was 6, her mother died suddenly. The funeral home took the body, and Booth never saw her mother again. She was robbed of the chance to say a proper goodbye.

“We were protected from the whole idea of death,” Booth says. “It left such a void in my life that I’m drawn to this work of helping families care for their own. It’s a more real experience, and they can be involved.”

Belk’s father died when she was 16, and he was given a military funeral that was formal, formulaic and punctuated with a rifle salute.

“The funeral was so horrible and traumatic that I can’t describe it,” Belk says. “It was manufactured and impersonal. I was pushed out and wasn’t allowed to see the body or say anything. It left a horrible dark place in me.”

Through the site, Belk and Booth organize about four home funeral workshops a year. The workshops are free, though small donations are accepted.

The duo is available to help families in the planning stages and the execution of home funerals, which Belk says can be done for under $500, casket included. This doesn’t include burial costs, which range widely, depending on the location and whether the cemetery is privately or corporately owned. Burial costs in Central Texas run around $1,000 to $5,000 per grave, according to the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society.

Education is paramount, and a purpose of the workshops is to get people comfortable with the idea of handling and treating a corpse, to get over what Belk calls the “ick factor.”

“That was my response at first,” Belk says. “But how I overcame this reaction was the lovingness that I felt toward the person, even someone I didn’t know. My compassion for even those I don’t know is very deep. I honor and respect the process so much that it creates these loving feelings inside me. So it’s easy to be gentle and respectful and loving. That’s what overcomes the ick factor.”

“It’s not ghoulish and icky,” Ericson says. “It might be a little scary for people who have never done this. But I think it really helps us to confront and accept our mortality. You can tell people that, but once you’ve felt the body of a dead person, it changes everything.”

At the workshop in her home, Belk has just finished reading a Celtic poem about birth and dying by George MacDonald. As the event’s celebrant, it’s her way of opening the funeral ceremony, which bears new and ancient folk influences from myriad cultures. One of the attendees, Kestrel Daniel, a friend of Belk’s, plays a tune on a Native American-style flute.

Belk and Booth show the participants how to adjust and maneuver the body, how to cleanse it and dress it and how to place packets of dry ice on the stomach, under the shoulders and hips. A scarf is tied around the head and jaw to keep the mouth closed until the jaw sets. Belk sprays a mist of lavender oil in the air.

After the body — in this case the very alive but motionless volunteer Fleur Hedden — is washed, Belk circles Hedden and utters an incantation.

At the end of the workshop, during the “leaving ceremony,” someone reads another poem and Daniel plays “Amazing Grace” on the flute.

Hedden stirs.

“Resurrection!” someone says as Hedden rises off the table.

“I forgot how to be alive,” Hedden quips, stretching.

For some in the class, going through the motions of preparing the body was a surprisingly emotional experience.

“When I was washing her face, hands and arms, I just thought about when I was a young mother, washing my babies, and I thought about if I had to do it for my husband or my children if they died,” says Tonya Riley, a yoga instructor, who almost cried during the faux ceremony. “It would be such an intimate, sad thing, I thought, that it would also be the most appropriate thing.”

Daniel felt “empowered” afterward.

“It was pretty intense, more than I thought it would be,” Daniel says. “It got me thinking about the choices I have. It doesn’t just have to be the standard way. Acting it out showed that I might be able to do it with a loved one. I was scared about it before, but I don’t feel so scared now.”

While some people could balk at having their friends and family handle their remains, Belk sees the flip side of that equation.

“I’d rather be handled by my friends and those who really love me and will treat me respectfully and not leave me naked on a cold metal bed while (funeral home employees) do whatever,” Belk says.

“It’s a sense of satisfaction that you’ve cared for this person in a very human, personal way until you’re ready to cremate or bury the body,” adds Booth, who completed a home funeral with her mother-in-law when she died. “Just having that time helps people say goodbye.”

Chris Garcia writes for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: cgarcia(at)

Alternatives for Families (South Whidbey Record)

An article about home funerals from South Whidbey Record [article], May 09 2009

Alternatives for Families
By Patricia Duff

Death, in a sense, is a denouement. It follows the climax of life.

In it, a person plays out the final act of one’s existence before his or her exit out of this world.

Strange, then, that many families in American society allow a beloved’s body to be taken immediately away; whisked off to a mortuary for embalming and laid out in an unfamiliar funeral home before being buried or cremated.

No final curtain. No long moment in the spotlight of one’s death to allow a family the time to give those they love an ovation; a curtain call for which they may honor the dead with appreciation and love.

One South Whidbey woman would like to give families the chance to change all that.

Marilyn Strong is the founder of Soul’s Journey Services.

Strong is a certified death midwife and is part of a new movement that aims to restage life’s final act with an intimate, sacred and gentle transition from life to death. It’s an alternative to funeral homes.

“Caring for our loved ones after death is nothing new,” Strong said. “It has only been three or four generations since everyone cared for their own at home in this country.”

“Consciously tending the dead at home is reclaiming something very ancient — something most cultures around the world still reverently do for their loved ones,” she added. “It is only natural that we bring back this very personal family involvement and participation in a way that becomes a simple, loving part of the cycle of our lives.”

Strong’s services provide guidance, counsel and ministry to families who want to personally care for and make specific, low-cost, home-based funeral arrangements.

A traditional mortuary burial can easily cost $10,000, while a home funeral followed by cremation or an environmentally-conscious burial in a pine-box can cost less than $1,000.

Historically, the family was responsible for preparing a family member’s body and other rituals that followed death. It was a natural part of the grieving process and gave people the hours or days needed to say goodbye to their relative while the body lay in the parlor.

“That’s where the terms ‘living room’ and ‘parlor’ come from,” Strong said.

She said the business of embalming the dead is obsolete. It was invented during the American Civil War as a way of preserving the bodies of soldiers who needed to be shipped long distances home so their families could bury them. Embalming is not required in any state.

Like others in her field, Strong is dedicated to dignified and compassionate alternatives to current funeral practices.

“The first funeral I attended was for my paternal grandmother when I was 14,” Strong said.

“I never got to see her (dead body) before she was buried. Death was such a scary thing precisely because it was so mysterious and unknown to me, and I was so inexperienced with it.

“We humans tend to be afraid of things that we don’t know, and therefore don’t understand. The truth is that our culture teaches that death is something to be ignored, denied, feared and avoided as much as possible. We try to insulate ourselves from the reality that death is a natural part of the cycle of life.”

There is a movement in this country away from modern funeral traditions.

In 1998, a rural doctor and environmentalist, Billy Campbell, opened the first modern “green cemetery” in North America.

Campbell and his wife, Kimberley, created the Ramsey Creek Preserve in upstate South Carolina that specializes in burials that eschew embalming, traditional coffins and headstones in favor of a simpler, more natural approach. Graves are hand-dug, and instead of using expensive, finished coffins, the dead are buried in shrouds or a plain wooden box without a vault or grave liner.

Now, organizations such as the Green Burial Council, an independent, nonprofit organization founded to encourage ethical and environmentally sustainable deathcare practices, are making it easier for people to access alternatives.

Death midwifery is part of the natural burial movement that allows advisors like Strong to facilitate the transportation and care of the body in preparation for a home ritual or wake.

“Home funerals make sense both economically and emotionally,” Strong said.

“We’ve become a death-averse society,” she added. “But by having a body stay at home after death, a transformation can happen in front of the family. Being physically present during that process aids in the grieving process.”

“When someone dies, the portal between the worlds opens, just as it does during a birth, and it is very powerful,” Strong said.

She explained that by having the body present for up to three days gives a family time to gather, hold vigil, perhaps decorate the casket and do other rituals while saying goodbye and healing at the same time.

Soul’s Journey Services can do as much or as little as desired.

After acquiring the death certificate for the family from the medical examiner, the death midwife can assist with washing, dressing and preparing the body at home. The body is then preserved for viewing by keeping it on blocks of dry ice.

Strong can also assist the family with medical and legal paperwork; with selection of a low-cost casket that can be eco-friendly; access to low-cost cremation services; and memorial services.

Strong emits an expressive tenderness and warmth when speaking about the process of death. She said the end stage of life is an extremely personal and sacred time for the family of the dead.

But beyond her natural inclination to help ease the pain families feel while grieving, Strong has had more than 25 years of experience in related fields.

With degrees in religion, adult education and spirituality and culture, Strong has been a longtime facilitator of spirituality programs. She is an interfaith minister and a respected ceremonialist and singer with experience in bedside chanting vigils and sacred dying rituals. She also provides grief and bereavement counseling.

Additionally, Strong is the president of the board of the Woodmen Cemetery in Langley, where green burials are available.

“What a gift it is for those left behind to be able to spend time with the body of their loved one, to create and hold sacred space for them to lie in honor,” she said.

For more information, visit Strong’s Web site; Click here or call 341-3382 or e-mail

South Whidbey Record Arts & Entertainment, Island Life Patricia Duff can be reached at or (360) 221-5300.

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.”



Natural burials, home funerals gain fans (Traverse City Record-Eagle)

An article about home funerals from Traverse City Record-Eagle [article], May 23, 2009

Natural burials, home funerals gain fans
By Jodee Taylor

TRAVERSE CITY — Bob Butz is going to build his own coffin. It may double as a coffee table or bookshelves until he needs it.

Butz, 38, is a Lake Ann author whose newest book, “Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial” will be published July 1. While he was researching the book, he visited a burial preserve, talked to death midwives and even visited his father’s grave for the first time in more than 20 years. And, yes, he bought plans for a coffin, but says they’re also available for free.

“Green burial to me,” Butz said, “was more than just picking the things I needed. It was about reclaiming a ritual we lost.”

Green burial typically means using biodegradable materials for a coffin and foregoing a burial vault and embalming. Home funerals usually involve the body staying at home instead of going to a funeral home. A death midwife attends to the unembalmed body; Butz said the few he met likened it to caring for an invalid or infant.

Butz said the nascent trends of natural burial and home funerals harken to only a generation ago. His own mother-in-law remembers home funerals and burials, but at some point, he said, death has become “outsourced.”

“We lose touch with the past so easily,” he said. “One generation and it’s gone.”

“It’s far easier when someone dies to just hand it over,” he said.

Butz thinks home funerals and green burials — things that don’t necessarily have to go together — may have a resurgence in these times of grow-your-own food, homeschooling and home births.

Kimberli Bindschatel, of Traverse City, is more than ready for that to happen. She’s in the process of buying land to create a cemetery that specializes in conservation burials.

“Conservation burial is for people who want to be part of a nature preserve,” she said. “In your last act on earth, you can conserve land.”

The cemetery she hopes to run would not require vaults, which typically cost $1,200 and are made of cement. Vaults are not required by law, she said. A body must be buried in a licensed cemetery, which often thwarts families from putting Grandpa on the family farm because of the paperwork required, she said. Caskets also are not required by law. However, cemeteries are allowed to require a vault, and most do, she said.

What is required by Michigan law is the hiring of a funeral director.

“Michigan is the worst state in the nation when it comes to funeral law,” Butz said.

But the reasoning behind the laws, said Vaughn Seavolt, owner of Life Story funeral home, is to protect the consumer.

“There are situations where people aren’t taken care of properly or money isn’t handled (properly),” he said, so regulations are there to protect families.

On the other hand, Seavolt supports green burial and is hoping Bindschatel is successful in her attempt to start a conservation cemetery.

“I would work with the family to do whatever they want,” he said, including home funerals. “We’d have to plan for logistical things,” he said, like making sure the doors are big enough.

“But in the 22 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never had anyone ask,” Seavolt said.

That is why both Bindschatel and Butz are hopeful things will change. The chemicals used in embalming are toxic to the ground, Bindschatel said, and even cremation is not good for the environment. “It leaves a huge carbon footprint, there can be mercury emissions from dental work,” she said. However, the ashes are OK, she said.

And planning doesn’t have to be morbid, Butz said.

“This book shows people that it can be kind of fun and interesting to think about,” he said. “We all have to deal with death and taxes, but no one talks about death. The book makes it palatable to talk about.

“All the people I talked to who have planned a green burial or gone through one with a loved one have said it was the most moving thing they’ve gone through,” Butz said. “It’s harder to accept a loss if you’re not part of it. A green burial requires the family to take an active role.”

Source: Traverse City Record-Eagle, Published: May 23, 2009, by Jodee Taylor,

The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral (Smithsonian Magazine)

An article about home funerals in Smithsonian Magazine [article], March 2009

The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral
By Max Alexander

Two funerals, two days apart, two grandfathers of my two sons. When my father and father-in-law died in the space of 17 days in late 2007, there wasn’t a lot of time to ruminate on the meaning of it all. My wife, Sarah, and I were pretty busy booking churches, consulting priests, filing newspaper notices, writing eulogies, hiring musicians, arranging military honor guards and sorting reams of paperwork (bureaucracy outlives us all), to say nothing of having to wrangle last-minute plane tickets a week before Christmas. But all that was a sideshow. Mostly we had to deal with a couple of cold bodies.

In life both men had been devout Catholics, but one was a politically conservative advertising man, the other a left-wing journalist; you’ll have to trust me that they liked each other. One was buried, one was cremated. One was embalmed, one wasn’t. One had a typical American funeral-home cotillion; one was laid out at home in a homemade coffin. I could tell you that sorting out the details of these two dead fathers taught me a lot about life, which is true. But what I really want to share is that dead bodies are perfectly OK to be around, for a while.

I suppose people whose loved ones are missing in action or lost at sea might envy the rest of us, for whom death typically leaves a corpse, or in the polite language of funeral directors, “the remains.” Yet for all our desire to possess this tangible evidence of a life once lived, we’ve become oddly squeamish about our dead. We pay an average of $6,500 for a funeral, not including cemetery costs, in part so we don’t have to deal with the physical reality of death. That’s 13 percent of the median American family’s annual income.

Most people in the world don’t spend 13 percent of anything on dead bodies, even once in a while. How we Westerners have arrived at this state is a long story—you can start with the Civil War, which is when modern embalming was developed—but the story is changing.

A movement toward home after-death care has convinced thousands of Americans to deal with their own dead. A nonprofit organization called Crossings ( maintains that besides saving lots of money, home after-death care is greener than traditional burials—bodies pumped full of carcinogenic chemicals, laid in metal coffins in concrete vaults under chemically fertilized lawns—which mock the biblical concept of “dust to dust.” Cremating an unembalmed body (or burying it in real dirt) would seem obviously less costly and more eco-friendly. But more significant, according to advocates, home after-death care is also more meaningful for the living.

