The life experiences found in this story are powerful. The home funeral movement is gathering momentum to take back the traditions of family and community lost to many generations that relied on others.
Life presents us with our daily challenges. We know that these challenges are easier to manage when we confront them with a plan. One item which hits us is death. Death is inevitable with the only unknowns being when, how, why and where?
This blog post is meant to help in planning for events that we know will present themselves sooner or later. The population of North America is aging as the Baby Boom generation enters its epoch. As baby boomers we are experiencing death more often as our friends, families and the world around us is shows us our mortality.
Death is one of those life events that is always a burden emotionally and financially as it presents a whole set of new challenges to manage. The challenges become easier to deal with if there is a plan in place. The basic plan item is a will. The complexities of where we live and what we have accomplished can create a whole myriad of details that need to be dealt with at specific times. Making sure that the plan works is usually achieved with the help of a professional estate planner. A plan should be started as soon as there are dependants to consider as they become a participant to the plan. Once started the plan needs to be reviewed and revised as we age or as life changing events challenge the status quo. A basic plan is to help and aid the people you will leave when you die. A basic plan helps when death is unexpected. A more detailed plan is needed when death becomes more of a statistical inevitability.
End of Life planning is a personal and soul seeking challenge as we are presented with answering the questions we avoid. Few like to consider their own mortality let alone that of their family members. Answers to all of these questions expose many myths and wrong information. The speed at which we do our end of life plan depends on each person and family. Setting up a plan or adjusting an existing plan should not be done hastily.
Creating an End of Life plan can be an emotional experience and time-consuming exercise in which patience and intelligent thought needs to be the focus.
Many cities and regions in North America are seeing the growth of End of Life planning professionals. Before you consider purchasing a Pre-Need Funeral Insurance plan you need to consider your needs with an independent advisor. The whole pre-need insurance industry is fraught with dangers and pitfalls. The right plan will save you in a variety of ways which will be the subject of a future blog post.
The End of Life planning should always be done with someone who is experienced in the funeral industry and is independent of the funeral providers. An independent professional will be able to provide an unbiased and resource based guide to your specific needs.
There are few among us who have not experienced the loss of a friend or loved one, often without warning, or — like those of us who care for people with cancer — after a lingering illness.
It is a time when emotions run high and deep, and as time passes from the moment of loss, we often hear how important it is for those who have most directly experienced the void to gain closure in order to move on with their own lives. We seek that closure as a way of tidying up, fearing that the memory of that person or a well-meaning comment may provoke unintended pain or undo what time is said to heal.
The reality is, however, that closure is a myth.
My personal and professional experience with those who have lost family and friends, including children, has taught me that going on with life is not the same as gaining closure.
To close the memory does not sustain the healing nor help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present.
The wound of loss is indelible and a part of each person’s life forever, punctuated by many moments of recollection. It is sometimes predictably provoked by a date on the calendar and, less predictably, by a sight, sound, aroma, melody or a place that evokes an immediate awareness of that person, long after their physical presence in our lives has ceased. We continue to think about those dear to us, perhaps not every day, nor with the same intensity, but our lives are populated by those whom we know and, sometimes more profoundly, by those whom we remember.
The experience of these personal moments, seemingly forever paused in time, can cause us to feel alone, even while in the presence of others. This aloneness is heightened by a false expectation that these experiences should, and will at some point, be over.
Hanging Onto Memories
No matter how long it has been, we do not stop recalling such people who remain a presence in our lives, these echoes from the past, and they may even help define the very direction we follow as we do go forward in life. To deny such memories or experiences is to deny precious moments of love, of fellowship, of gratitude and inspiration.
Grief changes the experience of loss, but does not close or eliminate it, and is not intended to do so. To close the memory does not sustain the healing nor help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present and are sometimes warmly felt.
As humans, we are connected to each other and despite differences in culture, religion or ethnicity, we all yearn to remember. Nearly every culture has its way of preserving memory and we build memorials as perpetuators of collective memory, whether it is the Vietnam Memorial on the Capitol Mall, the Holocaust Museum or the 9/11 Memorial in New York.
Cemeteries offer a communal “safe” space where grief is openly welcomed and expected. Visitation rights to a plot do not suddenly expire six months after a burial, a time marked by some in the medical community as the “normal” grieving period.
In the Jewish tradition, the acknowledgment of the annual Yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of a family member, is always done in the presence of others, with a name announced, provoking a collective memory of a person, providing a shared memory of a life within our own.
None of these occasions, sometimes formal, but more often spontaneous, are about closure. Rather, they are about the fullness in each of our lives that came from our family, loved ones, friends and those whose lives were touched by that person’s presence in our own lives.
In my work as a cancer physician, I often will write to the family of a loved one who was under our care, months after the death, a time when most of the people who were there in the days and weeks after the death have gone back to the busy-ness of their own lives, and the bereaved is left alone with his or her own feeling and thoughts. The letters are a chance to remain connected, but also a way to convey that the life of their loved one is an important memory for us, too.
They remain an important presence in our own lives, and neither they nor their loved ones are forgotten. These letters, words of acknowledgment and memory, are always welcome, reassuring those whose lives have become interwoven with our own, that their loved one is alive within us, as they are in them.
A few months ago, I ran into a woman who many years ago had, at a very young age and early in her marriage, lost her husband to cancer. She had moved away, met another man whom she adored and married, had a family, raised their children together, along with a successful career, and seemingly had found closure from the tragedy of her early life. As we finished talking and she began to walk away, she turned around, and with eyes full, said: “I think of him almost every day.”
Char Barrett walked into a quaint cafe in Seattle with business in mind.
Over the smell of coffee and freshly baked tarts, she was going to advise a client on how best to host a special event at her home, helping coordinate everything from the logistics of the ceremony, to how to dress the guest of honor. People might cry, they might laugh, and all attention would be on the person of the hour—only that person would never see, hear, or enjoy the festivities, because they would be dead.
As 20th century consumerism took hold and people were more likely to die in a hospital than at home, death receded from public consciousness.
“People looked at me like I had two heads when I said, ‘Keep the body at home after the person dies,’” says Barrett, a Seattle-based funeral director and certified “death midwife.” “For families who want it, they should have the right to do it.”
Barrett has been practicing home funerals in the area since 2006 through her business, A Sacred Moment. In a home funeral service, the body is either brought back to the family from the place of death or stays at home if the person died there. The family then washes the body, in part to prepare it for viewing and in part as a ritual.
“It’s really the way we used to do it,” says Barrett.
To Barrett and many other professionals who are offering alternatives to the more status-oriented, profit-driven funeral industry, it’s time to rethink how we handle death. From consumer cooperatives that combat price gouging, to putting the power of choice back in the hands of the family, the city of Seattle has become a hub for alternative death care in the last two years, according to Barrett. The subculture of “deathxperts” want not only to empower their clients, but also potentially phase out their jobs altogether—a sort of death of the funeral director as we know it.
A History of Death
For the majority of human history, families handled arrangements for the deceased, from the time immediately after death, to burial or cremation. Until the advent of modern hospitals and health care at the turn of the last century, it was the norm for the old and sick to die at home surrounded by loved ones.
During the Civil War, embalming as a form of preservation found a foothold when Union soldier casualties needed to be transported from the sweltering South to mourning families in the North. Today, its pragmatic purpose is to temporarily stop decomposition for viewing and final goodbyes. However, the overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers don’t realize that, in most cases, it’s not legally required to bury a body, although special circumstances vary from state to state.
So why has probably every American funeral you’ve been to had an embalmed body in attendance?
As 20th century consumerism took hold and people were more likely to die in a hospital than at home, death receded from public consciousness. If a loved one were to die today, you would probably call and pay a funeral home to pick her up from wherever she took her last breath. They would wash her, embalm her, and dress her to your family’s liking. You would briefly visit her one last time at a mortuary or a chapel before she was either buried or burned. In all likelihood, her last bodily contact before disposition would be with a complete stranger.
In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” an exposé of the country’s funeral-industrial complex, showing how it exploited the emotions of the living so it could up-sell unnecessary services and products, such as premium caskets and premier vaults. Federal Trade Commission regulations and consumer protections now prevent families from being swindled.
“There’s no sales pressure, there’s no up-selling, and we make sure people get what they need.”
