Home Funerals

article image
PHOTO: MARY WOODSON

Learn how to plan a home funeral to provide your loved one a dignified passing and green burial.

Home Funerals

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.