I wasn’t sure exactly why that would be, but Sarah, her sisters and their mother were intrigued. Bob, her dad (he was the left-wing journalist), had brain cancer and was nearing the end. In hospice care at his home in Maine near our own, he wasn’t able to participate in the conversations about his funeral, but earlier he had made it clear that he didn’t want a lot of money spent on it.

Sarah hooked up with a local support group for home after-death care. We watched a documentary film called A Family Undertaking, which profiles several home funerals around the country. I was especially moved by the South Dakota ranch family preparing for the death of their 90-year-old patriarch, probably because they did not fit my preconception of home-funeral devotees as granola-crunching Berkeley grads.

So a few weeks before Bob died, my 15-year-old son, Harper, and I made a coffin out of plywood and deck screws from Home Depot. I know that sounds cheesy, but it was nice hardwood veneer, and we applied a veneer edging for a finished look. I could have followed any number of plans from the Internet, but in the end I decided to wing it with my own design. We routed rabbet joints for a tight construction.

“I guess we wouldn’t want him falling out the bottom,” Harper said.

“That would reflect poorly on our carpentry skills,” I agreed.

We rubbed linseed oil into the wood for a deep burnish, then, as a final touch, made a cross of cherry for the lid. Total cost: $90.98.

Sarah learned that Maine does not require embalming—a recognition that under normal circumstances human remains do not pose a public health risk (nor do they deteriorate visibly) for a few days after death.

When Bob died, on a cold evening in late November, Sarah, her sister Holly and I gently washed his body with warm water and lavender oil as it lay on the portable hospital bed in the living room. (Anointing a body with aromatic oils, which moisten the skin and provide a calming atmosphere for the living, is an ancient tradition.) I had been to plenty of funerals and seen many a body in the casket, but this was the first time I was expected to handle one. I wasn’t eager to do so, but after a few minutes it seemed like second nature. His skin remained warm for a long time—maybe an hour—then gradually cooled and turned pale as the blood settled. While Holly and I washed his feet, Sarah trimmed his fingernails. (No, they don’t keep growing after death, but they were too long.) We had to tie his jaw shut with a bandanna for several hours until rigor mortis set in, so his mouth would not be frozen open; the bandanna made him look like he had a toothache.

We worked quietly and deliberately, partly because it was all new to us but mainly out of a deep sense of purpose. Our work offered the chance to reflect on the fact that he was really gone. It wasn’t Bob, just his body.

Bob’s widow, Annabelle, a stoic New Englander, stayed in the kitchen during most of these preparations, but at some point she came in and held his hands. Soon she was comfortable lifting his arms and marveling at the soft stillness of her husband’s flesh. “Forty-four years with this man,” she said quietly.

Later that night, with the help of a neighbor, we wrestled the coffin into the living room, filled it with cedar chips from the pet store and added several freezer packs to keep things cool. Then we lined it with a blanket and lay Bob inside. Movies always show bodies getting casually lifted like a 50-pound sack of grain; in real life (or death?), it strained four of us to move him.

The next night we held a vigil. Dozens of friends and family trailed through the living room to view Bob, surrounded by candles and flowers. He looked unquestionably dead, but he looked beautiful. Harper and I received many compliments on our coffin. Later, when the wine flowed and the kitchen rang with laughter and Bob was alone again, I went in to see him. I held his cool hands and remembered how, not so long ago, those hands were tying fishing lures, strumming a banjo, splitting wood. Those days were over, and that made me sad, but it also felt OK.

We did have to engage a few experts. Although Maine allows backyard burials (subject to local zoning), Bob had requested cremation. A crematorium two hours away was sympathetic to home after-death care. The director offered to do the job for just $350, provided we delivered the body.

That entailed a daylong paper chase. The state of Maine frowns on citizens driving dead bodies around willy-nilly, so a Permit for Disposition of Human Remains is required. To get that, you need a death certificate signed by the medical examiner or, in Bob’s case in a small town, the last doctor to treat him. Death certificates, in theory at least, are issued by the government and available at any town office. But when Sarah called the clerk she was told, “You get that from the funeral home.”

“There is no funeral home,” she replied.

“There’s always a funeral home,” said the clerk.

Sarah drove to the town office, and after a lot of searching, the clerk turned up an outdated form. The clerk at the next town over eventually found the proper one. Then Sarah had to track down her family doctor to sign it. We had a firm appointment at the crematorium (burning takes up to five hours, we learned), and time was running out. But finally we managed to satisfy the bureaucracy and load Bob’s coffin into the back of my pickup truck for an on-time delivery. His ashes, in an urn made by an artist friend, were still warm as Sarah wrote the check. We planned to scatter them over the Atlantic later.

Then my dad died—suddenly, a thousand miles away, in Michigan. He lived alone, far from his three sons, who are spread from coast to coast. Home after-death care was out of the question; even if logistics had allowed it, my father had planned his funeral down to the clothes he would wear in his coffin and the music to be played at the service (Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”). We sat down with the funeral-home director (a nice man, also chosen by my dad) in a conference room where Kleenex boxes were strategically positioned every few feet, and went over the list of services ($4,295 in Dad’s case) and merchandise. We picked a powder-coated metal coffin that we thought Dad would have liked; happily, it was also priced at the lower end of the range ($2,595). He had already received a plot free from the town. The total cost was $11,287.83, including cemetery charges and various church fees.

I was sad that I hadn’t arrived in Michigan to see him before he died; we never said goodbye. “I’d like to see my father,” I told the funeral director.

“Oh, you don’t want to see him now,” he replied. “He hasn’t been embalmed.”

“Actually, that’s precisely why I’d like to see him.”

He cleared his throat. “You know there was an autopsy.” My father’s death, technically due to cardiac arrest, had happened so quickly that the hospital wanted to understand why. “A full cranial autopsy,” he added.

Well, he had me there. I relented. Then I told him the story of Sarah’s father—the homemade coffin, the bandanna around the jaw—and his own jaw dropped lower and lower.

“That would be illegal in Michigan,” he said.

In fact, do-it-yourself burials without embalming are possible in Michigan as long as a licensed funeral director supervises the process. I don’t think he was lying, just misinformed.

The next day I got to see my dad, embalmed and made up, with rosy cheeks and bright red lips. Clearly an attempt had been made to replicate his appearance in life, but he looked more like a wax museum figure. I touched his face, and it was as hard as a candle. Sarah and I exchanged knowing glances. Later she said to me, “Why do we try to make dead people look alive?”

On a frigid December day, we lowered Dad’s coffin into the ground—or, more accurately, into a concrete vault ($895) set in the ground. It is not easy for me to say this, but here I must report with embarrassment that in life my father had his own personal logo—a stylized line drawing of his face and his trademark oversize spectacles. It appeared on his stationery, his monogrammed windbreakers, even a flag. In accord with his wishes, the logo was engraved on his tombstone. Beneath were the words “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

It was different, the funeral director acknowledged, yet not as different as my father-in-law’s passage. Home after-death care is not for everyone or every situation, but there is a middle ground. Before my dad’s church service, the funeral director confided to me that he was exhausted: “I got a call at midnight to pick up a body in Holland,” a town 30 miles away. That night had brought a major snowstorm.

“You drove through that storm in the middle of the night to get a body?” I asked.

He shrugged, explaining that more people these days are dying at home, and when they die, the family wants the body removed immediately. “Usually they call 911,” he said.

It occurred to me that if more Americans spent more time with their dead—at least until the next morning—they would come away with a new respect for life, and possibly a larger view of the world. After Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I saw a clip of her funeral. They had put her in a simple wooden coffin. “Hey,” I said to my son, “we could have built that.”

Max Alexander used to edit for Variety and People. He is writing a book about Africa.

A Serious Undertaking (Newsweek)

An article about home funerals in Newsweek [article], July 3, 2008

A Serious Undertaking
By Brendan Kiley

A small, but growing, group of activists seeks to reform the funeral industry.

James Green is dead. He’s lying on a classroom table—eyes closed, hands across his chest—while Donna Belk, who lectures on do-it-yourself funerals, explains how to wash a corpse at home. “In my experience, bodies leak a negligible amount of fluid, but you may want to put a plastic sheet down, just in case.” She turns to Green: “You don’t have to do any leaking.” The ersatz corpse cracks a smile and the dozen students in the room shout, “He’s alive! He’s alive!”

The playacting is part of the annual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a watchdog group for the death-care industry that advocates simple, personalized and environmentally sound alternatives to the typical American burial.

Americans spend between $11 billion and $15 billion on funerals each year, and four major corporations account for 11 percent of the 20,000 funeral homes in the United States, tending to cluster in individual communities. The “big four”—Services Corporation International, Stewart Enterprises, Carriage and Stonemor—own just a quarter of the funeral homes in Seattle, for example, but own 80 percent of the funeral homes in Yakima, a few hours east.

The FCA members from across the country gathered in Seattle in last June to attend seminars on home funerals; “green burial,” including caskets made from recycled paper; and, most important, educating the public on how to navigate what many members consider a corrupt and ossified industry.

“The funeral corporations use predatory sales tactics and aggressive marketing to get people—who are in shock—to spend more than they can afford on services they don’t want or need,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the FCA.

The lobbyists for the death-care industry, Slocum claims, have pernicious influence over state legislatures. In 2006, he got a call from a Native American couple whose 3-year-old died in a hospital while they were visiting Salt Lake City. The parents wanted to take the body home to Idaho for a traditional funeral. Hospital staff refused, telling the parents that according to a Utah law passed that year, the death certificate could only be signed by a licensed funeral director, which would have meant that the body would likely have had to be given temporarily into the custody of a funeral home. Luckily, with the help of an alternative burial group, the couple was able to take custody of their child’s body, but the case indicates the power the traditional funeral industry can have, Slocum argues.

“I want people to be shocked,” Slocum says, “that in some states, the body belongs to the mortuary by state law. And once a funeral director has got a body in the door, it’s over. They’ll charge you from $1,200 to $4,000 for their ‘basic services’ fee. They’ve got possession of your dead and your wallet with the blessing of the state.”

In 2005, the FCA filed a class-action lawsuit against Services Corporation International, Stewart Enterprises, Hillenbrand Industries and Batesville Casket Company, accusing them of breaking antitrust laws. According to the suit, the funeral-home chains conspired with Batesville Casket Company (which makes 50 percent of the caskets sold in the United States) to boycott smaller casket companies and pressure consumers to buy caskets at artificially inflated prices.

“The funeral-home defendants are charging about double for caskets that are identical to what you can get elsewhere,” says Gordon Schnell, an attorney representing the class-action defendants. “You can buy caskets privately, on the Internet, at Costco—we want to get the word out that consumers have options.”

Attorneys representing the defendants declined official comment, but one attorney affiliated with the defense (who spoke on condition of anonymity) said the case was “a typical example of entrepreneurial plaintiff-lawyers” pushing a suit without merit. “Batesville wants to control the distribution of their caskets,” he said. “Lots of businesses use a selective distribution system: Rolex, Nike and every car manufacturer.” He dismissed FCA as “just two employees in Vermont with an email list.”

Despite the FCA’s grim assessment of the American way of death, the mood at the convention was optimistic. Rates of cremation—a thrifty, environmentally sound option preferred by FCA members—are skyrocketing. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 32 percent of Americans who died in 2006 were cremated. CANA predicts that by 2025, 57 percent of Americans will choose cremation.

The “green burial” movement, which eschews embalming, metal caskets and concrete grave liners, is also growing and is finding an unexpected symbiosis with the land-conservation movement. Imagine 100 acres you want to preserve, says Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters, and you carve off 10 for a natural cemetery. The preserve could very well pay for itself—or even turn a profit.

“I tend to see the glass as half empty,” Slocum admits, sipping a glass of wine at the FCA awards banquet. “But in the last five years, the number of calls I’ve gotten about green burial and home funerals have grown more than I could’ve even hoped.”

“Still,” Slocum adds, “there’s a lot to do.” He has, you might say, miles to go before he sleeps.


The $575 Farewell (The Ledger)

An article about home funerals from The Ledger [article], March 29, 2008

The $575 Farewell
For the Homeless and the Indigent, Dying is a Lonely Business, Done Without Ceremony

By Gary White

Most of us know that when we die, we can expect someone to oversee the disposition of our bodies. Even if we never discuss death and make no advance plans, we can probably count on a spouse or blood relative to make arrangements for a funeral and a burial or cremation.

SHADY OAKS GARDENS, the county-owned cemetery near Homeland, is nearly filled with a multitude of John and Jane Does. Cremation has largely replaced traditional burial to dispose of the indigent —it’s cheaper.

When people die unable to pay for a funeral, they are usually cremated at county expense and their ashes are stored in a cardboard box, as seen at Oak Ridge Funeral care in Winter Haven. The $575 burial budget often doesn’t cover all the expenses.

Not Sheldon Imbler. When Imbler died of liver failure March 10 at Lakeland Regional Medical Center, he had no one to mourn him. Imbler, 57, had been living on the streets of Lakeland for at least two years and had no family in the area.

And so the responsibility for dealing with his remains fell to Polk County — specifically, the county’s Department of Health and Social Services. After a search failed to find any next of kin, the county paid a Winter Haven funeral home $575 to have Imbler’s body cremated. He had no funeral or memorial service, and the crematory arranged to have his ashes scattered in the Gulf of Mexico.

‘Two things are guaranteed in this country — one is a public education and the other is a proper burial,’ said Russell Moline, a funeral director at Lakeland’s David Russell Funeral Home, which oversaw Imbler’s cremation. ‘People are entitled to those two items.’

It’s not just homeless people like Imbler who sometimes require public burial or cremation. Wilma Daniels, Polk’s health and social services manager, said the county pays for the disposition of citizens in a variety of circumstances, including elderly residents who have outlived all their relatives and people whose families just can’t afford to pay for burial or cremation.

‘Most people, they don’t want to ask for help,’ said Mary ­Kondelin, a senior case manager in Daniels’ office, ‘but due to their economic situation they have to.’

Daniels said the county paid for 246 dispositions — 157 cremations and 89 burials — in the fiscal year from October 2006 through September 2007.