Today, the funeral industry has become managed in part by aggregate companies. Mortuary giant Service Corporation International owns a large network of individually operated funeral homes and cemeteries, some of which exist on the same property as combination locations. If you imagine a standard funeral parlor and graveyard, you’re probably picturing an SCI-owned operation. Of the approximately 19,400 funeral homes in America, the publicly traded company owns about 2,300 homes, according to the National Funeral Director’s Association. Families and individuals privately own most of the rest.
“The reality is that if you can’t adapt to compete with SCI, you probably shouldn’t be in the market,” says Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental Cremation and Burial, which prides itself in being Seattle’s “only green funeral home.” “But SCI is one of the best competitors you could ever hope for because they’re slow to change and they’re exceptionally resistant to anything progressive.”
Jorgenson started his business in 2012 with a special focus on carbon-neutral cremations and “green” embalming using eco-friendly preservatives. In every aspect of his operation, he works to be as environmentally minded as possible, an objective he sees lacking in most business models.
As SCI spent the 1960s through 1990s acquiring independent funeral homes to maximize profits, another organization was doing the exact opposite by forming a collective to prioritize consumer rights.
People’s Memorial Association is one of the nation’s only nonprofit organizations that pushes consumer freedom for end-of-life arrangements. Located in Seattle, the consumer membership-based group coordinates with 19 different death care providers across the state to offer fixed-price burial, cremation, and memorial services, as well as education and advocacy to encourage death care alternatives. Almost all of the funeral homes are privately owned and have a uniform price structure for PMA members, who contribute a one-time fee of $35. Barrett’s A Sacred Moment is one of PMA’s partners.
“Too many people go to funeral homes and just want to be told what to do.”
“We negotiate contracts with the funeral homes so members walk in knowing exactly what they’re going to pay, and it’s usually a pretty significant discount from the usual prices,” says Nora Menkin, the managing funeral director of the Co-op Funeral Home. PMA founded it in 2007 when SCI decided to cancel arrangements with several of PMA’s partners. Now, PMA-contract homes offer full-service funerals for 65 percent less than the average local price, according to a 2014 price survey conducted by the PMA Education Fund.
“There’s no sales pressure, there’s no up-selling, and we make sure people get what they need,” says Menkin. “It’s about the consumer telling us what they want.”
Jorgenson’s Elemental Cremation and Burial works outside the umbrella of PMA’s service providers, but he still finds allies in Menkin and the Co-op Funeral Home.
“We’re in it to change an industry,” he says. “Just one of our voices out there is useless. There’s a kinder, gentler, less expensive way, and that’s what we’re all doing. It’s helping families in a new, more collaborative way.”
In Jorgenson’s opinion, you don’t even really need a funeral director.
“A funeral director is a wedding planner on a compressed time scale,” he says. “With the exception of the legality of filing a death certificate, a funeral director does the exact same things a wedding planner does: They make sure that the venue is available, that the flowers are ordered, the chaplain is there for the service, and that the guest of honor, be it the bride or the dead person, is there on time.”
In Washington state, some of the only legal requirements are preservation of the body 24 hours after death by way of embalming or refrigeration, obtaining a signed death certificate, and securing a permit for disposition of the deceased.
If the body will be kept at home for longer than 24 hours, preservation can be achieved by putting the body on dry ice for the duration of the viewing. Once the family has had enough time with the person, he or she will be removed for final disposition, which includes burial, cremation, or scientific donation.
“A funeral director that is truly in earnest with the services they’re providing these families would have the courage to say that,” says Barrett. “A family can do this themselves. They don’t need a licensed funeral director, especially in the 41 states where legally a family is able to sign their own death certificate.”
Even families who still want the guidance of a professional shouldn’t feel powerless.
“Too many people go to funeral homes and just want to be told what to do, because they haven’t been through it or they don’t want to think about it. That gives the funeral homes way more power than they really deserve,” says Menkin.
Ideally, a funeral home should educate consumers and encourage them to make informed decisions, she says, ultimately just acting as an agent to carry out their wishes.
For almost every modern funeral home preparation procedure, there is a more sustainable alternative. Dry ice can offset the need for embalming for brief viewing or shipping purposes. In instances where some form of embalming is necessary, such as a violently traumatic death, a mix of essential oils can replace the toxic mix of tinted formaldehyde. Even in the case of burial, biodegradable shrouds can eliminate the need for wood and metal caskets built, in theory, to last forever.
The distinctions apply to cemeteries too, which are divided into several camps as outlined by the Green Burial Council, the industry authority on sustainability. It assigns funeral homes, cemeteries, and suppliers a rating based on strict environmental impact standards, which scrutinize everything from embalming practices to casket material.
As consumers become more comfortable with taking charge of their dead, there will be more room to introduce new methods of body disposition.
There are traditional cemeteries with standard graves, monuments, mausoleums, and often water-intensive grass landscaping. The next step up are hybrid cemeteries, which still may have regular plots, but also offer burial options that don’t require concrete vaults, embalming, or standard caskets. Natural burial grounds, the middle rank, prohibit the use of vaults, traditional embalming techniques, and burial containers that aren’t made from natural or plant-derived materials; landscaping must incorporate native plants to harmonize with the local ecosystem, conserve energy, and minimize waste. Premier green burial occurs on conservation burial grounds, which in addition to meeting all of the above requirements, requires partnership with an established conservation organization and be dedicated to long-term environmental stewardship.
Natural and conservation burial grounds must limit the use and visibility of memorials and headstones so as to preserve the native visual landscape as much as possible. Some properties have switched to GPS-based plot markers—visitors wouldn’t know they’re in the middle of a cemetery unless they were looking for it.
As consumers become more comfortable with taking charge of their dead, there will be more room to introduce new methods of body disposition, such as alkaline hydrolodis, a type of liquid cremation, and body composting. Earlier this year, supporters successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign to start research on the Urban Death Project, which aims to turn decomposing bodies into nutrient-rich soil. According to Jorgenson, sustainable burial practices are still part of a boutique market, though that doesn’t change his bottom line.
“Death is difficult. People don’t really want to experiment with mom,” he says. “But I count myself fortunate to be out there as one of the people that offers these alternatives, should someone want them.”
“The co-op movement is bigger in other countries,” says Menkin, who attended the 2014 International Summit of Funeral Cooperatives in Quebec. “Canada has a large network of funeral cooperatives, but it’s a bit more like a traditional funeral industry, just with a different business model. They’re not about alternative forms of disposition or changing the norm. We’re kind of writing the book on this one.”
Eventually, those conversations may become commonplace.
“Now when I mention home funerals to people, they don’t think anything of it,” says Barrett. To her, the time has come for people to think outside the box—literally.
Celebrants bring a special life force to the ceremony;
This is a great article for those who have elders in your family
A mainstay of many ancient cultures is respect for the elders—those who have preceded us in life and whose wisdom gives guidance and comfort. But our modern culture only rarely honors those who have earned elder status. This is a great loss to young and old alike.
Those who are beyond our youth but who don’t think we’ve reached elder status yet can correct this and give a priceless gift to our families. If we create the time and place to gather family to listen to the oldest members’ stories, we preserve the family heritage, create new memories, and foster relationships across generations.
In April 2012, my family was discussing the upcoming 98th birthday of our Aunt Helen. She is the last of “the greatest generation” in our family, having survived the Great Depression and tended the home front while her three brothers fought for our country in World War II. We recalled the passing of others in that generation, and agreed that we shouldn’t wait to honor Helen, but should instead pay tribute to her while she is here to enjoy the moment.
I started calling Helen to listen to her stories. She’d start out by saying that she wasn’t feeling very well, but before long it was hard to keep up with all the memories that poured out of her. By the fall, I had printed a mini-biography that Helen could edit. In listening to her stories, I had also reconnected with a member of the family that I had almost lost touch with.
To prepare for the tribute dinner, I wrote a simple ceremony on the theme of “the family tree.” On Helen’s big night, family gathered at a banquet room near her home. At each table was a small tree on which we hung notes to her. A family member brought a beautiful hand-drawn family tree tracing our heritage back to the 1500’s. Another shared our grandmother’s mealtime grace before the meal. The youngest children brought small gifts to give Helen. Each person was given a card extolling the wisdom of trees: sinking roots and embracing with joy the changing seasons. Good advice for any family.
