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Are You Afraid to Plan for Your Own Death?

Exploring our rights to make the death and funerary process more personal and less of a consumer affair.

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Lyons concurs: "It's helpful for the family to see a subtle change in the face. It looks like the spirit is not there anymore, the life force energy wanes and the body looks more like a shell or an earth suit that used to carry the person's spirit. Families are ready to let go of the physical and cremation or burial can finally take place."

A home funeral also gives friends and relatives an opportunity to contribute and show their support. It is a communal experience. "You let others take care of you," says Lyons.

For Olivia Bareham, one of the highlights of a home funeral is when family and friends gather around a cremation casket: a simple cardboard box painted white to allow for scribbles or elaborate designs. "One family chose to draw a tree of life and each relative and friend put their handprints on the branches, indicating that they all belonged together," Bareham remarked. "Kids are natural," she added. "They can't wait to draw on the casket. It reminds them of white paper. Soon everybody's taking pictures of this final tribute and of the adorned casket." In A Family Undertaking, sons and grandsons fabricate a wooden casket in their South Dakota barn while the elder proudly looks on and is invited to brand his final resting place with his initials.

The Challenges

It's not for everyone," admits Lyons. "If your loved one died after a long illness, the family might be too exhausted." Depending upon your culture and religious inclinations, you may need more or less time than the amount of days your state allows you to keep the body. According to Lyons, people on average keep the body in the home for three days, but a body can be safely preserved with dry ice for up to five or six days.

"Orthodox Jews and Muslims typically aim or try to bury by sundown the next day," Barrett remarks, "and in the African American tradition, the participation of all significant family members is an honorable tradition. It's often considered insensitive, impolite and an insult to have a funeral before a family member who is away is trying to get home. That's one of the reasons why they need seven to ten days before burial."

Another obstacle is space. The families featured in A Family Undertaking live in rural areas. "Since the 1950's, people have evolved to smaller and smaller living accommodations," notes Barrett. "In urban environments, apartments with stairs, hallways and corners make it impossible to negotiate a full casket for a full adult." Barrett also raises another specter: "When the cause of death is violent or a protracted illness where there is a disease process, then the idea of trying to care for a body at home raises all kinds of health concerns depending upon the environment. The idea of moving back to a home death-care situation probably would have to be regulated to protect the health and welfare of the population at large."

The funeral industry is already trying to regulate home funerals. "In Oregon they have passed a bill to license home funeral guides," says Lyons. "They can educate in a classroom situation but not at the time somebody dies unless they pay for the licensing. Funeral homes are angry because they have to pay to go to school, pay for their licenses, they have to carry insurance and all the overhead, and some home funeral guides like me just want to help families do their own home funerals."

How Death Became a Stranger

Ironically, up until the late 1800s, American families cared for their dead at home without any government oversight and women were usually responsible for preparing and caring for the dead body. That all changed with the Civil War and its 600,000 casualties. Deceased soldiers were often hastily buried on the battlegrounds. Only families of significant financial means could afford to hire funeral directors to find the bodies and ship them home for burial. The rest of the country not only endured the unnatural loss of their sons but was robbed of the healing rite of caring and preparing the bodies of their loved ones for burial. Add to this traumatic shift the lower mortality rates that slowly made death a stranger in American homes, as well as an ever-expanding consumer society pushing to embellish funeral rites, and funeral directors slowly took over the familial duty.

Keeping home funerals more affordable than traditional ones is another challenge. "Even if the family does the funeral at home," says Lyons, "even if they have their own ceremony, even if they do the paperwork, file it with the state and drive the body to the crematorium, the crematorium might give them a little discount but mostly they're going to charge them the full amount of a direct cremation. They're going to say that their basic fee is $1,000 and that they have their overhead fees. Luckily, in our area I know two funeral homes that are willing to only charge for the cremation. It's $250. The families will have done everything else."