She said her office follows a protocol to determine whether any relatives of the deceased have the assets to pay for burial or cremation, and it does not approve every application for assistance. The Florida Anatomical Board, which supplies cadavers to the state’s medical
schools, also has the authority to take unidentified or unclaimed bodies, though Daniels said that is rare, occurring only three times in Polk in the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

Daniels said all Polk funeral homes are eligible to handle arrangements for publicly funded burials and cremations, as long as they accept the flat $575 payment from the county. Keith Fields, a funeral director at Oak Ridge Funeral Care in Winter Haven, said that payment hasn’t risen in years and in many cases doesn’t even cover the cost to the funeral home of disposing of the body.

‘What they pay for basically barely covers cremation,’ Fields said. ‘A lot of times we’re doing basically charity work by the time the fees and the expense of picking the body up and all the running around has to be done.’

That’s one reason the vast majority of cases result in cremation, which is less costly for funeral homes. The other is the lack of public burial space.

The county owns Shady Oaks Gardens Cemetery, a 2.8-acre, triangular tract near Homeland donated by a phosphate company in 1968. Kondelin said the cemetery reached nearly full capacity in the 1990s, and burials there have all but stopped. Kondelin, a 34-year county employee, said her office has unsuccessfully sought land for another ‘Potter’s Field,’ the traditional name for a burial ground devoted to indigents and unidentified people.


Back when the county did regular burials at Shady Oaks, a representative from the social services office attended each ceremony. Kondelin said she witnessed many such burials.

‘Sometimes there was family there,’ she said. ‘Sometimes the only people there were the social worker, someone from the funeral home, the person digging the grave and a minister.’

Asked whether it seemed sad to see someone buried without any family or friends to mourn, Kondelin said, ‘There was someone from the county there that did care about an individual, whether they had a family member or not.

As a social worker, you do have to have a degree of professional detachment, but you do have to have empathy for an individual because they were a human being. They were either a mother, father, brother, sister, child.’


County-funded burials do still occur, as the 89 examples from the previous fiscal year attest, just not at Shady Oaks. Daniels said sometimes a family owns a cemetery plot, but lacks the money to cover burial costs. Or she said a friend of the deceased might donate a plot, or a cemetery might offer a space at no charge.

But Kondelin said cremation has become the dominant form of disposition, not only in Polk, but in most Florida counties as well. She said funeral homes do not hold ceremonies for cremations and sometimes ship bodies to crematories outside Polk, and the county doesn’t send a representative to cremations.

In cases of cremation, Kondelin said family members have the option of claiming the ashes. Otherwise, funeral homes dispose of the ashes in any legal manner they see fit. Moline said dispersal in the Gulf of Mexico is the most common method.

For people like Sheldon Imbler, who have no family in the area, Daniels said her office makes every effort to track down the next of kin. She said the funeral home that receives the body often joins in the search, checking with nursing homes, hospitals and neighbors and often enlisting help from law-enforcement officials.

Daniels said there is no statutory deadline for waiting to find a next of kin. She said she doesn’t recall ever having directed a body to be buried or cremated only to learn later of a living family member.

‘We give it what we think is a good effort, and that length of time may vary,’ Daniels said. ‘If we think there’s a relative, we’ll wait a little longer. We don’t have any set time.’

But she knows that some people, like Imbler, are truly alone as they depart this world.


Gary White can be reached at or at 863-802-7518.

Even in Death Boomers Do It Their Way (

An article about home funerals from, September 28, 2007

Even in Death Boomers Do It Their Way
By Lucia Huntington

Quilt shroudFamily members help lower Pansy Anna Palmer’s coffin, covered by a quilt, into her grave in a “green” cemetery in South Carolina. After a Baptist service, she was buried in a wooded grove in a biodegradable casket.Ashes blasted out of cannons. Gemstones, paintings, and eternal reefs of cast concrete that are made in part of cremated remains. Mummification. Custom caskets. Personalized services designed and run by friends and family.

Members of the Baby Boom generation want their deaths to be as individual as their lives.

“The people who have done home birthing or home schooling seem to be attracted to this. It’s definitely a boomer thing,” says Jerrigrace Lyons, the founder and director of Final Passages, a non-profit educational website on home funerals. “People are looking for things that are more relevant to their lifestyle, and to celebrate that person’s life through creating a death that makes sense for who they were.”

For Susan Weiss of New Hampshire, that meant creating a Viking service. When her husband, Eric, died unexpectedly last August at age 54, she gave him a send-off that honored his Swedish heritage, his Wiccan beliefs and his own wishes.

At the service — which included traditional Lutheran rites as well – specially prepared CDs played music that was important to Eric. A Wiccan high priest and priestess conducted a ritual created especially “to honor his spiritual path,” Weiss says.

The guests stood in a circle, then passed around the cord to Eric’s religious robes, telling a story or a memory of him as each took their turn. Signs of runes were made on his forehead, to signify his journey, the gateway to Valhalla, and radical transformation. Finally, the cord was passed to his mother, who tied its ends together to signify that his life had completed its circle.

“She was there at the beginning, and she was there at the end,” says Weiss.

After Eric’s body was cremated, the ashes were loaded onto a longboat loaded with his favorite foods, clothes, tools, and poems, books, letters – “gifts that people wanted to send with him” – and the whole was set afire.

“Everyone who left there came up to me and said it was one of the most moving ceremonies they ever attended. Yes, there were tears, there were a lot of tears, but they felt good when they left, and that’s important,” Weiss says.

Home services
Weiss did consult a funeral home to carry out Eric’s wishes, and Jessica Nagle, an attorney in Texas, says arrangements for final dispositions can be made with either funeral planners or funeral homes. Any prepaid arrangement constitutes a contract that makes the wishes binding, she says.

Funerary laws are governed by the states, and vary (check for a list). Kimberly Campbell, vice president of Memorial Ecosystems in South Carolina, says none require embalming — and many permit home services.

That was important to Judith Fenley, 63, of California, when her mother died five years ago. She and her siblings kept the body at home for five days, in a flower-filled room they decorated, “so she could lay in grace in our home,” Fenley says.

They prepped their mother’s body themselves, washing and dressing her, talking to her body as they worked. Fenley says that afterward her brother, who had initially been hesitant about the idea, told her, “Judith, that wasn’t for anybody to do but us.” Her brother built their mother’s casket himself, using redwood his uncle gave him.

“The bottom piece was shaped like a heart, then the top was shaped like a butterfly, and in the spine of the butterfly he carved an iris from a drawing my mother had done, because her name was Iris,” Fenley says.

Fenley says doing the work themselves made the death more deeply felt and more natural. For Baby Boomers who followed the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, that sense of returning to nature is important, and more are following it to its natural conclusion: green burials.

Campbell is part of that movement. “Our distance from death is really quite unhealthy. Death is so much a part of life, and you see that in a garden,” she says. “That sense of giving back to the earth is something that really does appeal to a broad spectrum of people. There are a lot of wasted resources that go into present funeral practice.”

At Memorial Ecosystems’ Ramsey Creek Preserve, cremated ashes and unembalmed bodies in shrouds or biodegradable caskets are buried on land conserved for that purpose, in graves that are dug by hand. The preserve also allows scattering of ashes.

Campbell explains the motivation behind it by quoting the book of Genesis: “‘From dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.’ People do want this sense of simplicity. That’s why cremation rates have gone up so much.” According to the Cremation Association of North America, nearly one-third of people who died in 2005 were cremated, up from 17 percent in 1990.

Campbell says cremation, green burials, and home services are also significantly lower in cost than the $10,000 to $15,000 required for most traditional funerals. Yet she emphasizes that the most important aspect of alternative burials is the relief they give those left behind.

“It’s very sobering when you’re out there. The sound of that first shovelful of earth hitting the box, that dull thud … After, as we’re closing the grave, a lot of stories will come out about that person.”

“I hear over and over again that ministers just say the same words, and what they say doesn’t sound like the person at all,” agrees Lyons. “I think people are looking to be filled up with celebrating the person’s life and who they were. It’s a sense of passion and compassion that makes hearing the about their life unique.”

To plan your own funeral:
Your body: Do you want to be embalmed? Open-casket or closed? Do you want to be buried in any special clothes or jewelry?

Ceremony: Is there special music you would like played? A meaningful poem, psalm or prose passage you would like read? Who should conduct the service? How do you want people to remember you?

Your remains: Cemeteries, spread ashes, stored ashes, even burial on your own property can be an option in some states.

Write down your wishes. Discuss them with your loved ones, your executor, or a funeral planner, with whom arrangements are legally binding.

Think most of all about what you want the people at your funeral to remember. As Susan Weiss says, “Funerals are for the living. Dying is the easy part, it’s living the day after that’s hard.”


More Families Bringing Funerals Home (NBC News)

An article about home funerals from NBC News [article], September 24, 2007

More Families Bringing Funerals Home
Small but growing trend helps people reclaim death rituals, experts say

By Joy Jernigan

When Pam Howley’s 17-year-old daughter died of brain cancer in 2005, she knew one thing: “I did not want her embalmed.”

After a year and a half of watching her daughter Daron endure surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and finally hospice care, Howley did not want to put her daughter’s body through the procedure. Nor did she like the idea of turning her beloved daughter over to a funeral director. From a hospice nurse, Howley learned of another option: a home funeral.

It’s part of a small but growing movement in the United States to take back death. Led by aging baby boomers, often dealing with the deaths of their parents and facing their own mortality, Americans are slowly relearning what it means to care for their own dead.

“So many times, if a family does not have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way, they’re lost,” says Char Barrett, owner of A Sacred Moment in Seattle. She has assisted with two dozen home funerals and memorial services, including Daron’s.

A home funeral can encompass a memorial service, wake, viewing or a combination of the three. It’s also an intimate experience: Friends or family members might help wash and dress the body, build or decorate a casket, plan a memorial service or accompany the deceased to the burial site or crematory.

After Daron died at her home in Bellevue, Wash., Howley kept her there for two days. Family members washed and dressed the body of the teenager who loved soccer and played the cello, placed dry ice under her torso to slow decomposition and moved her to a back bedroom so visitors could pay their last respects. A sister who flew in from New York painted Daron’s nails and applied her makeup. Howley slept in the same room as Daron.

“It was really comforting to be able to go back and touch her, to have her still there,” Howley says.

Two days after Daron died, her casket was delivered. It was too big to fit in the apartment, so family members lifted Daron’s body with a sheet and carried her outside to it. Friends arranged stuffed bears, photos and mementos around her body before loading the casket into a friend’s truck. Mourners accompanied her to the cemetery for a graveside service officiated by a priest, followed by a memorial service at a Catholic church.

Having Daron at home after her death gave Howley more time to accept the reality that her daughter was gone. “It meant a lot,” she says.

Many don’t know their options when a loved one dies, explains Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt., a nonprofit federation dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified and affordable funeral.

“Most of us in this country don’t know much about death, dying and funerals,” he says.

Most states legally require only a certified death certificate, a permit giving permission to transport the body for disposition, and that the body be buried, cremated or donated to medical science, Slocum says. “There’s no law that says you have to have a viewing. No law that says you have to have an embalming.”

Coming full circle

Lisa Carlson, author of “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love” and executive director of the Hinesburg, Vt.-based Funeral Ethics Organization, a nonprofit that examines ethical issues facing the funeral industry, views home funerals as an extension of the natural childbirth and hospice movements rediscovered by baby boomers.

While it’s difficult to track how many home funerals are held each year, Carlson says she’s noticed an increase in inquiries. And this year, the nonprofit People’s Memorial Association of Seattle began offering members the option of choosing a home funeral coordinated by Barrett’s A Sacred Moment.

The average cost of a funeral in 2004, not including cemetery costs, was about $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Price varies considerably, depending on whether the body is cremated or buried and whether the family chooses a plain pine box or an expensive casket.

In contrast, Barrett says a home funeral and cremation can cost less than $1,000 if the family does everything including transporting the body to the crematory. For complete assistance with a three-day home funeral, which includes consultation, preparation of the body, purchase of dry ice, daily check-ins with the family, officiating of a memorial service and burial with a basic cloth-covered casket, the amount is about $2,000. That price does not include cemetery costs.

But the real value of a home funeral, Barrett says, isn’t in the dollars saved but rather in slowing down the process and allowing the family to have some last, precious time with the loved one.

‘It’s the action that heals’

A home funeral can help mourners accept the reality of death, says Karen Russell, executive director of the nonprofit National Grief Support Services, based in West Hills, Calif. “The biggest myth of all time is that time heals all. Time does not heal, it’s the action that heals.”

But a home funeral might be too much for some to deal with, Russell says. “They might be exhausted, they might not have support from others or support of community.”

Home funeral basics

Most bodies can be kept at home for two to three days in temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees with little or no decomposition, says Josh Slocum of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt. He suggests turning on air conditioning if you have it.

The body should be washed and dressed within a couple of hours of death, before rigor mortis sets in. Slocum recommends having a diaper handy or a cloth to clean up with.

The body can be placed on a table or bed. Dry ice, which can be purchased at a large grocery store, should be placed in a paper bag under the torso, says Char Barrett of A Sacred Moment. Use rubber gloves when handling dry ice as it can cause burns.

To close the eyes, cover with a ziplock bag full of rice or an eye pillow for a few hours, or apply Vaseline to the inner eyelids. Prop the head and shoulders at a slight angle.

If the mouth pops open, a cotton bandanna can be wrapped under the chin and tied over the top of the head.

The nonprofit organization Final Passages’ Web site offers more information about planning a home funeral.

For families who choose a home funeral, she recommends placing the body in a back room so mourners do not have to look at it unless they choose to do so.

Even home funeral advocates acknowledge the experience is not for everyone. It might not be the best arrangement if a death is sudden, if a body is disfigured or if not everyone in the family agrees on it, Barrett says.

Others might not want to be so intimately involved, says Pat Lynch, at-large representative to the executive board of the National Funeral Directors Association. “Some people say, ‘I don’t have any interest in doing that at all.’ And that’s where a competent and licensed funeral director can help take their hand and lead them through it.”

Planning your own

For those making their own after-death arrangements, Lynch recommends leaving suggestions rather than directions, since survivors will have their own needs after a loved one’s passing.

Families should have a candid conversation about death, Slocum said. Tell your loved ones what you want and ask what’s meaningful to them.

Even a morbid joke can help break the ice.

“Sometimes humor really helps,” Slocum says. “It lets people know this is a normal part of life, even if it’s a little bit scary.”

Howley has already told her remaining children her wishes for a home funeral when she dies.