Before the celebration, to honor those no longer with us, we set a table with photos of family members who had passed away and gave thanks for their presence in our lives. We also named loved ones at home who could not make the journey.
And then the celebration began. My husband gave a funny speech that put Helen’s life in historical context. “Aunt Helen has outlasted almost everything from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Phyllis Diller.”
Throughout dinner, family members read Helen’s story out loud. In doing so, we recognized this lady had survived some very tough years. There were poignant moments as well as laughter, and frequent remarks of “I never heard that before!” One of the young adults wrote a note saying what an inspiration Helen was.
There is no simpler, more beautiful way to honor someone than to make room for their story to be told. By listening, we affirm the one who lived the story and we protect their story from being lost. The youngest family members observe more than we might know. Their questions and re-tellings later reveal that they’ve kept these family stories in their hearts.
Later that evening, when she heard her favorite big band music, Helen led the dancing. And when she looked around and said, “They all came!”, I knew we had given her a very happy memory and had honored her. We had also given a tremendous gift to the family.
Diane Gansauer is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant, trained in music performance, dance, theater, and storytelling. As the director of Lyrical Life Ceremonies, she works with individuals, families and communities to create personal, memorable ceremonies marking important milestones and transitions. Information on her work and is available atlyricallifeceremonies.com.
More people are getting married at funeral homes. We didn’t know anyone was getting married at funeral homes.
Why are cemeteries so crowded? Because people are always dying to get in! Plus other people are having weddings there now.
Fewer people are having traditional, expensive, body-in-casket funerals these days,
because we’ve learned how to live forever because people are favoring less-expensive options like cremations and natural burials. This means that cash-strapped funeral homes and cemeteries are looking for other ways to make money, and according to The Associated Press, that’s led to a growing trend of hosting weddings.
There are a whole bunch of reasons why this is working — “younger generations are growing up without the same stigma toward death,” people are looking for non-church wedding venues, and perhaps most importantly, funeral homes can be a hell of a lot cheaper than a lot of other wedding spots. Check out this example from the AP article:
Peak rental rates for the Community Life Center approach $4,000.
That is less than half the average rate of $9,837 in Indiana, according to the wedding planning website TheKnot.com.
Many funeral homes have started building these “community center” buildings that are meant to host events beyond just funerals. The Community Life Center mentioned above actually also hosted a prom, where I’m sure at least 10 guys thought it would be funny to pretend to be a ghost and sneak up on people.
Everybody who the AP interviewed who had a wedding at a funeral home seemed to have really enjoyed the experience, which makes sense because they chose to have their wedding at a funeral home. Nobody said anything like, “I thought it meant fun-eral home. Like a fun home. I didn’t know that dead people were in there sometimes!”
There are so many things I love about having weddings at funeral homes and cemeteries. First of all, it helps us remember that death is a natural part of life, and that places where we pay respect to our dead shouldn’t be feared. Secondly, funeral homes and cemeteries are GOREOUS. Not all of them, of course. Some of them have the tacky look of your grandma’s house circa 1986.
By Tom Murphy / The Associated Press
Published Jul 18, 2015 at 12:02AM
INDIANAPOLIS — Danessa Molinder entered the courtyard wearing a white dress and matching veil. Her groom waited at the other end, in front of decorative doors and lattice work that blocked the view of a nearby cemetery with 73,000 graves.
Molinder’s June wedding was one of more than 50 that will be hosted this year at a $10 million events center run by the Washington Park East Cemetery Association in Indianapolis. The somewhat ironically named Community Life Center sits on cemetery land near a funeral home and also has hosted a prom, community banquets and even breakfasts with Santa.
“It’s such a beautiful building,” Molinder said. “That’s what really drew us to it.”
Funeral homes aren’t just for funerals anymore. Businesses that once focused almost entirely on honoring the dead are now open to an array of events as they seek to add revenue.
Cemetery and funeral home operators say they’re being squeezed as more people favor simpler, less expensive funeral services. Their businesses also are being pressured by the growing popularity of cremations, which can bring in less than half the revenue of a traditional casket burial.
Cremations are expected to become the most common form of body disposition nationally in a few years, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Funeral home operators also say there’s a need in their communities for locations that can host weddings or other big events, and people are no longer hung up on their main business.
Declining membership in churches and civic organizations also may be boosting demand for nontraditional venues for weddings and receptions.
As a result, funeral homes and cemeteries nationwide have been marketing their properties for an array of uses. Nearly 10 percent of 280 respondents to a National Funeral Directors Association survey last year said they built a community center to host other events. That’s up from 6 percent in 2011.
“As a business, we need to find ways to keep growing,” said Bruce Buchanan, a member of the Indianapolis cemetery association’s board and owner of a funeral home business.
Younger generations are growing up without the same stigma toward death that their parents and grandparents had, said Mike Nicodemus, a vice president with the National Funeral Directors Association.
“People aren’t as religious as they once were … and their attitudes toward death are changing,” he said. “Funeral homes were seen for one reason: to have a funeral. Now they’re being used for all kinds of things.”
That versatility might be appealing to couples who need a place to host their big day but aren’t affiliated with a religion, said Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor.
He said that theory comes with a caveat: The site should have some separation between the wedding and funeral businesses, because there’s a cultural taboo against mixing death too closely with weddings, which often are about birth and the starting of families.
Chelsey Lesnick picked a suburban Cleveland funeral home that her grandparents opened in 1949 as the site for her nuptials last March.
The home’s second-floor reception center — not the funeral site downstairs — hosted the service and the party afterward for about 50 people. Lesnick, 24, said the site didn’t feel like a “house of death or a place of mourning.”
“It felt like a place of love and just bright happy joy on that day, it really did,” she said.
Despite their growing openness to holding various events, funeral directors and cemetery executives say they haven’t replaced their main business.
Matt Linn built a multi-use facility in 2008 after a flood damaged his funeral home. His Cedar Rapids, Iowa, business now runs three wedding venues and two locations that can host weddings and funerals. It also manages a golf course and runs a farmers market. Nonfuneral related events still amount to only about 20 percent of total revenue for Linn’s business.
But the versatility helps with his main line of work. Even when people are looking into holding services for a deceased loved one, they’re opting more for celebrations of life filled with slide shows, food and alcohol, instead of a traditional viewing and service that stretches out over a few days.
“I don’t think I’ve coordinated a (traditional) funeral in a long time, because they’re depressing things,” he said.
Events at the Community Life Center in Indianapolis account for only about 5 percent of the Washington Park Cemetery Association’s total revenue.
The center’s wedding business didn’t really take off until four or five years ago. Now, it’s booked nearly every weekend this summer for weddings and is taking 2016 reservations.
“The words I love to hear, and I hear them all the time, is, ‘I didn’t know you could do this,’” said Buchanan, the cemetery association board member.
Peak rental rates for the Community Life Center approach $4,000.
That is less than half the average rate of $9,837 in Indiana, according to the wedding planning websiteTheKnot.com .
Molinder, the Indianpolis, bride, said the center’s rates were comparable to other venues they considered.
The center grabbed her attention in part because it was easy for her guests to reach and could host both the ceremony and reception. That convenience helped the 250 people who attended her wedding dodge rain that had been brewing in the gray clouds overhead.
Guests were able to take a short walk from the courtyard into the center after the ceremony. Once inside, they sipped drinks and mingled around a fountain in the center’s rotunda, which is laid out in Italian marble, while they waited for the reception in a nearby ballroom.
That fountain sat a short walk away from a darkened office where customers for the cemetery’s main business can view casket samples.
In the end, that main business never bothered Molinder, 26. Her only concern was to make sure the photographer avoided getting gravestones in the pictures.
“Everything turned out perfectly,” she said.
Reposted from Libby Copeland is a former Washington Post reporter whose work has appeared in Slate, Smithsonian, and New York http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122130/who-owns-dead
For decades, Americans have been increasingly distanced from the dead. A small group of women is working to change that.
