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Just Say No to a Funeral Home: Exploring the Home Death Movement

Ever since my book club read Being Mortal,  I’ve thought about what I’d like my elder years to look like (should I be lucky enough to have them) and what constitutes a good death, specifically, MY good death.

And that leads me to consider, even more specifically, what I’d like to happen in the hours and days after I die.

rip info on diy funeral

DIY in the Death Industry

I’ve explained before that I’m not too keen on burial and my kids are not too keen on “carmation.” Curious about alternatives to embalming (in preparation for either burial or cremation), I came across New York Times article about the home death movement.

“The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals” reveals an emerging phenomenon. Baby boomers, the eldest now in their 70s, are trending toward simpler funerals and DIY body preparation/disposition. Why? Three reasons: it’s more natural, it’s more green, and it’s less expensive.

…the funeral industry is responding to a widespread desire for greener and more meaningful send-offs. In Sebastopol, Calif., Jerrigrace Lyons advocates home funerals and encourages families to spend more time with the body. Nature’s Casket, outside Boulder, Colo., makes rustic, handmade pine coffins that can be used premortem as bookshelves. Eternal Reefs, near Atlanta, helps clients turn cremated remains into personalized, eco-friendly “reef balls,” which are placed on the ocean floor, aiding the growth of coral reefs.

(I’m kind of diggin’ the wicker casket pictured in the article.)

Death as a Family Matter

I didn’t even know do-it-yourself body preparation (and, in some states, disposition) was a possibility. Did you? Boston’s WBUR* says that in most states, it’s legal to care for our own dead.

*Alert: The WBUR story begins with the death of a child. Skip the click if you need to.

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…”

…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 [bold mine].

Does Involvement with the Body Help or Hinder Grieving?

The article asks why, when we are not compelled to eat restaurant food or have our oil changed in a shop or our nails done professionally, why do we assume we must go to a third party for  funeral services?

Some of it is an erroneous assumption of the law, and some of comes from an “assumption that the grieving are simply too fragile to cope with death head on.”

WBUR points out that in reality, the DIY aspect supports the grief process for those who choose to go this route.

Over My Dead Body

I do not want my body taken away by strangers to a sterile place. I do not want my body pumped full of chemicals and violated in so many ways [warning: graphic descriptions].

If my loved ones are amenable (I cannot yet have that talk with my children), I prefer to be put on ice for a few days while people gather. Then they’d sing some of my favorite songs and maybe even dance with both joy and sorrow. And finally, they’d put my body in a cardboard box they’ve decorated (see video below) and take it to a crematorium.

Either all that, or I donate my body to Body Worlds, with the stipulation that I spend eternity in a yoga pose.

(Yes, I see the disconnect about chemical injections).

Have you thought about what you’d like for your own body disposition and funeral? Are you drawn to any aspects of a home death?

See Also

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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14 Responses

  1. This is so interesting because Jewish burial is not at all like Christian burial. Someone is with the body from the moment of death until the moment the person is buried (or, even though it’s not part of Judaism, a lot of Jews get cremated). They’re called the chevra kadisha ( They wash the body and then put on the burial clothes, which is the kittel you got married in if you’re a guy (it’s a white robe) or a kittel-like outfit for a woman. Every community has their own chevra kadisha. Ours also attends the funeral and shiva so the person will always have at least 10 people saying kaddish over them with the family.

    That said, I DO NOT want a traditional burial like that. I’ve chosen my music and written out the playlist. I’d like to be cremated, and I have a travel fund set up for the kids so they can scatter me in dozens of places. Some are in the US, but a bunch are overseas. And I’ve asked that they not use a funeral home at all if they want to gather for some type of service. I asked that they use a community center or library or restaurant party room; something without negative connotations.

    1. As I wrote this post, I remembered that Jewish and Muslim customs are different from Christian (and some non-specific) customs of the west. Seems like there are other cultures that have not separated themselves from death as much as mine has.

      I love the idea of a body being attended by at least 10 people for awhile. And while I don’t love imagining the world without you, I do love the ritual details you have planned for yourself.