“I can’t make them,” she says. “But I already told them that I want that.”

An advantage of a home funeral is that a family is truly in charge, Barrett says. After all, they knew the one who died the best.

“It’s sort of that one final act of love.”

What’s the law?

In 43 states, it’s legal for a family to have a home funeral, says Josh Slocum of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt.

The seven states in which it is difficult for families to perform the entire process without the involvement of a funeral director are Nebraska, Connecticut, New York, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan and Utah.

For more information on individual state laws, see “Caring for Your Own Dead” on the Funeral Consumers Alliance Web site.

About 2.4 million people in the U.S. died in 2004, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About a third of them were cremated.

Planning a Funeral for $800 or less (MSN Money)

An article about home funerals from MSN Money, September 18, 2007

Planning a Funeral for $800 or less
By Christopher Solomon

You can’t take it with you, but you may not want to give thousands to a funeral home and florists. Talk to your loved ones about their wishes and tell them yours.

When a loved one dies, the last thing on most people’s minds is money. Only later do grief-stricken survivors find out that dying in America is very expensive — so expensive, the saying goes, that no one can afford to do it anymore.

The average funeral in the United States costs $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The true sum can easily reach $10,000 once a burial plot, flowers and other costs are included, the AARP says.

You needn’t go into debt in order to honor the dead, however. In many parts of the country, a loved one can be laid to rest with dignity for less than $800, by choosing cremation and using creativity. Even those who favor a traditional funeral and burial can save hundreds or thousands of dollars by taking a few simple steps.

Whatever your preferences, consumer advocates recommend three steps above all others:

Plan ahead. Talk about death with your spouse and/or parents. Know what they want and commit those wishes to paper. Do they want to be cremated shortly after death with no ceremony? Or do they want a large funeral with a choir — but absolutely no fancy headstone? Lack of communication is costly.

“There’s more psychological baggage surrounding death than any other emotion or life experience — even sex. And that’s why we pay a high price,” says Karen Leonard, a researcher for “The American Way of Death Revisited,” the update of Jessica Mitford’s landmark 1963 muckraking exposé of the funeral industry.

Know your rights. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Rule” requires mortuaries to present a price list of services to consumers before showing them products such as caskets. A new FTC brochure that summarizes your rights is “Paying Final Respects: Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods and Services.” Another detailed but very readable overview is the FTC brochure “Funerals: A Consumer Guide.”

Shop around. Many survivors also don’t shop around for deals because they consider bargain hunting an affront to the dead. Getting fleeced, however, is hardly a tribute. Even a few quick calls to compare prices once a relative dies can be worthwhile.

“Most people choose a funeral home for the wrong reasons: It’s close to their house, or it has served their family in the past,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “The range of prices offered by various funeral homes for comparable services is incredibly wide.”

The same funeral package that costs $6,000 at one mortuary can be $2,500 across town, says Slocum.

The $800 (or less) funeral
Though prices vary widely around the country, consumer advocates say a sub-$800 funeral is possible in most places. It requires cremation, however, which now occurs in about a third of all deaths. Here’s how:

Choose “direct cremation.” Direct cremation simply means that the deceased is promptly cremated, without a funeral service or viewing. Direct cremation usually includes transport of the body, cremation and a cardboard or plastic container for the ashes. Embalming — the temporary preservation of the body by injecting chemicals — is usually unnecessary if the body is promptly cremated. Avoiding this expense can save several hundred dollars.

Here’s how to be sure your parents are getting the help they need when you’re not nearby.

Be sure to ask whether the cost of direct cremation includes the crematory fee; that can cost an additional several hundred dollars.

Even cremation prices can vary — a lot. In a 2007 survey of prices at 170 funeral homes in western and central Washington state, the nonprofit People’s Memorial Association found that the price for simple cremation in the Seattle area ranged from $425 to more than $2,800.

Select the simplest casket. Buying a $5,000 mahogany casket if a loved one’s body is soon to be burned to ashes makes little sense. The Funeral Rule requires a funeral home to offer a cost-effective alternative such as an unfinished coffin or a heavy cardboard enclosure to house the body for its trip to the crematorium, where it will be burned along with the body. Ask for one. No state or local law requires a casket for cremation.

Ask the funeral home if a casket can be rented if the body is to be viewed before cremation.

If the total cost of direct cremation is more than $1,000 or so, even in the most expensive areas, “that’s not a fair price,” says Slocum. “This is not a lot of work for the funeral director.” In many places the price should be closer to $600, Leonard says.

Avoid a big-ticket urn and columbarium.
Vessels to store the deceased’s ashes can easily cost hundreds — sometimes thousands — of dollars.

“Some funeral homes try to guilt families into buying more-expensive urns by stamping ‘temporary container’ on the outside of the cardboard or plastic box that the remains are returned in,” Slocum says.

Don’t be pressured into buying a lavish urn, says Lisa Carlson, a consumer advocate and the author of “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love.” Or, eschew an urn for a tasteful piece of pottery or other vessel, Carlson recommends. And scattering the ashes in the ocean or on a favorite mountain — or simply keeping them at home — can save thousands of dollars for a burial plot or a columbarium, a building that holds ashes.

Create your own memorial. Elaborate services held in a rented mortuary chapel can be expensive and feel awkward, say Leonard and others. She recommends holding a memorial service, without the body, in a place that meant much to the deceased — a church, a Fraternal Order of Eagles hall, the family’s beach house, a park or an art gallery. Instead of lavish flowers, decorate with mementos that evoke the person’s life — photo albums, Dad’s golf clubs, diplomas, perhaps some favorite foods.

Join the Funeral Consumers Alliance or a memorial society. In addition to providing information about funeral options in their area, the 110 memorial societies nationwide that are affiliated with the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance frequently arrange discount funerals with local mortuaries.

For example, for a $25 lifetime membership in the Seattle-area People’s Memorial Association, the nation’s largest co-op with nearly 100,000 members, a person is able to purchase a $649 direct cremation — about 50% cheaper than some “list” prices, says former Executive Director Carolyn Hayek. Members also receive discounts on more elaborate options. Tired of high prices, the group even opened a member-owner funeral home recently.

Look at for-profit alternatives. Another option is a company that performs only direct cremation services, such as the Neptune Society. The company, which offers cremation only, has basic packages from $799 to $1,299, depending on location. But be careful, say consumer advocates. These groups are out to make a profit, and they’ve been known to use the hard sell, says Slocum, who cautions against them.

Donate to science. There may be no cost to a family to donate a body for medical research or for organ harvesting, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. There have been several scandals involving tissue donation in recent years, however. Slocum’s advice: Donate to a legitimate medical school’s body donation program, and question any tissue donation organization about whether it is a nonprofit or a for-profit group, and to whom it distributes tissue — that is, whether it’s allocated according to medical needs or for cosmetic reasons, for example.

Save on burials
If direct cremation or body donation aren’t right for you or a loved one, there are other ways to save money:

Direct burial. Like direct cremation, direct burial means that the deceased person is interred quickly, without a public viewing. There is no need for embalming, cosmetology services or a funeral.

Saying goodbye. Some people need to physically say goodbye to a loved one. That still doesn’t necessitate embalming. If relatives live nearby, “it costs nothing to have the family gather around the body at the time of death, as compared to a formal viewing at a funeral home,” says Hayek, formerly of People’s Memorial Association. If the person dies at home, “you do not have to immediately call the funeral home to pick up the body.”

Here’s how to be sure your parents are getting the help they need when you’re not nearby.

Caskets. One of the best places to save money on funeral services is the casket. No other single item is so expensive. A metal casket today now costs more than $2,000. Go to a funeral home and find an appropriate casket, then call others in town and comparison-shop. Prices can sometimes vary by hundreds of dollars. Skip the caskets with special seals that can raise a casket’s price by several hundred dollars; no seal will preserve the dead. Even greater savings can be found by shopping on the Web, where companies will sell the same caskets at less than half the price the funeral homes do and ship the casket to a funeral home overnight or in a few days.

Also consider bypassing high-end metal and wooden coffins entirely. You can purchase a simple, well-crafted pine casket at 5% of the cost of the most opulent polished bronze coffin. It will be more kind to the environment and ultimately will serve the dead just as well.

Clothing. Bury the deceased person in his or her favorite clothes, rather than in a new suit.

Grave liners and vaults. Most cemeteries require that a coffin in a grave must be surrounded by concrete walls so that the ground doesn’t settle over time. These “grave liners,” though simple, can cost a few hundred dollars. Call funeral homes to find the best price. Don’t be pressured into buying a “burial vault,” a more extensive liner that can cost much more but is unnecessary, say consumer advocates.

Monuments. Like caskets, prices for headstones and monuments vary hugely. It pays to shop around, including on the Web.

Benefits. Money is sometimes available to help bury the dead.

Veterans. Veterans of the U.S. armed forces and some civilians who have worked with the military or U.S. Public Health Service are entitled to free burial at a national cemetery, including a grave liner, marker and opening and closing of the grave. Mortuary fees aren’t included.

Social Security Administration. The federal government offers a lump-sum benefit payment of $255 upon death that can be used for funeral expenses. It is payable to a spouse or minor children of the deceased if they meet certain requirements.

Pensions, societies and pensions. Organizations built around some careers, such as the Railroad Retirement Board, as well as some social groups, unions and pensions, offer allowances to defray funeral costs.

To prepay or not to prepay?
An increasingly popular way to take care of funeral arrangements is to pay a funeral home in advance for a package of services. Many consumer advocates don’t recommend prepaid plans, saying consumers are not well-protected.

Only New York state has sufficiently stringent rules about prepaid plans, says the Funeral Consumers Alliance’s Slocum. He recommends that a person instead deposit future funeral expenses in a so-called Totten trust, an account that is payable to a designated survivor upon the death of the account holder. A Totten trust can be opened at any bank.


Death: A Family Ritual (Michigan Citizen)

An article about home funerals in the Michigan Citizen.

Death: A Family Ritual
By Wendy Lyons

When Imam Abdullah El-Amin’s closest friend died 18 months ago, he ritually bathed his friend’s body, anointed him with oil and fragrant herbs and wrapped him in a simple white burial shroud.
It was not only his religious duty, El-Amin, of Detroit, said, it was an honor.

“We were together all down through the years,” he said. “He was my best friend.”

Throughout history, caring for the dead has been the duty of faith communities and families rather than undertakers. It’s still that way across much of the globe. Even here in Michigan, El-Amin has provided after-death care for hundreds of people as part of his role as imam, or spiritual leader, of the Muslim Center of Detroit.

But what is common practice for El-Amin is unusual. Most Americans relinquish this job to funeral directors.

While many are satisfied with this arrangement, others are not. They desire a more profound way to say goodbye.

From washing the body to creating a personalized funeral ritual, more and more families are taking back care of their dead from the professionals and doing it themselves.

“A person has the right to take care of and support their loved ones the way they see fit,” El- Amin said.

Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, of Detroit, walked out of Henry Ford Hospital September 2005. She had just learned that the aggressive brain tumors she had been fighting for seven years had, once again, returned.

It was a turning point.

“Take a look back,” daughter Lydia said. “That’s the last time you’re ever going to be in that hospital.”

Joy radiated from Jeanie’s face. The fight was over. They determined to “live as best we could and enjoy this last time, to die the best we could, to be with one another as much as possible,” Lydia, 21, said.

When Jeanie died at home under hospice care on New Year’s Eve, around 60 friends gathered to assist. The men carried Jeanie downstairs where a group of women, including Lydia, washed her body.

“I washed her hair and washed her face … mostly by washing her face with my tears,” Lydia said. “It was just an incredible moment, probably one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

Daughter Lucy, who had just turned 16 at the time, carefully selected her mom’s clothing and jewelry. Over the last few months, Lucy had dressed her mom each morning making it a fun and exciting routine. Serving her, one last time, in this familiar way helped Lucy’s grief.

After Jeanie was dressed, she was placed in a casket made by friends and cooled with dry ice.

Over the two-day home wake, hundreds gathered to sing, pray, tell stories, share meals, mourn and celebrate Jeanie’s life as a community.

There was no urgency to say goodbye.

“It was like she lingered with us and gently helped each one of us move into this completely new time in our life.”

Most people don’t know it’s legal for families to care for their own dead so they never experience what the Wylie-Kellermanns did.

But only seven states, including Michigan, require funeral-director involvement.

“Why any state agency would want to interfere with this private, intimate family ritual is beyond me,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer watchdog over the funeral industry.

It is legal for Michiganians to care for their dead, but a funeral director must sign the death certificate and obtain disposition permits.

Home funerals were once a natural part of family life, and adults knew what to do. Now, fear of the unknown causes most people to rely upon professionals.

Those who cared for Jeanie after death loved her. For them, it was a holy act. “It’s not a professional act,” said Bill Wylie- Kellermann, Jeanie’s husband and pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Corktown. “It’s a sacred community-based act.

“I felt like I got a lesson in what sacraments are. A sacrament is something that is very ordinary and necessary like eating bread, which turns out to be the most holy and sacred thing there is.

“It’s a practical necessity to wash the body, and it’s a sacred ritual … at the same time.”

Even now, Jeanie’s home funeral is a source of comfort.

“I can think back to any of those moments when I’m sad or feel like I need to be grieving,” Lydia said. “It’s just so powerful and so beautiful that every moment can make me cry in a really good way.”

Caring for Jeanie’s body at home was not only a death-changing experience, it was a life-changing experience.

“I wrote something for the funeral after that,” Lydia said. “It was a poem that started out, ‘I never knew death to be so horrible,’ because those last couple days when my mom was saying that she was in pain or things like that were just so hard.

“By the end of it, after going through this experience of washing the body, of having people there and the telling stories around her body … the laughter and crying and the singing – just all this grief and celebration and life – by the end of it, the last line of the poem was, ‘I never knew death to be so beautiful.’

“That’s really completely how I felt.”


By Wendy Lyons, Special to the Michigan Citizen

Wendy Lyons is a recently retired mother of two. Passionate about restoring humanity and common sense to death and dying, Wendy is dedicated to advocating for the do-it-yourself funeral movement. Currently, she is the vice president of the Funeral Consumers Information Society of Greater Detroit. For more information visit; e-mail:; phone: 313-886-0998. Lyons is also available to give a free two-hour communityawareness presentation on the diy funeral movement.

