Learn how to plan a home funeral to provide your loved one a dignified passing and green burial.
Your mother is dying. You want to care for her yourself, at home, when death finally arrives, rather than hiring a mortuary. She feels the same. Together, while there is still time, you decide to plan her service and burial. How do you begin?
Three books are especially helpful: Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, by Lisa Carlson; Guidebook for Creating Home Funerals by Jerri Lyons; and Dealing Creatively with Death, A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Ernest Morgan.
Carlson, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vermont, has become a national spokesperson for the "do-it-yourself" funeral movement in the last few years. She says such burials, especially on private land, appear to be on the rise. "There's no easy way to track it, but there seems to be an ongoing interest in family burial. It's being done quietly, but the number of inquiries on this topic at the Funeral Consumers Alliance is definitely increasing."
The trend is totally predictable, she adds. "The generation that demanded natural childbirth in the '60s and '70s, and recycling in the '90s is wanting green burials, including do-it-yourselfers, now."
Author Jerri Lyons is director of Final Passages, a 7-year-old not-for-profit organization in Sebastopol, California, and a death midwife. Her goal with Final Passages is "to reintroduce the concept of funerals in the home as a part of family life and as a way to deinstitutionalize death." Through this nonprofit project, she provides information and education, and through her own for-profit company, Home and Family Funerals, she offers her death midwife services. She knows of several other death midwives in California and one in Maryland: others may be working quietly on their own in other areas.
Lyons personally has helped more than 200 California families handle their own funerals, and she has counseled many more across the country via the telephone. She says she believes the widespread practice of having the deceased person's body whisked away at the time of death by funeral home personnel interrupts the normal grieving process and destroys the coherence families can achieve on their own. When the family handles is own funerals, members gain "better closure, a sense of empowerment and substantial economic savings."
Lyons' guidebook includes step-by-step instructions for such things as washing and dressing the body to "lie in honor," and handling transportation of the body home and/or to the place of disposition, which is either cremation or burial. The book also includes specific information on government paperwork required for home funerals in California.
Through Final Passages, Lyons presents workshops about funeral options and about becoming death guides or death midwives like herself.
Most of the families Lyons has helped used cremation for disposition of the body. She also has participated in one "earth friendly" or green burial, in the Sebastopol Memorial Lawn Cemetery, an older, privately owned facility. The body was not embalmed; the casket was pine and no vault was used; the dirt was simply mounded up on the grave, rather than being leveled as it is over a vault.
Lyons predicts green and home burials will increase if information about them becomes more widely available. "Most people in this country don't know they have the legal right to care for their own loved ones when they die," she says.
The organization's website includes interviews with people who have planned their own funerals and photographs of burials, along with resource information.
Carlson cautions persons who choose to handle death privately to "take great care to follow all state and local regulations. The requirements are not complex, but failure to meet them can lead to unpleasant situations and create a climate in which professionals become less willing to work with families."
In her book, she explains the precision needed in filling out a death certificate, required by every state, and she reports situations where special death certificates are required, including fetal deaths and those that require an autopsy. She notes that special circumstances, such as an extended time between death and disposition, may make embalming necessary, but refrigeration or dry ice can take the place of embalming in many instances. She also warns readers to "never move a body without a permit or medical permission."
Home burials require an examination of local zoning ordinances, says Carlson. "For those with land in rural or semi-rural areas, home burials usually are possible."
Read more about green funerals: Planning a Green Funeral at Home.