BY LIBBY COPELAND
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT CLARK
June 24, 2015
IT WAS A SUNDAY in the autumn of 1995, and Rob Sanders was driving his three kids from his house in Baltimore to the house of his ex-wife, Elizabeth Knox, in Silver Spring, Maryland. The kids rotated who got to sit in the front seat, and today was seven-year-old Alison’s turn. The boys wanted to hear the Redskins game, and when Alison leaned forward to fiddle with the radio, Sanders told her to sit back—he would find it. When he looked up, the light had turned red, and he braked, belatedly. Skidding into the intersection at about 14 miles an hour, he hit another car, and the passenger-side airbag deployed. The airbag—one of those early models designed to protect a full-sized adult male in a much more violent crash—struck Alison “with the force of a heavyweight boxer,” as Knox would later put it, rendering the girl unconscious and braindead in an instant.
Knox had just walked into her house when the hospital called; she handed the phone to her then-boyfriend to see if he could make sense of what the person on the other end was telling her. They drove to Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, and Knox rushed in. “I’m here,” Knox told her unconscious daughter once she reached her side. “I’m going to stay here. I’ll be with you through all this.”
She stayed with Alison when the girl was transferred to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in an ambulance, and waited as doctors there tested her reflexes. (They could find none.) She stayed as her priest arrived, and as close friends came with gifts for an impromptu vigil—a quilt to cover Alison, a Bible, a lyre, which a friend played for hours. She stayed as her anguished ex-husband had to be taken to a psychiatric hospital where he was sedated. Awake, he would remember what had happened and become hysterical all over again. She lay in bed with Alison and watched as the respirator “made her seem somewhat lifelike.”
As the family contemplated taking the girl off life support, and Knox thought about what would happen next, she knew she could not do what almost every person in the United States does after the loss of a loved one and hand her daughter over to a funeral home. “It’s unthinkable to me,” Knox said when we spoke recently. “Your child is gone, and you’re asked to give her to strangers and not see her again—except, maybe, for five minutes in this weird place.” She had cared for her daughter from the day she was born. She could not imagine anyone else caring for the girl in death. She wanted to take her home.
Knox said she saw the worst of the institutional approach to mortality that day. The hospital would only release the body to a funeral home, so friends called around until they found one willing to fulfill the family’s unusual request to bring the body to Knox’s house. When the funeral home staff arrived, they put Alison in a body bag and zipped it over her face, despite Knox’s plea to keep it open. They took the body on a gurney through the bowels of the hospital, with Knox “running to keep up,” she said.
But once Alison had arrived at Knox’s house, the girl belonged to her mother again. Knox and her own mother gave Alison a sponge bath in her bed and clothed her in a dress they’d bought at the beach that summer. They made a wreath of flowers for her hair. The funeral home staff arranged the girl over dry ice to slow her decay, and she lay in a small, child-sized casket made of pine, placed perpendicularly across the bed. Knox slept curled up in the small space beside it at night. Hundreds of people came through the house over the next few days, as Knox remembers it. Teachers and classmates brought gifts for the coffin. About three days after her death, Alison was taken to a crematorium, where Knox rocked the gurney on which her daughter’s body lay, and watched as she was put into the furnace.
The days Alison spent at home before the cremation were both “tragic and beautiful,” Knox said. “It was such a comfort.” And slowly, in the years following Alison’s death, her parents found renewed mission. Sanders, who was released from the psychiatric hospital after about two weeks, left his job in commercial litigation, and began offering his services to other families involved in airbag lawsuits. He began, also, to lobby the government to force automakers to install safer airbags and to require them to place warning labels in cars telling parents not to allow their kids to ride in the front seat.
Knox underwent a transformation as well: She founded a nonprofit called Crossings, and became one of the first people in the country dedicated to helping the families and friends of the deceased work through the emotionally taxing, logistically tricky, and sometimes unpleasant process of caring for a dead body at home. She read everything she could, reached out to others involved in the nascent cause, and began offering her services as a kind of consultant—advising both on consumer funeral rights and on a new (really, ancient) kind of grieving. Caring for the dead, Knox said, requires a “fierce determination” and a willingness to follow your loved one to a place where few modern Americans dare to go.
A sponge swab is dipped in mouthwash and used to clean inside the mouth of the dead.
JUST 100 YEARS AGO, the sight of a dead body laid out in someone’s front parlor would not have been at all unusual. Indeed, the home was the province of the funeral for most of U.S. history. According to records from the 1600s and 1700s, the earliest Americans often died at home and remained at home until the burial; there they were washed, wrapped in shrouds, and laid out on boards while the family made preparations for a funeral feast. This homespun approach to death largely persisted throughout most of the 1800s: In addition to family and midwives, women known as “Layers Out of the Dead,” took care of the immediate tasks following a death. The body might be placed over ice and watched over for days to ensure the person was truly dead and wouldn’t be buried alive. Sometimes, the bereaved had a photographer come to take a post-mortem picture. Family, neighbors, or local carpenters made the coffin.
The elaborate etiquette that evolved around mourning in the Victorian era reflected this intimacy with death. There were lengthy bereavement periods, elaborate mourning clothes, and even a fondness for jewelry made from the hair of the dead. Much of this desired proximity was connected to the idea of what nineteenth-century Americans called “the Good Death.” A Good Death was one that took place at home, surrounded by family who could not only tend to suffering but “assess the state of the dying person’s soul,” writes historian Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Because Americans came to believe that the moment of death fixed the state of the soul—determining what would happen in the afterlife—dying itself became a kind of art, filled with declarations of faith. And after the Good Death, writes historian Gary Laderman in The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883, “the intimacy that survivors maintained with the corpse preserved it, at least until the actual interment, as evidence of a valuable, and vital, social relation.”
Ironically, it was this desire to be close to the dead that ultimately helped usher bodies out of the home. Embalming—which advanced as a science around the same time as the Civil War—allowed for the corpses of men who had died on far-off battlefields to return home for some semblance of the Good Death. “Families sought to see their lost loved ones in as lifelike a state as possible,” Faust writes, “not just to be certain of their identity but also to bid them farewell.” And when it came to preserving some false spark of life, none of the available alternatives (the Staunton Transportation Case “portable refrigerator,” for example) could match embalming. In 1861, the preserved body of a Union colonel killed in Virginia was honored at the White House to great fanfare. (His embalmer went on to preserve more than 4,000 bodies and became a rich man.) And at the close of the war, the embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln traveled 1,700 miles from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, with many stops along the way for Americans to pay their respects. Around the turn of the century, undertakers would often bring their scalpels, tubes, needles, forceps, eye caps, and other supplies to the house of the deceased and perform the embalming there, sometimes with relatives watching.
But eventually embalming moved out of the home and into places of business—death, in general, was increasingly processed outside of any residence. Advances in science lowered the death rate and made hospitals the primary places of dying. An increasing number of people lived in urban areas and in small apartments, where large home funerals were difficult to host. And as the Victorian era passed, and cultural practices changed, the formal parlor was replaced with the more informal and aptly named living room.
“Your child is gone, and you’re asked to give her to strangers and not see her again—except, maybe, for five minutes in this weird place.”
And while most dead bodies don’t pose a threat to the living, they came to be regarded as dirty and polluting, Laderman told me. By the 1920s, according to Laderman’s research, funeral homes were caring for the majority of the dead in many major towns and cities. Funeral home ads and articles from that era counseled the importance of forming a pleasing “memory picture” of the deceased—embalmed, shaved, made-up, arranged to look as lifelike as possible. Ornate and expensive open-casket funerals became fashionable. By midcentury, the economic model for the funeral home had become, “we take the body, we do things to it, and we sell it back to you,” as mortician-memoirist Caitlin Doughty, the author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory, told me. (This didn’t go uncommented upon at the time: In 1963, the British-born blueblood-turned-muckraker Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, which eviscerated the opulent, pricey U.S. funerals then in vogue, arguing that funeral directors were taking advantage of the grieving.) The United States had, in effect, undergone a 180-degree turn from an approach to death common not many decades before. “The modern American funeral industry, with its rituals and its almost complete capture of the death process … would have appeared extraordinary to a woman in 1875,” said Josh Slocum, the executive director of a watchdog group called the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
In recent decades, cremation has soared in popularity—the national cremation rate is expected to reach more than 50 percent within a few years. Part of this can be attributed to the cost: The median price for direct cremation is about $1,000 to $2,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That’s substantially cheaper than the traditional full-court burial, which, with embalming, a viewing, ceremony, a metal casket, and an underground vault to hold the casket (typically required by cemeteries), has a median price of about $8,000. But even the rise in cremation hasn’t really simplified the business of death. Some funeral homes have increased the cost of traditional casket-and-burial funerals to make up for the fact that they’re doing fewer, and there aren’t many pressures to limit the rising costs. Death is a reliable trade, and families are loyal to the last funeral home they used—even the savviest consumers skip price comparisons. No doubt, many don’t want to think about shopping around at times of stress and bereavement. And the death industry, with annual revenue of around $16 billion, is likely to grow in coming years. By 2050, the population aged 65 and older will have nearly doubled from what it was in 2012.