Green Burials Offer Eco-friendly Alternative (The Oakland Post)

An article about home funerals from The Oakland Post

Green burials offer an eco-friendly alternative to traditional methods
By Wendy Lyons

If you’re like most people, you probably think that your environmental footprint disappears from the planet once you’re dead and gone. After all, what harm could you possibly do? But it seems even the dead aren’t off the hook. Whether you choose to make your final exit six-feet under or up in smoke, according to Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, and Dr. Billy Campbell, founder of Ramsey Creek Preserve, your death will leave a mark, and it’s going to hurt.

“I think people have really been lied to about how neat and tidy conventional death care is,” Sehee said. “It is anything but that.”

So, if you are looking for an eco-friendly way to check out that doesn’t require fossil fuels and pollute the air with cancer- causing dioxins and mercury, like cremation, or potentially leach formaldehyde into the ground, like conventional burial, according to Campbell and Sehee, what you want is a green burial.

Death warmed over

In a conventional cemetery, your corpse would be placed in a casket, which is then enclosed in a concrete box and buried deep in the earth.

“What people don’t understand, which I think they need to, is that the ‘hygienic’ way of death that is sold to us is not that hygienic,” Sehee said. “What you are really forcing corpses to contend with is anaerobic bacteria, which, when you’re putting bodies in vaults and sealed coffins, causes liquification and putrification and body cavities to burst and all sorts of things.”

A dying business

Besides becoming a human stew, there are ecological problems with conventional body burial such as the potential for embalmed bodies to leach formaldehyde into the ground. “There are some concrete vaults that will trap the chemicals at the bottom of the vault,” Sehee said. “However, the earth shifts, and there are vaults that crack, and it gets in there that way.”

“Formaldehyde has been regarded as a known carcinogen by the World Health Organization and many other international organizations,” Sehee said. “It’s on the probable list of carcinogens by our own EPA.

“It’s been associated with nasal cancer and leukemia and other diseases, and we have no baseline data about what the environmental impact is of the nearly 900,000 gallons of embalming fluid that is dumped into the ground each year.

Thinking outside the box

In contrast, green burial works with nature, not against it.

“There is no need for toxins or materials that aren’t biodegradable to be used,” Sehee said.

Green burial allows us to “get in sync with the natural process of death and decay and regeneration that we see all around us,” he added.

While conventional burial separates the body from the earth, green burials put it to good use.

In green burial, an un-embalmed body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable container. It is buried in a shallow grave — about 3 1/2 feet deep — where microbe-rich soil exists to efficiently break down the body naturally. “If you bury a body 6 feet deep,” Campbell said, “you’re not going to return to kind of the living layer of the earth anytime soon.”

Above ground, two to three feet of topsoil is mounded on top, and the grave is marked with a living object, such as a tree or wildflowers, or a GPS tag or some type of inconspicuous ecologically functional marker like a boulder.

Unlike a conventional cemetery, which packs in the dead at around 1,000 per acre, a green cemetery has an underground population of around 100 per acre.

Decomposing the myths

“This way of burial has been done for thousands and thousands of years,” Campbell’s wife, Kimberley, said, “and it’s a very efficient and safe way of disposing of the dead.”

Nevertheless, burying bodies au natural today often conjures up fear of disease, foraging animals and water contamination. “I’m a physician,” Campbell, a medical doctor in practice for 23 years, said, “and I can tell you that the human body doesn’t turn radioactive when you die.

“If you have someone with a really high rate of infectious disease, the best thing you can do is put the body in a box and cremate the box and the body or bury the body. That is the safest thing to do for the public health.”

Campbell said that U.K. scientific reports and soil scientists who specialize in groundwater confirm that water contamination is not a problem with green burial.

“By the time the water percolates that many feet and outcrops in a spring,” Campbell said, “there is absolutely no way there is going to be anything alive (in the water).

“If anything, the things more likely to get into the water table would be things like formaldehyde, which really doesn’t degrade. That’s the reason why it is an embalming fluid. It lasts for a long time.”

As far as hungry beasts digging up corpses for a tasty midnight snack, Campbell said, “We get that (question) all the time, but this is a low-tech solution to that very problem. Back in the days when we had much larger omnivores like grizzly bears and things, in California the pioneer cemeteries did quite well. A very effective way of keeping animals away from a body is burying it several feet underground. It really does work.”

Life from the dead

The dearly departed aren’t the only ones welcome at a green burial ground.

“These can be places that are multipurpose,” Sehee said. “They can be suitable for weddings, you know, hikes and interpretive centers and all sorts of interesting things. We are talking about kind of reinventing the cemetery idea.”

More than an eco-friendly way to dispose of the dead, Sehee and Campbell say green burial is also a land conservation strategy.

In addition to Ramsey Creek Preserve, America’s first green burial ground, Campbell founded Memorial Ecosystems, Inc., a firm that develops and operates green burial grounds.

“Our goal, in the next 30 years, is to help save over a million acres,” Campbell said. “Our model, as far as our business right now, is not to own the land ourselves but to help land trusts, religious institutions and universities to permanently protect large pieces of land. That’s kind of our goal – to become a major force in land protection.”

In an attempt to curtail potential green-washing, the practice of falsely marketing oneself as eco-friendly, Sehee founded the non-profit Green Burial Council to establish levels of standards for green burial and provide certification.

“I think a lot of people who like this idea just think it’s as simple as digging holes in the ground,” Sehee said. “Well, I’m not one of those people who believe that, and Dr. Campbell is not either.

“We think it has to be done properly, and we are concerned that some people who like this idea don’t really have the same concerns and can potentially give the movement a black eye by causing some damage. That is why we are trying to get ahead of things with the standards.”

A grassroots movement

People seem to be warming up to the concept of going green.

In the U.K., around 200 green burial grounds have emerged over the past several years. And in the last two years, it is finally gaining ground here. The U.S. has a total of four green burial grounds located in South Carolina, Texas, Florida and New York, Sehee said.

And Michigan may soon be added to that list.

“We have two sites that we’re working on with owners in Michigan in Lapeer County and Oakland County who would like to do green burial,” Sehee said.

Although Sehee doesn’t have exact figures, he estimates that between 300 and 500 green burials have taken place in the U.S. with close to that number of plots purchased for future use.

Putting your money where your corpse is

Securing an eco-friendly ticket from here to eternity doesn’t have to eat up an inheritance either.

“Green burial is usually less than conventional burial because you’re not paying for a lot of the same things,” Sehee said. “You don’t need to have a casket if you don’t want — a shroud can be used. You’re not going to be paying for embalming, obviously. You’re not going to be paying for a concrete burial vault.”

“But some people that I know of have also paid a fair amount of money. Some people don’t mind, if they are getting value,” Sehee said. “A lot of people who don’t want to spend $5,000 on a bulletproof casket don’t mind spending more if half of the proceeds go down to restoring or acquiring or stewarding a natural area and that is part of their legacy.”

In the end, your legacy and being a good steward of the earth is what Sehee and Campbell say green burial is all about.

“It allows people to connect to a bigger story,” Sehee said. “It lets people know that their last act on earth can further a greater good and help heal


By Wendy Lyons, Contributing Reporter, Oakland Post Online

Families provide a fitting end (San Diego Union Tribune)

An article about home funerals from the San Diego Union Tribune [article], December 17, 2006

Families provide a fitting end
Personal touches reflect personalities of departed in funerals held at home

By Michael Stetz

The rich, full life that Betsy Brack led could be seen everywhere. This was her home, after all.Her clothes hung in the closets.

Her favorite jewelry was laid out in the dresser drawers.

MariaMaltasMaia Maltas (right) hugged her friend Monique Clifford at a funeral held for Maltas’ mother, Betsy Brack, at her La Mesa home. Tom Clifford (left) and Barbara Kernan, founder of Thresholds, also attended. The hand-decorated casket lay on the floor.

Her photographs, her stuffed animals, her pots and pans, her combs and brushes were clustered on tabletops or tucked away in nooks and crannies.

Brack lived here, she died here, so it seemed seamless and proper that this is where her body would lie before being cremated, her daughter, Maia Maltas, decided.


In the cozy, bright house on Stanford Avenue where Brack lived for more than 25 years. Where she laughed, hugged, cried, smiled . . .

Brack’s in-home funeral was organized by Barbara Kernan, who in 2004 created a Lakeside-based nonprofit called Thresholds to help people remember the way we used to care for the dead.

At home. Without embalming fluids and expensive caskets.

Brack’s corrugated cardboard casket was placed in the living room, where Maltas and a handful of family friends drew colorful scenes on it, to prepare it for her mother’s body.

Friends and family drew pictures and wrote messages – some of them humorous, such as “This Side Up” – on the cardboard casket.

A bird soared just above the center. A person rested in a hammock near the bottom.

Brack liked owls, so they taped pictures of owls to the casket. She liked the beach, so they put seashells inside.

Maltas tucked in a strand of her hair and a sticker saying “Girls Rule.” A friend slipped a poem inside.

As they made the preparations, Brack, 73, lay peacefully in her bedroom, where she had died three days earlier from pancreatic cancer.

It seemed right, this way, Maltas said. Fitting. Natural.

Brack had loved her La Mesa home. It held wonderful memories of holidays, birthdays, family gatherings.

So why shouldn’t she stay home for her funeral?

“This is so her style,” Maltas said. “This is the way she would have wanted it.”

Keeping a loved one at home after death is an option many people probably don’t even realize exists today.

No state law prevents it. Family members can take the body to a cemetery or crematory themselves. They can also acquire the legal documents, such as death certificates, themselves or through a service such as Thresholds.

Kernan, a former nurse, said she felt compelled to start Thresholds when she was studying holistic medicine. She was asked to think of death, and she suddenly realized how little she knew about it.

Her ignorance was no surprise, given today’s society, she said. We live longer. We don’t see death as early or as often as our ancestors did. We have money and insurance benefits that allow us to pay others to care for our dead.

Kernan has helped organize about 20 in-home funerals so far, and she said each has been different. She encourages the families to do what they feel they need to do.

“People try and say we’re New Age-ish,” she said. “We’re not New Age. This is traditional.”

Until the Civil War, most people cared for their dead at home. But with so many soldiers dying far from home, embalming became more common to keep the bodies from decomposing until families could retrieve the remains.

The people who run Thresholds say today’s funeral industry can be too costly, too impersonal and too environmentally damaging.

Standard funerals normally average around $6,000, while in-home funerals average one-third of that.

Instead of using embalming fluid, Thresholds uses dry ice to slow decomposition until the body is taken to be buried or cremated. Its caskets are biodegradable.

In-home funeral supporters say the practice will increase. Baby boomers are facing death, and they have a habit of putting their personal stamp on life’s passages.

James Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said home funerals are neither new nor a trend. He said funeral directors have always welcomed family participation and that lately people are participating more by helping to dress the body and apply makeup.

Such personal touches are encouraged, but only if the families feel comfortable with them, Olson said.

Maltas said her mother was a free-spirited woman who was always on the go, athletic, playful.

When Maltas was 7, Brack took her on a backpacking trip through Europe. Last year, at age 72, Brack became a certified wildlife tracker.

A month before her death, she hiked Cowles Mountain.

Maltas couldn’t picture her mother, who twice beat back breast cancer, in a funeral home. So when a friend told Maltas about Thresholds, the idea of holding her funeral at home seemed ideal.

As Brack’s illness progressed, Maltas, 42, stayed with her and watched her battle.

Maltas held her mother’s hand as she took her last breath. She lay in bed beside her the night after she died.

For three days, Brack’s body lay in the house as friends stopped by. On the day the body was to be removed for cremation, Maltas and her friends each put on a piece of her mother’s clothing. Maltas wore her mother’s favorite blouse and her mother’s bracelet.

Maltas’ childhood friend and former neighbor, Monique Clifford, bought her two boys, Gavin, 7, and Rowan, 4.

Death is natural, not something to be feared, Clifford said. The boys looked at the body, then went off and played outside.

“There’s nothing sad about her body being here,” Clifford said.

“We’re so afraid of death that we sweep it under the rug,” said another friend, Renee Owens. “This is healthier.”

Maltas and the others gathered around the casket, holding hands.

They talked about Brack’s love of cherry pie, of chocolate, of chick flicks, of animals, of her cat named Fluffer-Nutter.

Maltas reached down and rubbed her mother’s hands and stroked her hair.

She arranged a scarf around her mother’s neck. She cried.

Then the little group carried Brack’s casket down the stairs, through a neighbor’s yard and loaded it into an Volkswagen bus.

The bus was a classic touch.

Her mother would have loved it, Maltas said. She would have loved the whole, wonderful thing.



Rich But Thrifty Interment (The Santa Fe New Mexican)

An article about home funerals in The Santa Fe New Mexican, October 30, 2006

Rich But Thrifty Interment
By Phaedra Haywood

When 90-year-old Daniel Shuck died of a heart attack in June, his family members didn’t call a funeral home. They went to St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, dressed him in clean clothes — nothing fancy, just what he usually wore — placed him in a wooden coffin made by his son-in-law and took him home to the family’s land in Pecos.

There, they held a simple ceremony to bid him Godspeed and buried his body in a grove of trees across an arroyo from the home he had shared with his wife of 68 years.

“I had a backhoe lined up to dig the grave site, but the boys, the grandkids and everybody in the family, they come up with their picks and shovels and they did it all by hand,” said Shuck’s daughter, Neva Thompson.

“We took care of everything ourselves just like they did in the old days,” Thompson said. “It was a very healing thing to do.”

Shuck’s widow, Hazel Shuck, 84, said the couple decided about 10 years ago that they wanted to be buried on their 3-acre Pecos property.

“We love this place,” she said. “It’s just like the Garden of Eden or something, it’s just so beautiful and peaceful. When we got it paid off so it was really ours, we decided we’d like to be buried here. So that was how it happened.”

Thompson said she was a little uncomfortable when her parents first started talking about where they wanted to be buried, but she contacted San Miguel County and found out it would be relatively simple and economical to accommodate their wishes — something Thompson said her father, a thrifty, hardscrabble man with traditional ideals, would have appreciated.

“He wanted it very simple,” she said. “He didn’t want to leave Mom with a huge bill for the funeral. And he had already picked out the place so he’d be close to the family so we wouldn’t have to drive miles to put flowers on his grave.”

Thompson said she wants others to know that they don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to bury their loved ones.

There are costs involved — some counties charge a small fee for a burial application, and the grave site must be surveyed and the site added to the plat of the property — but the overall amount is a fraction of what it can cost to pay for the services of a funeral home.