In this country, the average cost of a mortuary-directed funeral with burial is $7,000; with cremation it's $5,000. Lyons holds the vision that "eventually communities will come together and will cooperatively own their own green cemeteries and their own crematoriums, because as long as it's controlled by the funeral industry in the way that it is, we will always be subject to paying whatever they're going to charge."

Ronald Barrett agrees, "In many cases the way packaging is done by most funeral homes, there is a disincentive for families to be personally involved. You are almost encouraged to purchase a package in order to save on the individual items." This practice is in direct violation with one of the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rules, called "The Customer's Right to Choose." The rule was implemented in 1975 to curb the questionable practices of the funeral industry exposed by Jessica Mitford in her 1963 best-seller The American Way of Death.

I asked Lyons if there is any possible collaboration with funeral homes. "Some funeral homes are starting to offer home funerals. One woman, whose father owns a mortuary in the Midwest, took our class and wants to bring in the home funeral aspect. Some people see that this isn't going away. There is a difference in the quality of care. I know some funeral directors are well-meaning but they don't realize that they're disempowering families. They think they're taking the burden off of the family. When we teach, we talk about the difference between funeral directors and home funeral guides. It's important to guides that the family is made to feel that they are in charge, that they are making informed decisions and that everything is done legally and correctly. We guide, we facilitate but we don't direct."

Home funeral educators and guides also have to contend with people's resistance to the inevitability of death. Our consumer society would rather have us focus our energies and money on the possibility of delaying the aging process rather than on facing the reality that we are born to die. "Lots of people come to our workshops because they have aging parents and they want to know how to take care of them, so they're not caught off guard," says Lyons. "Other people do it because they want to prepare for their own death. We never know when we're going to die. In our culture not many people acknowledge that." Lyons likes to quote this Buddhist commentary: "America is the only culture that considers death as optional."

Lyons is in the process of forming a California Home Funeral Alliance to organize the community of home funeral educators and guides, as well as friends of the home funeral movement. Currently she relies on her educational workshops and private grants to keep her organization going. Lyons deplores that foundations offering funding for death and dying projects do not as yet include categories for after-death care, and home or family-directed funeral guidance.

There is an urgent need to educate hospitals, hospices and coroner's offices, who often don't know that families have the legal option to care for their dead. At the time of death, they usually give the grieving relatives a list of local funeral homes to choose from. On the Funeral Consumers Alliance Web site a chaplain working in a Georgia hospital leaves a comment asking for help in the case of a family member who requested to take the body of their dead relative. The chaplain admits to being "unprepared for that" since they always release the body to funeral homes. Lyons contends that people can't be blamed for being uninformed when nobody wants to talk about death.

"We don't have any death education in school, yet every one of us is going to die," Lyons says. "We have sex education but no death education. If we introduced this reality at an early age we'd get more comfortable. In my workshops, I show the first episode of Greg Palmer's four-part series 'Death: The Trip of a Lifetime.' In it a teacher, after the death of a colleague, decides to instruct his 4th-graders about death and dying. She has them write their own epitaphs, what they'd want people to say about them at their funerals, what would be on their grave site. The kids get to be so comfortable with the whole concept of dying. That's where it needs to begin."

There are currently 54 listings under "Home Funeral Guides and Consultants" on the Home Funeral Directory Web site and many books on the subject of do-it-yourself funerals are widely available. A new edition of Lisa Carlson's Caring For The Dead: Your Final Act of Love, published in 1998 is in the works and the Funeral Consumers Alliance adds updates on its Web site to changes in state laws since the publication of the book. The site also lists local organizations available for counsel and information is readily accessible from the Consumer Protection branch of the Federal Trade Commission as well as your local Department of Consumer Affairs.

"No one can care for our loved ones as tenderly as those who have loved them," says Beth Knox. Olivia Bareham founded Sacred Crossings, a company offering cost-effective alternatives to current funeral practices, in the wake of her mother's passing. Since she died at home, the nurse asked Bareham if she would help her bathe the body. "I had never seen my mom's naked body! I don't regret I said yes. The experience was unforgettable and deeply honoring of my mother."

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