Do-It-Yourself Funerals

Learn how to arrange do-it-yourself funerals, includes plans for home funerals and burials, dying at home, cremation and legal problems and information.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
January/February 1978
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Learn how to prepare do-it-yourself funerals.
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Arrange do-it-yourself funerals using these helpful suggestions, includes plans for home funerals and burials.

Do-It-Yourself-Funerals

A scattering of groups and individual families still care for their own dead without the assistance of a funeral director. They are found mostly but not entirely in rural or semi-rural places. A few are religious groups such as the Quakers or Mennonites. Others are rural families, particularly in Appalachia. Some are organized within the framework of a memorial society. The "Burial Committee" of one Quaker group operates as follows: Member families wishing to sign up with the committee fill out forms in advance authorizing the committee to act on their behalf and including the necessary biographical data and endorsement by the next of kin.

At time of death, or when death is expected, the first action of the group is to assist the family in a coordinated way. Immediately after death a member of the committee gets the death certificate from the doctor and takes it to the county courthouse to be recorded. (In some states he must get a transportation permit there.) The next of kin endorses the authorization form, signs an "Authorization to Cremate", and makes out a check to the crematory. The body is placed in a homemade box and taken to the crematory. Burial or removal to a medical school follows much the same pattern. Members serve without pay, which minimizes the possibility of legal complications. The chances of such complications are slight, however, as the committee had, at its outset, read the pertinent laws and interviewed the appropriate public officials.

Following the removal of the body, a memorial meeting is planned, to suit the needs of the particular family and community. The procedure is characterized by the warm sense of emotional security it gives to the survivors (not to mention the small cost!), and the intimate participation which friends experience. What may have been regarded as a disagreeable duty becomes a meaningful privilege.

On Dying at Home

Hospitals are geared to saving lives, not letting them go. Home is generally a nicer place in which to die, if the necessary arrangements can be made for the patient's care. This is particularly true for patients who, together with their families, have been able to accept their approaching death. Further, I can say from experience that the problems of home care, when actually tackled, may prove less formidable than they seemed in prospect.

My wife, before her death in her own home, took much satisfaction in the fellowship of family and friends, who visited her in a steady stream when she was able to receive them. They, in turn, took inspiration from her.

This arrangement can impose a financial problem when professional help is needed and when insurance benefits require hospitalization. Fortunately this is not always the case. Helen Farmer, of the Los Angeles Memorial Society, who kept her husband at home during his last weeks, reports that the two companies with whom they had medical and hospital insurance cooperated in meeting the costs of nursing, medical care, and special equipment. Actually, these costs were lower than they would have been in a hospital.

One way to approach this problem is to inquire of one's Insurance company at a time when there is no need in prospect, as to whether and under what conditions their coverage will apply to home care. Another way is to ask, when the need occurs, if they will cover home care or will insist on the generally more costly procedure of hospitalization. A hospital chart carefully kept and signed at regular intervals by an M.D. or an R.N. (with the letters after the name) plus an accurate expense record (including receipts) can sometimes meet the requirements for insurance benefits for home care.

About Cremation

Modern cremation is a clean, orderly process for returning human remains to the elements. With the rising cost of land burial and (in some areas) shortage of land it is finding increasing use. Many people prefer it for esthetic reasons and specify that their remains be cared for in this way. Crematoria are steadily increasing in number.

The ashes (actually pulverized bone fragments) are clean and white and may be stored indefinitely or mailed by parcel post for distant interment. Some families prefer to scatter them in a favorite garden or woods, or from a mountaintop. (First make sure they are pulverized, to avoid visible bone fragments. This is not difficult.) Some crematories now have equipment which leaves no ashes at all. A few states have laws prohibiting the scattering of ashes. Such laws are commercially motivated and serve no hygienic or esthetic purpose.

Bodies may be delivered to the crematory, in most states, in a plain container; in some, on a pallet. Some crematories require a casket and this requirement is often mistakenly cited as law. The container is placed in the retort with the body, remaining metal parts being magnetically removed. Crematory charges range from $75 to $150. In some places religious groups or private citizens may obtain the necessary death certificate, and permits for transportation and cremation, usually provided no one is being paid. In other places a funeral director is required.

Most religions permit cremation. Roman Catholics may now request permission of the Bishop of their Diocese. Requests are usually granted. The Greek and Jewish Orthodox faiths oppose it, as do a few other groups.

Direct Cremation Services

Within the past few years a new and useful service has appeared in many areas, through which a body may be removed and cremated immediately after death, without embalming, and at low cost. Some organizations offering this service call themselves "societies," apparently In an effort to capitalize on the goodwill of memorial societies. This is not accurate; all the ones we know are commercial ventures and should be described as services. Some are operated by mortuaries. Some of the more substantial ones have contracts and agreements with memorial societies. Most of those who do not have connections with a memorial society charge rates above those available through memorial societies. You can quickly find out about this by contacting your local memorial society and comparing costs and services.

Burials: Legal and Legislative Problems

State and provincial burial laws are intended to protect public health and safety, to make sure that foul play was not involved in a death, and to ensure that the body is disposed of in a responsible and sanitary manner. State boards of health and various regulatory commissions are empowered to set rules and procedures for such things as licensing of funeral directors, death certificates, transportation permits, and authorizations to cremate. These laws and regulations vary in different states and provinces.

The funeral directors, like other industrial groups, maintain active lobbies in nearly all state and provincial capitals. In addition, the various state boards regulating the funeral industry are composed — with few exceptions — entirely of funeral directors. In some states these boards even hold their meetings in conjunction with the state meetings of the funeral directors organizations.

It is important in the funeral industry, as in other industries, that the state regulatory bodies contain a majority of non-industry representatives and that their procedures provide for full presentation of the consumer point of view.

Funeral directors' organizations are often able to put through laws whose ostensible aim is to protect the public interest but which really promote the interests of the industry at the expense of the public. For instance, morticians in Florida tried to get a law enacted which would make embalming compulsory. Failing that, they did get a law passed which requires embalming if a body is held more than 24 hours. A year or so later they got another law passed "in the interest of public safety" requiring that a body not be cremated in less than 48 hours. A similar subterfuge is occasionally attempted in other states to make embalming compulsory.

Funeral directors' organizations have opposed laws requiring that their charges be itemized, though one of their magazines, Casket & Sunnyside, commented that such laws only compel what should be done voluntarily. Some funeral directors do itemize their bills even when not required to do so by law.

In 1976 the Federal Trade Commission promulgated and held extensive hearings on a code of regulations for the funeral industry in the public interest. As we go to press the issue has not yet been decided.

Misrepresentation of funeral laws and restrictions on disposition of bodies is common and is a major problem. Moreover, few lawyers or funeral directors are knowledgeable about funeral and burial law. To find out your state's or province's laws and regulations on disposition of dead bodies, it is best to consult a law library (most county seats have one and the librarian will assist you), or write your state or provincial board of health.

Any person who has a complaint about funeral services (prices, lack of alternative choices, sales pressure, etc.) should definitely complain to the state licensing board (c/o the Governor, if the address is not known), and it is essential that copies go to the Attorney General's office, to the state legislator, and to any local consumer group or agency.

It is important that memorial societies and other consumer organizations be alert to legislative developments affecting funeral practices and themselves Initiate legislation in the interest of the consumer. Ways and means of doing this are discussed in some detail in a handbook for memorial societies prepared by the Continental Association.


Read more about home funerals: How to Arrange a Simple Burial.


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