Thompson said the total cost of her father’s funeral — including about $600 for the survey — was less than $1,000.

Directors from two funeral homes listed in the Santa Fe phone book said the average price of a funeral handled by professionals is between $3,000 — for the most basic services — and $10,000 — for a funeral with a more expensive coffin or additional services, such as a rosary held at the funeral home.

Several newspaper stories on the issue have listed funeral expenses as the third largest single purchase made during (or immediately after) a person’s life — after the purchases of a home and car. Daniel Shuck’s family said the financial cost of a home burial might be cheap, but the emotional experience was a rich one.

“It just seemed to mean more. There were no strangers involved,” Thompson said.

“It’s such a lost thing. People don’t do it anymore, and they should,” she added. “I was expecting some really debilitating grief, but looking back on it, watching the kids and watching the family come together, it was such a healing thing that that never happened.

“I’m sad and I miss him. But the horrible grief you expect to have just wasn’t there because we lovingly did it all ourselves and we did exactly what he wanted. It was just such an awesome thing — if funerals can be awesome.”

Ed Patton, owner of Direct Services Cremation and Burial, an Albuquerque-based mortuary that specializes in low-cost burials, said laws — such as one that requires dead bodies to be embalmed, buried or refrigerated within 24 hours of death — and social taboos still make professionally handled funerals the norm. But some customers have been getting more involved in the process of preparing their loved ones for burial, he said.

“There is a movement toward doing things at home,” Patton said. “Like when a death occurs at home, some people are keeping (the body) there for the 24 hours to have whatever services they wish at home, and then they call the mortuary to pick (the body) up and perform the cremation or whatever.

“The 24-hour restriction does limit your choices,” Patton said. “But we have picked (bodies) up, done the prep on them and then the family picks them up from our door, and away they go to do whatever services they wish to do at the church or the cemetery.”

Patton said most of the families he’s dealt with that participated in some way with the burial of a body — by making their own casket, having a viewing at the family home or burying a family member on private property — do it for religious or personal reasons, not finances.

“It seems to be those people who have less resources also have less ability to do these things (such as deal with the time limitations),” Patton said. “Though there are a certain amount who live in rural areas who are used to taking care of their own. Whatever yo_are able to do yourselves certainly adds a personal and loving touch,” he said. “But it’s still rather intimidating. More and more, we tend to let the professionals (do it), whether it’s repairing your car or home repairs or mortuary things. People turn to professionals rather than being the self-reliant people we once were 100 years ago.”

Hazel Shuck’s son-in-law built a bridge across the arroyo that separates her house from the stand of trees where her husband was buried, so she can visit his grave.

“It helps to be close to him,” she said. “When I’m overwhelmed with things I don’t like, I go up there and sit with him,” she said. “I don’t really talk to him, except in my mind and my heart, but yes, it is comforting. I want my grave right there next to my husband. After 60 some years, I’m lost without him.”



Crying and Digging (LA Times)

An article about home funerals from LA Times [article], February 6, 2005

Crying and Digging
Reclaiming the realities and rituals of death

By Nancy Rommelmann

For centuries in America, we tended to our dead. People died at home, and relatives prepared the body, laid it out in the parlor and sat by as callers paid final respects. The body was buried in the family cemetery, if there was one, or on the back 40; pieties were spoken, and life went on until the next person died. Death, if not a welcome visitor, was a familiar one.

This changed, incrementally, during the Civil War, when others were paid to undertake the job of transporting the bodies of soldiers killed far from home; this is when formaldehyde as an embalming agent was first used. But it was only 100 years ago that we began routinely to hand over our dead to the undertakers. Soon the gravely ill as well were deemed too taxing, and moved to hospitals to die. Within decades, what had for millennia been familial responsibilities were appropriated by professionals.

“People think we’re not emotionally capable, let alone physically capable, of carrying this out,” says Jerri Lyons. “Well, what were we doing before when we weren’t supposedly able to take care of people?”

Lyons is making tea in the small cottage she shares with her husband in a leafy glade in Sebastopol. Bookshelves overspill, a computer is crammed into a nook and there is no room for a dining set, so Lyons sets the teacups on her massage table, which, in any case, is multipurpose.

“We use it to turn people during seminars,” she says. “We use it for reiki, and we also lend it to families that want to have a showing at home.”

What she means by “a showing” is a wake. But Lyons, a 57-year-old former Costco rep and café owner, is not an undertaker, or, in her euphemistic parlance, a “well-intended grief choreographer.” In fact, there is as yet no title for what she does, which is to teach people about their right to a home funeral and how to prepare the body for it.

There’s an alternative-death movement fomenting in Northern California, one that leaves the funeral industry out of the picture altogether. Proponents of home funerals and of green burials, wherein bodies are interred in natural environments and in ways that promote decomposition, insist that this country’s “death-denying tradition,” in Lyons’ term, is not merely costly but corrosive to body and spirit, to land and communities. Fear and doubt, they say, crept into the space left when we handed death to others, and our attendant helplessness supports the multibillion-dollar death-care industry. And they know, even if we don’t yet, just how badly we want to bury our own dead.

“We’re always afraid of the unknown, until we’ve been exposed to it and seen that it isn’t frightening,” says Lyons, proffering several fat albums containing photographs of former clients: dark-haired Donna, who stenciled her own casket before dying of a brain tumor at 32; Bernd, who also died of cancer, lying in bed, wearing a prayer shawl, his mouth curled in an easy smile. There is nothing ghoulish or grotesque about the images; there is neither rictus nor putrefaction. Instead, there’s a 3-year-old in foot-pajamas peering at Aunt Donna, lain out after death in her own bedroom.

There’s also a picture of Carolyn Whiting, who died suddenly of respiratory failure in 1994 and whose friends, Lyons says, “were simply not ready to let her go.”

It turned out that they did not have to. Convening at Whiting’s home the night of her death, Lyons and others learned that she had left instructions as to how she wanted to be cared for. “She did not want to be turned over to a mortuary,” Lyons says, “but rather wanted her friends to bring her body home if she was in the hospital, and prepare her body.”

Lyons admits that they were caught off guard. “I don’t think this would have occurred to us. At all,” she says. “We, like everyone else I talk to about home funerals, would have asked, ‘Is that legal?’ “

Home preparation of the deceased, without an undertaker’s involvement, is legal in every state but four. Today there are books (such as Lyons’ “Creating Home Funerals” and Lisa Carlson’s “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love”) that give detailed instructions in after-death care. At the time, Whiting’s friends winged it: They took her body home, bathed and perfumed her, picked out clothing, held a wake, and then loaded Whiting into a van and drove her to the crematory.

“It was so helpful to us, to deal with our shock and our grief, and in such a loving, beautiful way to celebrate her life,” says Lyons, who went on to found Final Passages, a nonprofit educational program, and Home and Family Funerals, a service wherein Lyons is paid as a “death-midwife,” helping the dying and their families with everything from preparing the body to filing paperwork. She works on a sliding scale, but says a full cremation with her facilitation could cost $750. She estimates that in the last 10 years she’s helped more than 250 people “pass over.”

“A person, their body doesn’t immediately look white as a ghost, or change rapidly,” Lyons says. “People think they’re going to start decomposing instantly. And that’s not so.”

As she teaches in seminars around the country, the body can lie in state at home for up to three days, and perhaps longer, provided measures are taken within the first six to 12 hours. The body should be well washed, especially the genitals, with warm, soapy water; the abdomen should be pressed to expel any waste. After the body is dried and dressed, ice (preferably dry but regular will do), which has been wrapped in grocery bags and then cloth, should be placed beneath the torso to keep the organs cool, as these are the first parts of the body to break down. The body should be kept in a cool room. If the person dies with his mouth open, which can be disconcerting to visitors, a scarf may be looped beneath the chin and tied around the head until the mouth sets shut. Similarly, eyes may be closed by gently weighing them down with small bags filled with rice or sand. The casket can be decorated, and a memorial display set up, plain or fancy. One family Lyons helped watched a video with their departed father that he’d rented but had not had a chance to see; another put hiking boots on dad and wheeled him into the woods for a final “hiking trip to heaven.”

These people were able to take a deep breath and do what needed to be done. Others need hand-holding. Lyons recently helped a family whose belief in anthroposophy (the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner) dictated that the father’s body be kept at home for three days, surrounded by loved ones, read to and cared for. This frightened his teenage daughter.

“She did not come in the room as we were bathing him,” Lyons says, “but eventually she came in and started asking questions, and started feeling really relaxed and comfortable.” So comfortable that a while later she had her friends over. “They were in the other room, talking and being normal teenagers. It was all a part of family life.”

Feeling the body lose its warmth, seeing the tension leave the face, being present for the transition from life to death, Lyons says, helps us to accept that the person is gone. “The actual doing does help, because you’re moving through your grief with a process, a ritual,” she says. “You’re present to it not just with your mind but with your senses&. You’re not escaping, or pretending it didn’t happen, or getting busy doing something else.”

Northern California was the site of an earlier revolt against the funeral industry, when Oakland resident Jessica Mitford wrote her scathing 1963 exposé, “The American Way of Death.” In updating the book for a revised edition published posthumously in 1998, Mitford found that, though consumers had put the brakes on burials, they were still being taken for a ride. “Cremation, once the best hope for a low-cost simple getaway, has become increasingly expensive,” she wrote in her new introduction. “[M]orticians are fast developing techniques for upgrading this procedure into a full-fig funeral.”

The “full-fig” or fancy-dress funeral in America includes embalming, whether or not one chooses cremation, so the body will have a lifelike appearance in its coffin, which will be metal. After the viewing, those who choose cremation will be transferred to a burnable container and their ashes transferred to an urn, such as the gold-plated Olympus model that Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries sells for $5,000. Those being buried will have their coffin placed in a concrete vault to ensure that the ground cover does not buckle, thus maintaining the putting-green uniformity of most cemeteries. Or vaults and urns may be placed in a mausoleum, for which there is a perpetual-care fee. These final dispositions typically cost $8,000, though can easily run to $10,000, $20,000 or more.

“If you ask people, they don’t want any of this stuff,” says Joe Sehee as he speed-hikes up a shady path in Mill Valley. “Half of what they spend money on is because they think they have to because it’s required by law, mainly caskets and embalming fluid. That just angers me so much, because that’s really some toxic stuff that no one should be exposed to, let alone put in the ground. And it doesn’t serve any purpose!”

Sehee reaches a crest on the 32-acre property known as Fernwood and takes in the view: the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and a necklace of multimillion-dollar homes on a nearby ridge. This is prime Marin County real estate, for which one of Sehee’s partners in Fernwood paid $495,000 in 2003, a figure that will no doubt make developers keen. But the Fernwoodians do not plan to build on the land, and couldn’t even if they wanted to, because there are bodies buried beneath the grounds of this former cemetery. They plan to bury more.

Fernwood is the nation’s second commercial “green” cemetery, which means only natural burial techniques are used: no embalming fluid; biodegradable burial containers such as wood or a simple shroud; the vertical headstone replaced with a flat rock or a tree or nothing, as a loved one’s location is available by global positioning satellite. Since its opening in August, 1,000 people have requested a tour.

Sehee took a circuitous route to get here. In 1998, IBM recruited him to lead a research project examining how big ideas are born. The following year, he began to do consulting work for Tyler Cassity, who wanted to open up Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which he’d just purchased, to the community. They started by screening a Rudolph Valentino film against the side of a mausoleum; other charitable events followed; the cemetery wound up on Los Angeles magazine’s “101 Sexiest People, Places and Things in L.A.” list, and Sehee saw how easily life thrived in a place assumed to be reserved for the dead.

Which is when he got his own big idea: to combine landscape conservation and natural burial. Cassity encouraged Sehee to run with it, and so he did right into someone who’d done it before. In 1996 Dr. Billy Campbell founded Memorial EcoSystems, which seeks to establish memorial parks that will save and restore wildlands, as well as Ramsey Creek Preserve, the nation’s first commercial green cemetery, in South Carolina. Sehee says he then “played yentl” for Campbell and Cassity.

“Billy’s incredibly altruistic, has donated land and money to conservation efforts, but he’s had this idea since 1996 and has never really been able to make any traction,” Sehee says. “He was looking for a partner within the industry, and in this industry there’s no more progressive element than Tyler, really. Tyler has allowed us to get behind enemy lines, and he’s absolutely integral to this concept.”

Sehee, a former Jesuit lay minister as well as the former Los Angeles-based rollerblading lounge singer known as Joey Cheezhee, acknowledges that it’s an odd partnership. “We fight a lot,” he says. “Billy’s a super-purist. Tyler understands the economics of the industry. Billy Campbell has done 40 burials in seven years & it was an ecological prototype, not a business prototype. That’s what this is.”

Their business model is threefold: natural burial techniques; an endowment fund dedicated to ecological restoration as opposed to typical cemetery maintenance, such as the $15,000 a month Cassity spends watering the lawn at Hollywood Forever; and a conservation easement for the land, so that it cannot be developed in the future.

Although Fernwood is owned outright by one of Cassity’s holdings, Sehee says they’d rather the land itself be owned by a nonprofit such as the National Audubon Society, or a government agency such as the Park Service, any organization with a mandate if not the money to protect land and wildlife. “Think of another idea where you can generate money by having land stay fallow,” he says. “Our vision is to sort of be concessionaires, almost like the inverse of mining. Instead of paying for extraction rights, we’re paying for insertion rights, but then we have money set aside to do ecological restoration and keep the land up forever. Then we have this for-profit management that operates the facility, digs the holes, builds the trails, markets the facility and moves on as this thing fills up. We can use the concept to, hopefully, restore other land. Our goal is a million acres over the next 30 years.”

Sehee nods at the homes across the canyon. “Guess who some of the first customers will be to buy this property?” he asks. “All those people who want to preserve the ridge top, who live here. Those are the people who’ve been approaching us.”

As if to illustrate his point, a family and their dogs pass by. They may be folks from the area out for a weekend walk, as Fernwood is open to the public, or they may be clients picking out their final resting spots, which they can mark with little flags.

“The people [we’re] talking to are in their 40s and 50s who would never prearrange, but they know this place is going to be filled up in five or six years,” says Sehee. “They also know that if they help do this, it’s enlightened self-interest they’re keeping the space open for their community. Mrs. Jones is keeping her property value up by buying space to be buried here.”