DESPITE OUR DISTANCE from the realities of the end of life, death is having something of a cultural moment. There’s Doughty, whose memoir about her time as a crematory worker was a best-seller last year. (She also facilitates “Death Salons,” in which reformers gather for seminars on topics like “the similarities between the funeral industry and the pornography industry throughout the ages.”) Her playful, Goth-ish Web series “Ask a Mortician,” tackles topics like last meals and why humans make bad candidates for taxidermy. (Not enough fur to cover the seams.) The Morbid Anatomy Museum opened in Brooklyn last year, featuring an exhibit on mourning history; earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted “Death Becomes Her,” a dimly lit exhibition of antique mourning garb, with miles of crinoline and dark damask. Vice magazine has been running a column called Post Mortem that tackles topics as wide-ranging as headstone aficionados and how death professionals date. An alt-death movement is taking off in creative industries, as well: A few years ago, an artist named Jae Rhim Lee gave a TED Global talk about a burial suit she was designing that grows mushrooms which feed off the decomposing body, while a Seattle architect named Katrina Spade has “designed a building for human composting,” The New York Times reported in April. Designer Thom Browne recently sent models down the runway in mourning chic. And yet, all this is happening at an arm’s distance—it’s an aesthetic reckoning more than a physical or practical one.
A small but growing group of women like Knox are slowly building a movement to change that. They call themselves home funeral guides or death midwives, though the terminology is a bit slippery since they don’t all do precisely the same thing. Some death midwives—or death doulas, transition guides, or psychopomps (a Greek word that means “conductor of souls to the afterworld”)—work with the dying to help them achieve what they call a “conscious death.” Other women—and they are almost universally women—guide families in the process of caring for their loved ones immediately after death, before the body is disposed of. In doing so, they are helping the bereaved take back some of the control, respect, and intimacy they believe has disappeared from the modern approach to death.
Often billing themselves as educational consultants, home funeral guides—or whatever their preferred title—meet with families who are facing a death, or have just experienced one, and walk them through the steps involved in keeping a corpse at home. (The physical effects of decomposition start to become very obvious after three days; most death midwives advise families to keep a body at home no longer than that.) They explain state law; they offer techniques for lifting and washing and dressing a body, sometimes assisting with the body itself; and they suggest language for communicating with funeral homes and hospitals that may be less than receptive to families who want to keep corpses at home. In most cases, the families they assist are opting for traditional approaches like cremation or burial after their home funerals, so there is almost always some negotiation with the people who will carry out that part of the process.
Twenty years ago, according to Knox, Slocum, and others, there were only a handful of women doing this work. Today, the five-year-old National Home Funeral Alliance—a group of guides, funeral directors, clergy, and interested families—has over 750 members, up from 360 in 2013. The home funeral guides I surveyed estimated that there are between 100 and 200 women across the country involved in this kind of work. And while no one tracks the number of home funerals taking place nationally, Slocum, of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said he’s experienced an uptick in calls about the practice over the last ten years. (This tracks with the rise in green burials, which typically eliminate burial vaults and chemical embalming, and often involve biodegradable caskets or shrouds. In 2006, there was one natural burial site in the United States certified by the Green Burial Council; today, there are more than 50.) A death midwife named Jerrigrace Lyons, who started an organization that helps families arrange home funerals 20 years ago, said she has helped nearly 400 families perform home funerals in and around the liberal haven of Sebastopol, California.
The home funeral guides are a motley bunch. Radically old-fashioned, these women are not licensed or regulated by state law, and they must tread lightly to avoid encroaching on the territory of funeral directors or accidentally violating state law. They offer self-styled certification programs to one another, and publish funeral how-to’s for families who want to do things entirely on their own. Some charge money, and some don’t. (Offering services free of charge allows death midwives to more easily avoid running afoul of state regulations.) Some have jobs and do this on the side; some are hospice volunteers. Some are on the New Age fringe, indulging in witchcraft and crystals. Some, like Knox, came to this work through the trauma of what they considered a bad death. Many see themselves as a temporary necessity, a half-step until home funerals become better-known and more widely accepted. As Merilynne Rush, a 55-year-old home funeral guide based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, put it, “My hope is I’ll be obsolete in another generation.”
Rush spent most of her career as a home-birth midwife. When she worked for a few years as a labor and delivery nurse, she often volunteered to comfort parents when they’d lost a baby, encouraging them to hold the body, to take a cutting of hair. When she first learned about the home funeral movement in the late 2000s, she felt another calling. Eventually, she founded a small consulting business, After Death Home Care; over the past five and a half years, Rush has worked with more than 25 families. When she meets with a family that has just lost someone, she makes a point of touching the body early on—“just to model for the family that it’s OK.” Very often, she said, families follow her lead, as if a magic spell has been broken. She’s aware of the clock—it’s much harder to wash a body after rigor mortis sets in—but she doesn’t rush her families. She makes sure she knows where to get the dry ice. The big box store is open all night; the ice cream shop opens at 5 a.m.
In addition to this work, Rush hosts regular Death Cafés, (“Drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death,” the motto goes) and speaks often at universities, libraries, and civic groups, trying to spread the word about the nascent movement. In her lectures, she shows photos from the families she’s assisted. One shows an old woman two days after death; another shows an old man, just expired, lying in his bed in a health care facility. His daughter and son-in-law stand beside the body, poised to clean and dress it. These images are important, Rush said. “All we have is a very sensational image from movies or television.”
Rush’s clients speak of a sense of comfort and control after the death of a loved one, even as their lives rapidly descended into a state of profound upheaval. In many cases, after-death care served as a natural extension of the care they gave at the end of life. In other cases, it simply allowed the family a sense of intimacy, a chance to process the death with all their senses, to fully accept its finality: “We didn’t have to get in the car, go to the [funeral parlor] in our fancy clothes, and have our grief in the packaged amount of time,” said Beth Barbeau, 52, one of Rush’s clients, who cared for her mother, Sharon Bailey, at home for two and a half days before she was cremated in a cardboard casket that Barbeau’s young sons decorated. “We could have it on our own terms. … At midnight, we could go sit with [the corpse] with a cup of tea in the corner in the dark.” Eventually, Barbeau said, the body’s physical decline served as a proxy for the fact that her mother was truly gone. Late on the second day, her mom’s mouth sagged open a little, presumably because the muscles were relaxing as the body passed out of rigor mortis. The body seemed settled, and smaller somehow, and whatever sense Barbeau had had of her mother’s spirit seemed truly gone. “I realized that I would never be done saying goodbye to my mom, but I also realized that I was done enough,” she said.
A long cloth is tied around the deceased’s jaw in order to keep it closed.
WHEN WOODY KELLUM performed a home funeral for his wife Mary Goode’s father Frank last November, he was positioning the dead man on a bed in their guest room when the body purged—that is, it threw up the contents of its last meal. “He had eaten some tomato soup,” said Goode, a substitute teacher who tells this story in a calm, unfazed fashion. Kellum and the home funeral guide cleaned it up as best they could.
Kellum and Goode are in their mid-sixties, tall, lean, and silver-haired. When I met them in April, at their 1860s farmhouse in the lush, secluded landscape of rural southern Michigan, their approach to death seemed a natural extension of the way they’ve shaped their lives. Kellum, a retired database administrator with a slow, deliberative manner, described his family as “from the ’60s and the back-to-the-land frame of mind.” They heat their home with wood; during my visit, Goode warmed canned beans using a solar-powered oven that she set out in the bright spring sun. Two of Kellum’s siblings live in their own 1800s farmhouses, within a mile of his house.
Kellum and Goode had been interested in the concept of home funerals for a while; Goode had attended talks by Rush and had met with her, too. Influenced by the Austrian mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, she had come to believe the soul needs time to review its life before the body is put to rest. For Kellum, having a home funeral is not so much about a philosophy as it is about “trying to do things in a more personal way.” When his own father died in 1985, the most meaningful moment for him was when he helped carry the body down a set of stairs, despite the funeral staff’s evident discomfort.
