Low-Cost, Do-it-Yourself Funerals

Learn more about do-it-yourself funerals, including how being more involved can save you money.

| August/September 2001

  • Funerals
    People are becoming interested in being more involved in the funeral process for their loved ones.

  • Funerals

I first heard Lisa Carlson on a radio talk show about possible reforms in the funeral industry, particularly, in regard to do-it-yourself funerals. The show was produced in New Hampshire, where the Senate was considering a bill to grant family members and designated agents the right to handle funeral details such as death records, body transportation, and burial permits. The existing statute reserved those tasks for licensed undertakers, which Carlson argued denied people a traditional and often therapeutic involvement in family funerals, as well as creating unfair funeral costs.

She'd been invited to appear on the show as head of the Funeral and Memorial Society Association of America and as author of Caring for the Dead, about do-it-yourself funeral procedures. She appeared with the head of the New Hampshire Undertakers and Embalmers Association, and it was a feisty debate, with Carlson making a persuasive case for the new law, and the funeral director making predictable pitches for the benefits of his services. The funeral industry declined to take an official position on the statute, and the law passed.

Carlson talked about being compelled to have a do-it-yourself funeral for her first husband to save money, and about finding that the emotional benefits were even more valuable than the financial ones. Subsequent family deaths had been followed with homemade funerals. Carlson is a believer.

I told her I was interested in understanding why we'd inherited such a schizophrenic culture about funeral practices: lots of violence and death in our entertainment, but little stomach for the real thing. I wondered where her organization fit in. There'd been a few deaths in my hometown recently, and I'd heard from several survivors who wished they'd taken a more hands-on approach. In the end, they'd left it up to the professionals and felt vaguely unfulfilled, even shortchanged.

"Memorial societies have been the world's best-kept secret for years," she said. "They started back in the late 1930s after the Depression. A radical Unitarian minister in Seattle was appalled at the high cost of dying, when the industry was pushing embalming and manufactured caskets. He represented a group of people who went to a funeral director and said, 'We don't think a funeral should cost more than such and such, we want a simple exit, no frills. If we send all our mem bers to you, will you agree to honor this price?' That was how the first urban memorial society started. It was not inconsistent with some of the thoughts behind the old burial co-ops in the agrarian Midwest and South. Each one has a slightly different flavor, but a similar concern. How do we prepare for the end of life without spending a lot of money?"

To get to our current situation, she backtracks to pioneer America, when a group of women would come to the deceased's house and help with the laying out of the dead. Later, during the Victorian era, there would of ten be an elaborate laying out in the front parlor, with the body on display surrounded by fancy draperies. But as we became a more dispersed society, there wasn't room or time to lay Grandma out in the parlor anymore. We were spreading out, and the funeral moved from the family home to the undertaker's "home.".

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