It’s not just Mrs. Jones who’s interested. When an article about Ramsey Creek Preserve appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of the AARP Bulletin, the AARP website polled readers, asking: “Which type of burial is most appealing?” Only 8.1% wanted a traditional cemetery burial; 18.6% picked cremation, while 2.9% went for “exotic burial,” such as being shot into space. The rest 70.4% chose green burial.

Which is not surprising, considering that a sizable number of AARP’s 35 million members are baby boomers, a generation that never met a ritual it didn’t want to retool. These are the folks who wrote their own marriage vows and demanded home birth and hospices, and now that they’re burying parents and considering their own final arrangements, they’re looking for alternatives to being pumped with chemicals that demean the body and degrade the earth, and caskets that cost as much as cars. Lawsuits filed in recent years, after the buildup of anaerobic bacteria in bodies in “sealer caskets” caused corpses to explode, forcing the liquefied remains to flow down the fronts of mausoleum crypts, have done similarly little to endear them to the industry

“Universally, almost all Americans are dissatisfied with death-care options,” Sehee says. “This article in AARP came out, and we realized it’s religious traditionalists, it’s conservatives, it’s outdoors enthusiasts. Evangelical Christians love the shroud burial concept. It’s obviously been part of the Jewish tradition, the Bahai tradition. It’s the way most cultures buried their own until 130 years ago.”

Although one does not imagine that there was a whole lot of profit in the graveyard business back in 1875, funeral arrangements and cemeteries currently generate $11 billion a year in revenue, according to the National Funeral Directors Assn., though numbers vary widely, with some estimates as high as $20 billion. The industry is dominated by just three conglomerates Service Corp. International, Alderwoods (formerly the Loewen Group) and Stewart Enterprises.

Robyn Sadowsky, a director for corporate communication at Service Corp. International, says the traditional funeral industry is well aware of the alt-death trend. After directing inquiries to a few industry websites (where there is no information on either green or natural burial), she says the 1,800 funeral homes in the SCI network have a sole mandate: “Our role as funeral care providers is to celebrate the life of the person who has passed on, and to do it in a way that they would have liked, as well as their family.”

She mentions several recent funerals that were far from traditional, such as one that included a procession of vintage cars, and another in which a person’s ashes rode to the cemetery in the sidecar of a Harley-Davidson. She also mentions cremation “wreaths” that, when tossed on the water, slowly release the ashes.

And if, say, a woman went to an SCI funeral home and requested that her husband not be embalmed and casketed, but simply wrapped in a shroud and buried green?

“We would try to accommodate that,” Sadowsky says, “but you have to think, what are the shroud regulations in that state? Where is the closest green cemetery? Are there refrigeration issues? There are legal and health considerations, and we have to look into all of those. A shroud and a green burial may sound dignified, and respectful of the environment, and everything the person wanted, but what do we have to do to accommodate that wish?”

Sehee is skeptical. “There’s this notion of socially disruptive technology or innovation,” he says. “These are ideas that completely revolutionize industries that the industries weren’t interested in, because you’re dealing with lower margins and problem customers. You’re talking about taking away all their opportunities to make money on floral arrangements and big headstones and $7,000 caskets why would they want to get involved in that?”

Not that it’s cheap to buy at Fernwood. The least expensive burial of “cremains” is $1,000, burial of a body is $3,000, and all interments require a one-time 10% endowment fee to preserve and restore the land. Prime spots on the property can fetch three times as much. But it’s still considerably less than at Forest Lawn, where a mid-range casket alone costs more than $9,000.

“Our bet is that this is the future, this is the way people are going to want to be buried,” says Sehee. “You’ll probably see a lot of green-washing [in the funeral industry]. You’ll see people say they’re doing green burials, and there’s a couple of acres out back where you don’t have to have a casket and use embalming fluid, which is great, but they’ll never do conservation.”

Dr. Billy Campbell calls late one night from South Carolina, saying he’s “pretty tired,” having hand-dug a grave earlier in the day. How deep should a grave be?

“You want the nutrients in the human body to get to the surface, so you don’t want to dig too deep I learned that the hard way,” says Campbell, an environmentalist and medical doctor who started to see how out of whack the burying business had become when he lost his father.

The funeral director “was talking about the vault, and he said, ‘It’ll take 20,000 pounds per square foot,’ “ Campbell says. “And I can remember saying to him, ‘We’re trying to protect the corpse from a direct nuclear strike or a runaway tractor-trailer, but what’s the point? What is it we’re protecting him from?’ And you know what it was? Nature. That’s the thing. We don’t want the body to be violated by natural processes. I thought, this is stupid, and not only that, it’s wasteful.”

Mary Woodsen, a member of Commemorative Nature Preserves of New York, an organization that advocates memorial nature preserves, calculated three years ago what American cemeteries inter annually in addition to bodies: 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete, 104,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and 30 million board feet of hardwoods. Although the Cremation Assn. of North America predicts the national cremation rate will rise to 35% by 2010, “people don’t really actively save land when they’re cremated,” Campbell says, “they just don’t waste land.”

Campbell began to look for examples of natural burial, and found them in the tall grass prairies of Iowa and Ohio. “The most diverse places were the old pioneer cemeteries,” he says. “It wasn’t deep-plowed, so the old cemeteries became some of the best areas for remnant prairies. If that’s by accident, why can’t we do it intentionally now and turn this into a powerful [conservation] tool? You’ve got a $20-billion-a-year industry, you’ve got baby boomers you can create places that aren’t just cemeteries but where you learn about plants, and they become these multidimensional social spaces, and, oh yeah, you can be buried there too.”

Campbell says that as the only doctor in the town of Westminster, he’s taken some flak. “My favorite line was, ‘You know, Doc, you going into the cemetery business is like a vet who got a taxidermy license and put a sign in the window that says, ‘Either way, you get your dog back.’ “ But he’s also seen the healing that happens when the grief-stricken get their hands in the dirt as recently as this afternoon, at the burial of a 44-year-old man who died in a car accident two days before Christmas, leaving a wife and four daughters.

“If you’re alienated from nature and someone dies and you fix them up like they’re not really dead, and you spend a lot of money and put them in a box in a box in a box and put turf on top of them and make it like it never happened, that’s normative,” he says. “But there is this potential for people to be transformed, where you see where someone is buried, like today&. The pallbearers actually lower the casket into the ground, and people throw dirt on top of the casket. It’s amazing when you hear the dirt bouncing off the top of the casket people break down sometimes and will actually wail. There’s one guy who was there today, he was crying and digging, crying and digging, and I think that probably was therapeutic. We had one lady who came and helped dig her mom’s grave and said, ‘I could be back on the couch popping Xanax with the rest of them, but I’d rather be out here doing something for Mom.’ “

After the AARP article ran, Ramsey Creek Preserve received 6,000 e-mails from people asking how they could be buried this way. They were not, as Campbell expected, “my fellow granola tree-hugging hippie people.”

“We bury people in overalls, playing country music and throwing cigarettes in the grave,” he says. “I had one guy who was buried there who said, ‘I love the woods, I just don’t like environmentalists.’ It wasn’t an ideological thing for him. It does appeal to free-market Republicans who want to see a business do this and see people make individual choices. It appeals to people who are hard-core environmentalists. We’ve seen a lot of support from evangelical Christians, who are talking about the Rapture and the whole nine yards, who think this is more in keeping with what the Bible says. It’s like Genesis 3:19: Dust are thou and to dust thou shall return.

“I’ll be 50 years old this year,” Campbell says, “and I would rather protect a million acres than make a gazillion dollars, and whatever we have to do to make that happen, that’s what I’m going to do.”

It may soon be happening in Southern California. In December, Campbell and Sehee met with city and cemetery officials about taking over a 1,400-acre parcel in Chatsworth, as well as several pieces of land in Orange County.

“Remember when your grandfather said, ‘Just put me in a pine box’?” asks Tyler Cassity. “We’re going to.”

It’s late afternoon, and Cassity is sitting on a low, crumbling wall that runs between ancient slate tombstones. It is a section of Fernwood that was built for employees of the Sausalito Land & Ferry Co. back in the 1880s but has gone largely unused for the last 50 years.

If his partners are concerned with environmentalism and big ideas, Cassity is obsessed with ritual and remembrance. Part of this is reactionary: His father and brother sold pre-need insurance products to the funeral industry, and 10 years ago he reluctantly followed them into the business, albeit with his own twist digital archiving, the sorts of life-story videos that now are commonplace but which, at the time, were considered in very bad taste. Cassity recalls one mortuary in his hometown of St. Louis running ads on the radio that said, “We don’t have the video gimmick!”

But Cassity had seen the effect that memories had on mourners. “I did one

, and went to a funeral and sat up in the balcony and saw it,” he says. “It was a compilation of photos, and I saw it work on people saw them laugh, saw them cry, saw them grow closer and need to be consoled, but it was catharsis.”

Catharsis, he says, is what was lost when the funeral industry took over ritual. “The funeral director was just a cabinetmaker,” Cassity says of the layman who built the caskets, and later learned to embalm, and over the course of 100 years remade himself. “He took the visitation away first, saying it was very unsafe, very unhealthy in this culture of science and medicine ‘You cannot be around that body’ and he took the body and the visitation into his home. From the minister he took the service. He had a parlor and a chapel. And then he directed. It’s key that he directs, because he’s the expert, he knows, and therefore you have to listen to him, like you listen to the doctor and the priest&. [But] the cabinetmaker never stopped making cabinets. He’s just selling boxes that’s all he cares about.”

At Hollywood Forever, Cassity sees how crucial the box is to the living, how it becomes the final manifestation of their devotion. He sees people overspend and attempt to care for the deceased in ways that are injudicious. He knows all about the class-action suits and sealer caskets. And yet &

“I do it,” he says. Prompting the question: Did he get into the green cemetery business to expand or to atone?

“It’s very selfish,” he says. “Walking through those gates [at Hollywood Forever], one of the things I knew was that I couldn’t change the business because I had no idea what it was&. But I also knew it would teach me what I did not know, and it did, in the best way possible and that was with the Buddhists, the Armenians, the Russians, the Latins, everyone who brought their traditions with them and still cared. Neptune seems like the right thing to do, but it’s not.”

He refers to the Neptune Society, which offers burials at sea. The $1,200 to $1,800 fee can be prepaid, and is all-inclusive: The client dies, his or her arranger calls Neptune, a van comes and collects the body, and the body is gone, with no more fuss than setting a couch on the curb for Goodwill. Soon after, the body is cremated and the ashes are dropped into the ocean. For a nominally higher fee, loved ones may receive the ashes, and for more money still, attend the at-sea burial. Many people choose Neptune because it gives them a modicum of control over the uncontrollable, it lifts the burden from family and friends during a difficult time, it seems like the right thing to do.

“It’s very socially acceptable to call the Neptune Society. It sounds like a nice name,” says Cassity. “But all those hard parts, those are the good parts.”

Cassity has now tasked himself to convince people who’ve rejected burial that it’s safe to get back in the water, so to speak. Since it opened, Fernwood has interred a dozen bodies and cremains, and performed direct cremation (meaning without a funeral home’s involvement) in the onsite crematory of perhaps two dozen more.

But the numbers are of no concern to Cassity. Death is not a trend, he says, despite his agent calling him, hoping to cash in on the recent seepage of death into the popular culture with books such as “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach, and the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” on which Cassity has consulted. “Death is not going to just come and go,” he says. “People do think it’s sexy right now, and ‘Six Feet Under’ was sexy when it came out, but it’s sexy because it’s emerged and it’s naked, and it’s the last naked thing. Sex and death and sex ends in ‘the little death.’ “

He stands up in the graveyard; it’s getting dark. He says his wish for immortality, and his realization that “everyone had that wish,” are what led him here.

“That’s when I moved out of the cabinetmaker’s beautiful parlor and into the cemetery,” he says. “We’re supposed to preserve memories. That’s our task, whoever we are.”

For More Information

  • Home preparation of the deceased, without an undertaker’s involvement, is legal in every state but New York, Louisiana, Indiana and Nebraska.
  • Final Passages, based in Sebastopol, Calif., holds educational seminars on home funerals; the next workshop is Feb. 17-20 in Seattle. It also offers literature about dying and death, including its own handbooks on home funerals, pre-planning and final disposition. (707) 824-0268; <>
  • The Redwood Funeral Society is a nonprofit consumer organization, in Forestville, Calif., whose mission is “to protect and defend individual choice for dignified, ethical and fairly priced death care, through education, referral and advocacy.” (707) 568-7684; <>
  • Thresholds Home and Family-Directed Funerals, near San Diego, offers direct cremation and burial, as well as classes and events. (619) 390-1411; <>
  • Funeral Consumers Alliance is a federation of nonprofit consumer information societies that helps people make end-of-life choices. (800) 765-0107; <>
  • Consumer Guide to Funeral and Cemetery Purchases is available free from the California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, Suite 3080, 400 R Street, Sacramento, CA 95814. (800) 952-5210; <>
  • Information about the documentary “A Family Undertaking” can be found online at <>
  • For more information about green burial sites in this article: Fernwood, (415) 383-7100, <> ; Ramsey Creek Preserve, (864) 647-7798, <>

Movement to Bring Grief Back Home (The Washington Post)

An article about home funerals from The Washington Post [article], June 5, 2005

Movement to Bring Grief Back Home
By Rachel S. Cox

Many Bereaved Opting to Bypass Funeral Industry
After Richard Saul died of Lou Gehrig’s disease just before Christmas last year at age 77, neighbors and friends gathered at his Cleveland Park home to extend sympathies to his widow, Judy, and their sons and grandson. Many were surprised to learn that they could also pay their respects to Richard.

His body, washed and dressed in his favorite clothes, lay in the master bedroom, cooled by dry ice and open windows, and surrounded by fresh flowers, burning candles, family photographs and mementos of his many years as a lawyer, civil servant and father of four. Like a small number of other bereaved in the Washington area and nationally, Judy Saul chose to care for her husband’s body for several days at home.

Once the hospice nurse who came to certify the death had convinced the D.C. coroner’s office that keeping the deceased at home was legal — as it is in the District and all but five states (Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska and New York) — Saul and a friend, Sally Craig, had prepared her husband’s body with the assistance of Beth Knox, a “funeral rites” educator whom Saul had met two months before.