When Goode’s father died, the couple was met at the health care facility by Diana Cramer, a kind of apprentice to Rush. Cramer is a former social worker, teacher, and hospice volunteer who’s had an interest in death since adolescence, when she lost her brother, and then two friends, within the course of a year. A nurse washed Frank’s private parts, but, with Cramer’s guidance, Goode and Kellum took care of everything else. Kellum was willing to do the things that made Goode squeamish, like cleaning Frank’s mouth with a toothbrush and putting socks over Frank’s feet, which had become purple from poor circulation. Goode trimmed her father’s beard. They dressed Frank in pants and a white shirt, lifting the body so they could fit him in his suit jacket. (Undressing and dressing a corpse is difficult. The dead have a peculiar and uncooperative weight, as if “gravity has become changed,” as doctor and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee puts it. “Even when you’re lifting a sleeping child, the muscles cooperate with you.”) Goode’s father remained over dry ice for two and a half days at the farmhouse, while family and friends came and paid their respects. Afterward, his family wrapped him in a quilt and lifted him onto a gurney; funeral directors carried him out and put him in a $650 pine casket made by a local carpenter. The onetime World War II B-24 bomber pilot was buried in a military cemetery.
Death midwives don’t just facilitate the immediate afterlife care of the body. Perhaps more significantly, they help families think through the decisions families face after death but before the event occurs, and this, too, is at the forefront of the Kellums’ minds. Woody Kellum and three of his siblings have, for the past several years, been preparing for the home funeral of their mom, Gail Curtis, with the help of Rush and Cramer. Curtis is mostly bedridden, sleeps a lot, and can’t speak. In July she turns 100. “We don’t know what else she’s waiting for,” said Woody’s brother, Bob.
Kellum showed me the materials he’s assembled to care for his mother after she dies. He keeps it all in a big cardboard box that says “24-inch LED BACKLIT MONITOR,” and the kit contains a strange mix of memorabilia and medical supplies: oral swabs for cleaning his mother’s mouth and small weighted bags for her eyelids, along with family photographs to put up before visitors come, and the simple blue dress in which Curtis will be buried. There’s also lavender-scented soap, soft washcloths for scrubbing his mother’s body, and a plastic sheet to put under her to keep the bed from getting wet. And there’s a strip of fabric, which he pulled out and cast aside, unable to remember its purpose. (Cramer explained it was for keeping his mother’s jaw closed until it set.) Preparing a box for a home funeral is a little like preparing a hospital bag for a birth, except dying people can linger so long that you risk forgetting what you’ve packed.
There’s a lot of preparation still to be done, and more work after Curtis actually dies. Someone will need to dig the grave (the Kellums are hoping to bury Curtis in a small plot of land they intend to turn into a family cemetery), someone will need to get a casket or a shroud, and someone will need to get the dry ice and monitor how much is used and how fast it evaporates. And, of course, several people will have to deal with the body. But they feel confident that it’s worth it, and while Curtis has not been able to convey any strong preferences for some time now, the family thinks she would be comfortable with the plan as well.
Curtis, who gave birth to six children from two marriages and outlived three husbands, was sleeping in her room in the assisted living home when Kellum and I arrived to visit her. A photo of her as a soulful-looking, dark-haired teenager in 1933 hung near the door. She would go on to earn a college degree, work at the University of Michigan’s museum of paleontology, and protest the Vietnam war. Kellum put his hand on his mother’s shoulder, and she woke up. Words elude her, but she can communicate fairly well with her eyebrows. The oxygen concentrator in the corner made a rumbly hum.
“This is Shel Silverstein,” he said, holding a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends. “You probably don’t remember him.” Kellum read several poems, and Gail listened, sometimes closing her eyes as if she was nodding off. When he left, Kellum kissed her on the lips.
The skin of dead people is very fragile; a soft towel is required to pat the body dry after washing.
LAST SEPTEMBER, Knox was visited by a neighbor whose father had just died in his Maryland nursing home. The woman wanted to care for her father’s body at her house for a short time before transporting him to New York to be buried, but she felt overwhelmed at the prospect of picking up the body herself. Knox called a funeral director she’d worked with in the past, only to discover his business had been sold, and that the new owners were unwilling to facilitate a home funeral. Knox began calling other homes—she estimates she called nine—while the clock ticked away, and a police officer stationed at the nursing home called repeatedly, irate about the unclaimed body.
At last, Knox was able to find a local funeral home willing to pick up the body and put it in cold storage overnight, and another funeral home in New York willing to send an employee the next day to drive down to Maryland. The New York funeral home employee then retrieved the body, brought it to the neighbor’s home for a few hours—where, in the garden, she bathed and dressed her father’s body—and then drove it back up to New York.
This is an extreme example of not uncommon logistical hurdles. The bureaucratic headaches that often ensue when an individual wants to conduct a home funeral can be boiled down to a few fundamental questions: Who owns the dead? What constitutes proper care for the dead, and who gets to decide that? What threat do the dead pose to the living? (The answer to the last question, at least, is fairly straightforward: Bodies that harbor infectious diseases, like HIV and hepatitis C, should be handled with care, said Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist based in San Francisco and author of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner; but the most common causes of death—heart disease, cancer, lung disease—generally aren’t dangerous to the living.)
The state laws that touch upon these questions are a byzantine—often vague or conflicting—mix. Some laws, such as those of Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, use language like “a funeral director or person acting as funeral director” when explaining who’s in charge of remains, often without spelling out who that other person might be. Nine states have laws that explicitly require families to hire licensed funeral directors for certain tasks. In Michigan, for instance, death certificates must be certified not only by a doctor but also by a funeral director, and then the body must remain “under the supervision of a person licensed to practice mortuary science in this state.” (For Rush’s clients, this means working with a funeral home that is willing to transport the body to the house and then pick it up a few days later.)
If interest continues to rise, it’s not difficult to imagine the monied funeral industry lobbying to make it even trickier to arrange home funerals.
But even in the remaining 41 states where people have the right to have a home funeral without involving a paid professional, the lack of explicitness in the law can prove problematic. In Pennsylvania, for instance, advocates believe the law permits families to hold home funerals without a funeral director. The Pennsylvania Department of Health’s “Death Certificate Registration Manual” states that “someone other than a funeral director [can] be in charge of disposition of the body.” But a few years ago, according to documents published by the Funeral Consumers Alliance, Pennsylvania investigated a woman who gave her mother a home funeral without a professional’s help and threatened to fine her $10,000 if she did it again. A press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State told me that holding a home funeral would appear “to constitute the unlicensed practice of funeral directing.”
For the time being, the interest in home funeral is so marginal, and the number of home funeral guides so small, that their efforts have mostly flown under the radar of the funeral industry. But if interest continues to rise, it’s not difficult to imagine the monied funeral industry lobbying to make it even trickier to arrange home funerals.
Those who do live in states that permit families to do everything themselves then have to face the question of whether they actually want to navigate the thicket of regulations. The death certificate, which is typically signed by a doctor, will need to be filed within a certain number of days after death. Some states require embalming or refrigeration if the body isn’t buried or cremated within 24 or 48 hours, though families can get around that with the use of dry ice, advocates say. (A book by Slocum and an advocate named Lisa Carlson, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, reassures that there are no embalming police.) And depending on state law, a family may need a burial transit permit to transport the body. Plus, nursing homes, hospitals, and other institutions may have policies that effectively restrict rights. Some cremation facilities, for instance, won’t accept a body that’s not brought in by a funeral director. It’s a lot of hoops to jump through, even if you have a home funeral guide helping you. And then, once a family has figured out all the legal and practical hurdles, there’s the cultural stigma: family members who don’t want to attend the funeral because it freaks them out, or the neighbor who calls the authorities because the presence of a body in the home makes him suspect foul play. (I heard stories of both of these things happening.)