  2. I don’t even care what happens to my remains after I’m dead. It’s not about me anyway, so whoever is in charge can do whatever makes them feel best.

    1. I know in the reason compartment of my mind that my body is just a vehicle. But also, after a lifetime of taking care of it I have become so attached to it, my emotional compartment does have preferences.

      What would you want to happen if you were in charge of a loved one’s decisions?

  3. I honestly believed that cremation was the greenest way. Had zero clue that embalming was an option for this process.

    I view my body as a vessel; it serves me as I walk on this planet during this time. A good death involves going without regrets and then having this vessel honored by returning it to ash for this planet to use. But it sounds like I need to give this some more thought on what exactly that means.

    1. It’s such an unpleasant thing to think about. Unlike A, I have trouble wrapping my brain around it.

      I would kinda like to spend eternity in a yoga pose that I can’t do in this life. Like, say, handstand, or dragonfly pose.

  4. You write about the most fascinating things. Death is something I think about a lot. My first close up experience was when my dad passed away. Hindu funerals are pretty intense. The body is brought home, kept on ice for maybe a day until all the family gathers. The priest arrives for some final prayers and each person does their version of a goodbye and the body is cremated. I personally felt it helped with the grief and grieving as I could touch my dad until his body left for the crematorium. Post-cremation, we have rituals that run for a total of 13 days counting from the day of death. Then we have monthly rituals culminating in the first anniversary. Every anniversary thereafter is also observed.

    For my death though, I would want to be surrounded by family, my viable organs donated and the rest cremated. I could do without the involvement of religion and rites.

  5. I have given this a lot of thought since the loss of our daughter. I find ritual comforting & I would like an Anglican church service, albeit I want the Beatles “In My Life” played as they carry me out. And I want my friends & family to have a wake/party afterward!! — it’s not something that is typically done in dh’s family and something I miss, living here. I have no objection to cremation, but I do not like the idea of having my ashes scattered… while I recognize that there won’t be a lot of people coming to visit me in the cemetery, I do like the idea that I (or what’s left of me, lol) is somewhere, with a marker that shows I existed. 😉 Dh & I have bought a niche in the same cemetery close to where our daughter’s ashes are interred… there’s room for two urns. The niche above ours has a marker with a couple of lines from Pink Floyd’s “Time” on it — “The time is gone, the song is over/Thought I’d something more to say.” I said to dh, “I guess there are worse ways to spend eternity than with Pink Floyd above you,” lol. 😉

    1. Ooooh. Do you remember they played “In My Life” at the end of the last episode of “thirtysomething”? An excellent choice.

      I love the plan and location you and DH have come up with. And tru dat about Pink Floyd 🙂

  6. I read an article about this on…. Facebook ? a year ago and it changed my mind completely. I absolutely LOVE the idea of taking care of your own dead, and funeral homes and practices have always bothered me a great deal. I don’t know if my husband would be on board with doing this for my dead body, but I’d want to do it for his with the help of a death doula (I didn’t know about those until the WBUR article you posted).

    Have you seen “Captain Fantastic?” It touches on this and when Brian and I watched it together, it resonated with him. He said, “I thought that would bother new but it was really beautiful.” I need to watch that movie again.

      1. Yes! Captain Fantastic’s take on death was so interesting and beautiful and unconventional. I loved that movie for many reasons, even though it has some flaws it sticks with you. Enjoy!

  7. This is so fascinating… I had no idea that you had to be embalmed to be cremated! I thought the whole point was to have it be more natural, less chemical… I do like the trees. I like the idea of being composted back into nature. But I also like the idea of having a memorial of some kind, some kind of marker to say I was there — not necessarily in a graveyard, but maybe a bench in a public garden, or a room in a library? There’s a reading room in the library in the town where I teach that is dedicated to a librarian who passed, and it’s filled with the most lovely glass art depicting flowers from her gardens. That sounds like a great thing to me. Once again you’ve made me think on something I haven’t really thought too much about of late!

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