“I got to know people on a really personal basis because we had time and we were home,” Saul said. After three days of grieving, she felt ready to part with her husband’s body. “To have him home, you really know the person isn’t there anymore. That is the whole point, so that you get used to the idea. By the third night, I’m ready to see him go.”

This kind of after-death care, its advocates say, offers a more humane and healing alternative to the standard American practice of handing the body over to a mortician for embalming and display before cremation or burial.

Knox said that in her seven years as director of Crossings, a Silver Spring nonprofit she founded to help others carry out home funerals, she has assisted about 150 families. Others active in the movement report an increased interest in the practice, but the number of home funerals is minuscule considering the roughly 2.4 million annual deaths in the United States.

Like the hospice movement, which since the 1960s has helped the terminally ill die peacefully at home, the home funeral movement aims to protect what it calls individuals’ “right” to care for their own at death. At its most abstract, promoters say, it hopes to dispel the fear and denial that accompany an institutionalized approach to death, and return life’s final act to its historical position as a natural, profound and private event.

Despite the violent deaths that crowd movie and TV screens and newspapers, in our culture “we never see actual death,” said Joshua Slocum, the director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national group that advocates for consumer protection in funeral affairs. “The institutionalization of illness and death has made us inordinately terrified.”

Supporters of home funerals say they pose no health risk under normal circumstances.

Lisa Carlson, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Ethics Organization, which works with the funeral industry to protect and expand consumer options, attributes the growth of interest in home funerals to the aging of the baby-boom generation, a phenomenon expected to keep the death rate rising for decades.

“It’s the other end of the spectrum from natural childbirth,” she said. “The baby-boom generation took control of critical life events, wrote their own wedding vows, had home births. . . . They’re fueling the interest in taking control.”

The funeral industry acknowledges a growing public interest in more individualized funeral rites. “I think a home funeral is a wonderful way to go,” said Robert J. Biggins, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association. “What could be more personal? It signifies a family’s desire to be actively involved in celebrating the life of the family member. Anything that we can do to help them do that is our mission.”

Yet home funeral advocates said that at the state level, where laws governing funerals are made, the industry often has opposed the right of individuals to care for their dead. “Right after my first book came out, the state of Rhode Island changed the statutory language to make it more difficult,” Carlson said. Her book came out in 1987. Recently, the Texas legislature debated an amendment supported by the Texas Funeral Directors Association that would have made it illegal for families to contract directly with crematories, meaning they would have to go through funeral homes. The amendment was withdrawn last month.

One benefit of a home funeral, advocates say, is price: A home funeral can cost only a fraction of a mortuary funeral, which typically runs about $5,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The prices can go much higher.

But the most important benefits, advocates agree, are psychological. “There’s a tremendous increase in healing and acceptance of death for the family to touch and see and be with the departed,” Knox said. “It’s very empowering at a time when you feel like everything’s out of control.”

Knox speaks from hard experience. In 1995 her 7-year-old daughter, Alison Sanders, died from the impact of an airbag that deployed during a low-speed auto accident. Knox found herself unwilling to leave after-death care to funeral home staff, despite the hospital’s insistence that it would release the body to no one else — still an all-too-common occurrence, Knox said.

“We’re required by law to care for our children,” she said. “But at the last hour, we’re told that their body doesn’t belong to us anymore. That makes no sense.”

Knox found a funeral director willing to bring Alison’s body home, where family members, friends and neighbors joined in a three-day vigil. By the time the funeral director returned to take Alison’s body to her funeral and then to the crematory, Knox was, she said, ready to let her go.

Having imagined, as most parents do, that she could never endure the catastrophe of a child’s death, Knox found that “when it actually happened, my senses were so highly attuned to the sense of love, I had a very precise presence of mind, very clear sense of direction.” There is, she said, “a lot of comfort in being able to perform acts of love in these unbearable situations.”

In contrast, Washington psychotherapist Riki Alexander, a board member of Crossings said: “I’ve had so many clients who grieved for so many years and are so not over it. I wonder if it’s because they didn’t get to have the time and see that the person wasn’t there. It becomes this unresolved thing.”

But American norms and expectations about death, other observers say, practically ensure home funerals a limited following.

“For families that have difficulty addressing the topic of death, [a home funeral] is much more difficult,” said Stephanie Handel, a grief therapist at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in the District. Facing not only the many reminders of a loved one but also the body itself “might be too much to cope with,” said Handel, who also directs a program at the Washington morgue that helps next-of-kin cope with the legalities of an unexpected death, which include identifying a Polaroid photograph of the body.

Knox agreed, and said she can think of many reasons why people might not want a home funeral, such as if they’re exhausted or have no supportive community. But, she added, with an expected death “there is no law that states that the body needs to be removed in the first 24 hours. There is much healing and acceptance to be gained by being with the death at this time.”

It was regret over not seeing her mother’s body at all that led American University Park resident Leah Johnson to plan a home funeral for her father, James Anastos, who died in January at 91.

When her mother was fatally injured in an auto accident in 1985, Johnson rushed to the hospital, only to be told that it would be too traumatic to see her. Because her mother’s cremation was handled by a funeral home, as her mother had wished, Johnson never saw her again.

She said having her mother die alone was “too traumatic for the rest of my life.” She determined that her father’s death would be different. “I would do the absolute best for him at the end.”

Although her husband and children initially voiced reservations about the idea of a home funeral, Johnson recalled, when she explained how much it mattered to her, “they rose to the occasion.” They had cared at home for Anastos, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and one Friday night he died in his sleep.

Washing and dressing her father’s body with Knox and a close female cousin “felt very biblical,” Johnson said. As he lay in their guest room, “friends started coming.”

“Some didn’t want to go up, which was fine. Some friends came and just sat there with him. We kept a candle burning. It was so good. It was just quiet. We were kind of seeing him out. It felt like we were really caring for him.”


When Somebody Dies … A Final Gift (Mail Tribune)

An article about home funerals from The Mail Tribune [article], October 2, 2004
By Bill Varble

Family and friends gathered together to give Jacksonville sexton a fitting farewell

Wayne Maxson’s family members wanted his funeral to be just so. Instead of turning to a funeral home, they decided to do it themselves.

bildeSharon Armstrong, a granddaughter of Maxson, and other family members planned a funeral, secured a site and handled details ranging from placing an obituary in the newspaper to arranging for cremation, a eulogy, burial and more.

“It was like a final gift to him,” Armstrong says. “We all worked together, and we’ll always remember it.”

Although most people opt for the services of a mortuary when a loved one dies, there is no law that says they must.

Historically, the notion of a full-service, commercial mortuary is a recent thing, becoming popular only in 20th century America.

The Maxson family is among a small but growing number of people deciding to take final matters into their own hands. Those who do realize substantial savings. But they say that’s not always the main incentive.

“It’s a neat way to do things,” Armstrong says. “It was a way to pay tribute to him and be respectful of the things that were important to him. Grandpa would’ve been proud of us.”

Maxson, who died Sept. 3 at 89, was the sexton of the Jacksonville Cemetery.

He worked hard for years restoring the grounds, often making improvements with his own tools on his own time.

Family members say that far from finding graves and tombstones morbid or depressing, he loved the place.

At Maxson’s request, Armstrong and her sisters had planned the funeral for Maxson’s wife, Evelyn, when she died four years ago. They held a simple, personal ceremony at the Odd Fellows Hall in Jacksonville, where Evelyn had volunteered for years delivering hot meals to seniors. Maxson was deeply touched.

“He really liked it,” Armstrong says.

It was understood after that that the family would someday do something similar for him. When Maxson died, Armstrong and other granddaughters went to work planning a funeral while their mothers, Maxson’s daughters, tended to the house and began organizing an estate sale.

Deciding against embalming and a visitation, they had the body cremated at Rogue Valley Funeral Alternatives in Medford, then took possession of the ashes. They reserved a community room at the Jacksonville library. They estimated attendance, rounded up family photos for a slide show, took care of a million details.

On the afternoon of Sept. 12, about 90 people came to the funeral. After the eulogy, people came forward and shared their memories of Maxson. A slide show afforded glimpses of his life. There was music: The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me About the Good Old Days),” the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.” There were tears.

Mourners walked to the old cemetery. The Jacksonville Fire Department, for which Maxson had volunteered, blew a sad whistle. People passed the urn containing Maxson’s ashes from person to person. It was placed in the grave, and family members scattered dirt on it. Barbara Lowe, a daughter of Maxson’s, read a Shel Silverstein poem.

Wayne Maxson’s funeral is almost a textbook study for the kind of planning advocated by Paul Firnstein, the owner of Ark Wood Caskets in Ashland.

“The reason the funeral industry can take advantage of so many people is that most people are uneducated about what they can do to help themselves,” Firnstein says. “In order to reduce the cost of a funeral, you have to get involved. The family has to say, ‘I want to be hands-on.’ You have to learn how to shop a funeral. And you don’t do it by waiting until that person dies.”

The national director of a consumers group agrees.

“People think it’s illegal to care for their dead,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “Except for five states, it’s not. They think embalming is required. It’s not.

“It’s hard to put numbers on it, but we’re seeing more people for whom what was important was not to relinquish the body to a commercial mortuary to have it processed with formaldehyde and put on display in a mass-manufactured casket.”

Slocum says the alliance got more than 10,000 phone calls after the debut of A&E’s “Family Plots,” a reality-based television series about a mortuary.

He says that with the average funeral costing well over $5,000, many people he talks with want to leave the mortuary out to save money. Some have other motives.

“It’s the emotional intimacy,” he says. “Doing something, whatever it is, at this time, is very sustaining.”

Armstrong agrees.

“It was great,” she says. “Something to look back on. It’s an intense process, but we all felt honored to do it for him. Grandpa always liked special attention.”

As a bonus, the custom funeral brought family members together at a highly emotional time.

The hardest part was the organization, but Armstrong says it all came down to “basic event planning.”

The only thing she would do differently would be to have programs printed.

She remembers another family member whose family had a huge funeral and spent $10,000 on the casket alone.

“It was beautiful,” she says. “Almost like a piece of china. They were happy, so it’s OK for them. But every time I drive up there, the end result is, the graves look almost alike.”

Family effort
Sharon Armstrong, who helped plan and carry out her grandfather’s funeral, offers these tips to families who want to do the same thing:

  • Get the family involved and brainstorm together.
  • Be respectful of everybody’s wishes.
  • Determine how many people to expect.
  • Delegate. Divide work.
  • Decide on a facility and check it out ahead of time.
  • Check out any gear you’ll use, such as sound systems or slide projectors.
  • Decide whether to have food and how to handle it.

By Bill Varble, Mail Tribune, 10/2/2004,,

Simple Funerals in the Home Make a Comeback (USA Today)

An article about home funerals from USA today [article], May 10, 20014

Simple Funerals in the Home Make a Comeback
by the Associated Press

Some want to be remembered with lavish services, others want their remains launched into space. Bob Prater envisioned his passing in simpler terms: A funeral at home.

Very few Americans opt for funerals in their homes — there’s no firm number of how many, exactly — but interest is growing as consumers yearn for a more personal way to bid their loved ones adieu, and are frustrated by sometimes high-priced, cookie-cutter services.

“The primary focus is bringing the family into the whole thing,” said Jerri Lyons, who is considered one of the pioneers of the home funeral movement. “It’s making death intimate again.”

Lyons’ business, Home and Family Funerals, helps families coordinate services for their deceased. Her nonprofit organization, Final Passages, uses workshops and other methods — including a recent workshop in Honolulu — to spread the word about what she calls “one of the best-kept secrets in our country.”

On a near-perfect Saturday when people crowd Waikiki’s beaches, a handful of middle-age women cluster in a small room on a suburban block to talk about death and quiet home services.

Reasons for choosing to have a service at home are varied: from environmentalists who oppose embalming to Muslims whose faith dictates a simple service. Whatever the motivation, Lyons said there are benefits.

“It’s a time when people should be allowed to let the whole process unfold in a natural way,” she said. “It’s a very healing experience.”Some families may just want a few extra hours at home with their deceased. Others may do everything from getting dry ice to preserve the body to building a casket.

Amy Prater, a 38-year-old Denver resident, said she was skeptical when her father, who had pancreatic cancer, told her he wanted a home funeral. He died three years ago, and Prater now says she couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

“I thought it was going to be so weird, it was going to be so scary,” she said. “But it wasn’t. It was really comforting.”

Bob Prater died at home in Sebastopol, Calif., at 64. His family bathed and dressed him and lay him in bed, where he stayed for four days until the memorial service.
coffin_350pxA local carpenter built a simple pine coffin and the family had a party in which they painted it. The night after he died, relatives gathered in the same room as the body, and watched a film about great conductors that Bob Prater, a musician, had wanted to watch.

“It really felt like he was still there with us,” Amy Prater said.

Funerals in the home were commonplace before the Civil War and the introduction of embalming, which preserved soldiers’ bodies making long journeys home. Hospitals eventually displaced homes as the main place where people died, and funeral homes became popular by the early 20th century.

“The landscape of death changes with these two institutions that sort of provide ritual specialists to take care of the dying body,” said Gary Laderman, a religion professor at Emory University and author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Industry in 20th Century America.” Families, Laderman said, “were willing to give up the responsibility of disposing the dead.”

The high cost of funerals also can be a factor in deciding to have one at home.

Traditional U.S. funerals average $5,000 to $6,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance; Lyons can help arrange a service, including cremation and a $35 coffin, for under $1,000.

Laws vary widely from state to state, but it’s legal for families to handle a body on their own in most places. Five states — Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska and New York — require funeral directors to be involved in some way.

Funeral directors say the increased interest in home funerals is part of a larger trend to personalize last rites.

“Consumers are changing the idea of this typical ‘have it at a church and have it at a funeral home’ and we’re trying to accommodate them every way that we can,” said Kurt Soffe, who runs two Utah funeral homes and serves as spokesman of the National Funeral Directors Association.

That includes putting cremains on a rocket and launching it into space, making the cremains a part of a fireworks show, or having funerals with a theme that focuses on a hobby of the deceased — be it golfing or gambling.

Some people even have the carbon extracted from their loved one’s cremated remains and transformed into a diamond.

Soffe said he doesn’t envision home services ever accounting for more than one-tenth of the market. Families, he said, will continue turning to professionals for help.
“Most families aren’t in any kind of condition to make those arrangements themselves,” he said.

HONOLULU (AP) — All rights reserved, USA Today 5/10/2004