Even families that are prepared for all this bureaucracy must steel themselves for the visceral realities of dealing with a dead body: It’s necessary to clean the anus and genitals of a corpse, because, as the website for the National Home Funeral Alliance explains, “the bladder and intestines relax” upon death. Some home funeral literature recommends putting cotton balls into the deceased’s rectum to prevent leakage. One licensed funeral director who assists with home funerals (there seem to be more and more offering alternative funerals) said she once had to help a man who was washing the body of his father—who had eaten a large meal shortly before death—by placing three tampons up the dead man’s rectum.
“Home funerals are not for most people,” said Pat Lynch, who helps run his family’s funeral homes in the suburbs of Detroit and previously served as the president of the National Funeral Directors Association. Lynch said he’s noticed a growing desire on the part of customers to be more involved—to help close the casket, to shovel the dirt on the grave, to witness the cremation. His funeral homes bend over backward to accommodate these desires, he said, which is all most people want. But dealing with the unexpected—“fluids that are discharged,” for instance—is likely to bring not comfort, but fear, he said. “This is why the vast majority of people say, ‘I’d rather have someone who knows what they’re doing help me do this—or do it on my behalf,’” Lynch said.
But maybe we think that this is not for “most people” because most people have grown accustomed to thinking about the dead in a detached and clinical way. As Knox would attest, our love for the deceased does not stop the moment their heart stops beating, so why should our care for them? For the small but growing group of people who are embracing the home funeral, proximity to the dead is the only thing that allows for anything like the modern-day “Good Death.” These people want to grieve as they’ve lived—not in an antiseptic, flower-filled reception room, but in a familiar, love-filled home. The good and the bad can be part of death, just as they are part of life. “It’s the strangest thing,” a friend once told Doughty. “The smell of a decomposing body isn’t that bad when it’s someone you love.”
On the day before her 56th birthday, Grace Seidel talked to me about dying. It probably wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, she said, but when it did, she knew what she wanted her family to do with her body: compost it. Earlier this year, Seidel found out about the Urban Death Project — a proposed system that would turn bodies of the dead into compost — and knew instantly it was how she wanted to go out.
“It took a nanosecond for me to make that decision,” Seidel said. “My brain was probably already working in that direction.”
Seidel, an avid gardener who lives in Seattle, said she’s recently been drawn to the idea of green burials, and the Urban Death Project felt like an intimate, even spiritual way to return to the earth. So she donated $2,500 to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which secured her a space in the “core”: a multi-story vault designed to sit at the center of every Urban Death facility. The design is just a concept for now, but it will work something like this: Bodies of the dead will be carried to the top level of the core — which can hold several bodies at once — where they will be covered in wood chips. As each stage in the composting process is completed, the bodies will move down a level until they have completely decomposed. The resulting material will then be screened for non-biodegradable objects, like titanium hips or gold teeth, and cured before being handed off to the families.
The Urban Death Project is the brainchild of Seidel’s fellow Seattle resident and architect Katrina Spade, who was inspired to design the system while watching her children play one day two years ago. “I had this one moment one day where I was watching them and I thought, ‘Oh it’s so great how fast these babies are growing,'” she said. “And then I realized that we’re all growing at the same rate and one day I was going to die.” Spade says the Urban Death Project allows people to embrace their eventual return to Earth’s organic ebb and flow. “We’re part of the natural ecosystem now, and when we die, we’re quite literally turning back into other parts of the world. We’re turning into soil, trees, plant life eaten by animals,” she said. “It’s not just symbolic, it’s actually happening.”
“WE’RE TURNING INTO SOIL, TREES, PLANT LIFE EATEN BY ANIMALS.”The project surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal of $75,000 in May, and now the biggest hurdle left is legislation. While farmers have been composting livestock for years, human composting has no legal precedent. Spade says she’s working with several legislators to discuss regulation, and is confident the process will be mostly administrative. “I don’t think it’s going to be a terrible legal battle,” she said. What might take longer to change, however, is Americans’ perception of unconventional burials.
“For people that fear death, traditional burial and cremation are easier to take. You don’t have to come face to face with the mortality of our bodies,” Seidel said. “If you embalm somebody, you have a funeral for them, they look very nice in their casket. And then you don’t see them again. You can pretend they’re going to look that way forever.”
The birth of the funeral industry
Americans now have more options than ever when it comes to deciding what happens to their bodies after they die, but burial and cremation still lead the pack by a long shot. Conventional burial is expected to account for 45.8 percent of end-of-life choices in 2015, while the projected cremation rate is 48.2 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. And the number of people choosing cremation in the US continues to increase year after year. In 1985, cremation accounted for just 14.9 percent of final dispositions, and by 2020, that number is expected to rise to 55 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Because people have migrated to cities in great numbers over the last century, some urban cemeteries are running out of room. Around the world, sufficient burial space is becoming increasingly scarce. A 2013 study suggested nearly half of the cemeteries in England could fill up entirely in the next two decades, according to the BBC. And, as more and more people begin to realize the impact their death can have on the earth, burial methods that don’t contribute to ecological destruction start to look more appealing.
Economic factors also play a role here. End-of-life options are more expensive than they’ve ever been. In the 1960s, the average cost of a funeral was $708; in 2012, it was $7,045. Combined with crematory revenue, funeral home revenue is expected to grow to $17.2 billion by 2019, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. People seem to be willing to pay more for customization (the highest end of which can reach tens of thousands of dollars), or they’ll go simple and pay less hoping to avoid any kind of spectacle.
Memorials for the dead can be traced back to ancient times, but death used to be a much simpler matter. Before the advent of the funeral home at the turn of the 20th century, most burials occurred in the home. Families would bathe, clothe, and bury their loved ones on their own property. What many people today consider to be a pretty standard burial practice — embalming the dead, choosing a casket — didn’t really emerge until the Civil War. Army doctors dealing with hundreds of dead soldiers who were miles away from home needed a way to preserve bodies until their families could see them. Families who could afford the expense would have their sons’ bodies embalmed and shipped across state lines.
DEATH USED TO BE MUCH SIMPLEROne of the most elaborate embalmings in American history goes to the 16th president. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his body was sent on a cross-country tour, from DC to Illinois, making stops in major cities along the way. Embalmers tried to make him look, well, alive, so mourners could remember him in an appealing light. By the turn of the century, the funeral industry was booming. Of course, it helped that the thing contributing most to that growth was inevitable: death.
Then, in 1963, Jessica Mitford’s exposé The American Way of Death challenged the way many people thought about the country’s elaborate burial process. Since when had funerals become as extravagant as weddings? Mitford argued that the funeral industry managed to convince the public of two things in order to solidify its place in American afterlife: 1) that modern day funeral practices were founded in “American tradition” and 2) that elaborate, sophisticated funerals were really just another extension of what Americans wanted in life.
“Gradually, almost imperceptibly, over the years the funeral men have constructed their own grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying,” she wrote.
Death, it seemed, had become an extravagance.
Gracious Dying in practice
The funeral industry is nearly a century old, and though its revenue stream isn’t in any danger, it’s still had to adapt with the times.
The Urban Death Project is just one of several alternatives for people looking for options outside of cremation and in-ground burial. Although some aspects of the project might sound a little otherworldly, the tenets of the Urban Death Project are really just an extension of the practice of “green burials.”
Green burials are pretty much exactly what they sound like, but there are different levels of “green.” People can choose to forego embalming fluid, use a shroud or biodegradable casket, and (depending on state laws) choose to have a home burial or be buried in a green-certified cemetery. With conventional burials, nearly 7 million gallons of embalming fluid (made mostly of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen) are buried in the soil each year. While cremation uses fewer resources than standard burials, it still produces carbon emissions that contribute to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer. Green burial prices vary, but if a person foregoes embalming or engraved headstones, the funeral can cost just a few hundred dollars.
Samuel Bar, development of product standards at the Green Burial Council, says the biggest draw of green burials is their simplicity. “I hear so often that people want this to be simple,” he said. “They don’t want to be gawked at. They don’t want the facade of being embalmed and stared at in a casket.”
YOU CAN’T AVOID THINKING ABOUT DEATHThe lure of simplicity might sound like an echo of Grace Siedel, who said that people don’t want to think too much about what happens after they die. But other alternative burial options suggest some people do want to think about it — and they want to think about it in a way that relates very personally to their own lives. Even in death, Americans look for a way to claim their individuality.
Mitford called “Gracious Dying” a “huge, macabre, and expensive joke,” and though funerals in America are often huge and expensive (and maybe a little macabre) they’re no joke. People — now more than ever it seems — are seriously looking for burial options that reflect their lives. If a woman spends a lifetime concerned about her environmental impact, why would she abandon those concerns in death? If a man spends thousands of dollars on a particular hobby, why shouldn’t that hobby be memorialized at his funeral?
In space and at sea
Dave Kostick’s wife told him before she died that she would haunt him if he didn’t do one thing: put her cremated remains in a coral reef. “She said, ‘If I die before you, that is what I want to do — I want to be swimming with the fish,’” Kostick said. This request might sound like something out of a noir detective film, but it’s actually a service provided by Eternal Reefs, one of a growing number of companies that offer burial options outside the norm.
Eternal Reefs evolved from the Reef Ball Development Group, a company founded by Don Brawley and Todd Barber that had been creating artificial reefs since the 1980s. The company builds replicas of natural reef formations with the hope of helping to stabilize endangered reef systems around the world. The Reef Balls are composed of a specialized concrete that’s mixed to be as close to neutral as possible, with a textured shell that provides a habitat for marine life.
Intrigued by the popularity of the Reef Balls in the ’80s, Brawley’s father-in-law had another idea: what about mixing his cremated remains into a reef? Because the ash from cremations has the same composition as potash — a main ingredient in cement — Brawley was able to get FDA approval to do it. Today, the company’s largest Reef Ball can cost up to $6,995.
Brawley says when the company first began putting human remains into artificial reefs, people were skeptical. “People used to call, and we’d have to explain the entire process,” he said. “Now people call up and say, ‘This is what my family member wanted, what do I need to do?’ We’ve gotten past the novelty factor.”
Novelty was a roadblock for another unusual burial service: the memorial spaceflight company Celestis. Celestis allows humans to travel into space — after they’ve died, of course. Although it sounds futuristic, Celestis has actually been around since the early 1980s. It was formed by Charles M. Chafer, a man who has worked in the space industry for decades. The company offers four kinds of spaceflight: Earth Ride, in which the spacecraft goes into space and returns; Earth Orbit, in which the spacecraft orbits the Earth for several months to several years; a Moon Orbit; and the $12,500 Voyager ride, which is a deep-space mission that does not return to Earth. The process is simple: several small capsules packed with cremated remains are placed aboard a single commercial rocket that’s already headed to space. The first Celestis launch in 1997 contained the remains of LSD advocate Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Chafer says there are generally two kinds of people who choose Celestis: people who love space and people who love adventure. “One of our customers said, ‘I just went out and looked in the night sky and knew that was where I belonged,'” Chafer said, “so they’re not particularly interested in the spacecraft or that kind of stuff, but more of a universal consciousness approach.”
But Mitchell Thomas’ father (also named Mitchell Thomas) would probably fall into that first category of people: the space enthusiasts. Thomas was a rocket scientist, who, according to his son, was capable of sorting through complex problems that had other scientists stumped for days. And space was an innately comfortable subject for him. “When I was a kid, [my father] used to hold me in his arms and we would look up at the stars, and he would tell me which ones are the stars and which are the planets and how they changed throughout the years,” Mitchell said. “His love for space wasn’t comparable to anyone else’s.”
THE FIRST CELESTIS LAUNCH CONTAINED LSD ADVOCATE TIMOTHY LEARY AND STAR TREKCREATOR GENE RODDENBERRYWhen the company his father worked for, the space technology firm L’garde, offered to put his father’s ashes on a Celestis flight, Thomas said the decision was easy. “His whole life he loved aerospace, and he would’ve loved to go into space,” Thomas said.
Space flight and sea burial aren’t the only options out there. Resomation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is considered a more ecologically sound alternative to cremation. During resomation, a body is placed in a silk bag, submerged in a mixture of water and lye, and then heated at high pressure. The process doesn’t create the high levels of greenhouse gases produced by flame cremation, but it’s been slow to catch on. Alkaline hydrolosis wasn’t offered in the US until 2011, and it’s currently only legal in seven states.
Or, there’s the roaming Body Worlds exhibition, which accepts full body donations after death. It’s similar to donating your body to medical researchers, but Body Worlds halts the natural process of decomposition. Bodies in the exhibition are preserved through the process of plastination, where fat and water are dissolved and exchanged for a reactive polymer like silicone rubber. After the exchange process, known somewhat unpleasantly as “forced impregnation,” the body is locked into a desired position using wires, clamps, and foam blocks.
And for those who believe death is just a road bump on the path to an infinite lifespan, cryonics is available. It’s the process of preserving bodies with the intention of one day bringing them back to life. People who are “legally dead” but not long dead, are cooled with liquid nitrogen to essentially stop the process of decay. The current minimum fee for preserving your body in the interim between life and more life is $28,000, according to the Cryonics Institute. That price is one reason many of the people who have been cryonically frozen have been wealthy celebrities like Red Sox baseball player Ted Williams, who only froze his head. Walt Disney reportedly wanted to be cryogenically preserved, but his family didn’t go for it. Because we can’t bring people back to life yet, there’s no way to know if cryogenics actually works, and the technology sometimes fumbles. In 2006, “France’s best preserved corpses” prematurely thawed due to a freezer malfunction.
Although Jessica Mitford might argue that companies like Celestis and Eternal Reefs are just extensions of the exploitative funeral industry, the people behind those companies would disagree. Don Brawley says more personalized burial options are an inevitable sign of the times. “I think we’re moving away from the conventional burial scenario because it used to be that people were born and died in the same little town,” Brawley said. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Despite the fact that customized burials are becoming increasingly popular, Katrina Spade sees the advent of new options as a sign Americans are moving away from the idea of their special snowflake-ness. “I think we have this very American cultural desire to have our individuality preserved forever, which is reflected in how we bury people,” she said. “I think people are coming to terms with the fact that we’re part of something grander, and they’re ready to embrace that.”
Re-posted from http://stillstandingmag.com/2015/06/five-ways-gentle/
When a baby is lost, there are many pieces of good advice offered up by caring friends and family. The wisest and the most oft repeated is something along the lines of, “Be gentle with yourself.” This is so right.
And so correct.
And yet, this is so difficult to enact.
In the midst of anxiety attacks and in the throes of grief, it is hard to know how to be gentle with oneself. We have all been there – in that moment of panic and despair when time seems to stop. There is only the white-hot thrumming of our pulse. A reminder to keep on breathing because even the reflex quality of breath is compromised.
Here are five small ways to try to be in a moment, and honor it and the loss it signifies.
There was a time when I could not control the despair I felt when reading just these sorts of lists. I knew that nothing would make me feel better and I was not entirely sure whether I even wanted to feel better. My memories at how I once viewed these lists have given me great pause about providing one here.
In no way do I mean to suggest that your grief can be dealt with in list form. Nothing I say here can even begin to scratch the surface. I fear coming off as trite and not honoring enough the pain I know from personal experience. It seers.
But once upon a time, my yogi friend Alex showed up on my doorstep to coach me on breathing. This did not help me resolve my grief, but it did help me stay in the moment so that eventually I could begin to integrate it.
Because there were those moments when I just felt so bad – so full of abject panic–that I really did need to find a way to steady my racing thoughts.
Another way to think of lists about feeling better is to consider that they may sustain you as you grieve and remember. They may help you focus in small ways as you find ways to commune with your baby.
- Familiarize yourself with breathing exercises. Consider going to a yoga class or a meditation class so that your efforts to reflect and remember can be assisted by breath training.
- Find a tube of lotion and carry it in your purse. Apply lotion and vigorously massage your hands in bad moments. If you choose a scent that evokes something calming this is also helpful. I chose lemon verbena.
- Create a memorial as you see fit. Make a memory box of items that remind you of your pregnancy and your baby. Sonogram pictures, blankets, and poems or affirmations can be useful memorial items.
- Take long walks outside. Getting out into the world without really engaging it can distract in moments when a respite from anxiety is helpful. You can walk in a city or in a rural setting. Be mindful of each of your senses.
- Keep things that inspire you available. Bookmark a favorite scene from a movie and watch it. Leave bookmarks in books that move you. Read poems. Art reflects a central fact of being human that I cannot convey here. It has something to do with the nature of loss as transformative, the idea that our suffering does matter. It allows for the possibility that we will find a way to honor our babies in our lives.
Do be gentle with yourself.