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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.

When Beth Knox lost her 7-year-old daughter in a car accident, she was told the hospital could only release her body to a funeral home. At the time, Knox didn't know she had the legal right to drive her daughter's body from the hospital to her house in the same van in which she took her to school every day. What she knew was that her family needed time.

"I was required by law to care well for her," she writes on her Web site, "but now that her heart had stopped beating, I was being told that her care was no longer my concern." Finding it unacceptable, she found a funeral home that agreed to bring her daughter's body back to her house. "I cared for her at home for three days, bathing her, watching her, taking in slowly the painful reality that she had passed from this life, and sharing my grief with her classmates and brothers and grandparents and our wonderful community of friends, before finally letting go of her body."

For more than a decade, a growing number of Americans have resurrected the ancient practice of "do-it-yourself" funerals. Like Beth Knox, now a funeral rights educator in Maryland, these home funeral guides and educators are spreading the word that after-death care is not the funeral industry's birthright. You have the legal authority, in most states, to care for your loved ones after they die. It will transform your life, with the added bonus of saving you money.

A Sacred Rite of Passage

As a society we have distanced ourselves from the dying process," says Dr. Ronald K. Barrett, professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "We now have hospices and institutions where people go to die. In former times the dying process was an integral part of the life experience of the community; people were born and died at home. To the extent that we have relocated those experiences to death care professionals, the experience of death itself has become alien, and it has complicated our ability as humans to do what we have so naturally done since time immemorial, and that is to grieve."

Jerrigrace Lyons, director of the non-profit organization Final Passages in Northern California, has made it her life mission to educate her community in the exploration of choices surrounding the death of a loved one and compassionate alternatives to current funeral practices. "When you keep your loved one at home," she says, "the process has a natural beginning, middle and end, and everybody who is around you is benefiting from this rite of passage. There is such a vast difference between a family coming to that place of letting go on their own and the funeral home's transportation service showing up at the door two hours after death to take the body away in a plastic bag."

When Lyons serves as a home funeral guide, one of her first duties is to help friends and family members walk through what she calls "the doorway of fear." "As guides," she says, "we model touching the dead body, rubbing the head, holding the hands, brushing the cheeks. The family's original reluctance melts away as soon as they see that we're normalizing it."

One funeral industry practice that gets the blood of these otherwise gentle educators pumping is the embalming of the body. The Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule dictates that funeral directors inform families that embalming is not required by law and doesn't prevent decomposition of the body. In my state of California, the only legal requirement for a body that will not be cremated or buried within 24 hours is that it must be refrigerated. According to Lyons, who has participated in more than 150 home or family-directed funerals, a body can be safely preserved by keeping dry ice under the vital organs right after death and while the body stays at home.

"During embalming, morticians poke, slap, and prod around in places that a few hours before were your very private and sacred parts," says Olivia Bareham, a home funeral guide in Los Angeles. "Your body is subjected to torturous toxic poisoning with formaldehyde. And then, your 'former home' is hosed off with freezing water, the bits that won't stay down or shut are sewn or glued in place, and your body is shoved back in the fridge. There is nothing holy, kind, sacred or beautiful about it. It is barbaric."

In the haunting PBS documentary A Family Undertaking, Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization, describes the piercing of all internal organs and the sucking out of the juices as "assault and battery." If you have the stomach for it, the film allows you a quick look inside an embalming room. Compared to the predominance of corpses in all stages of decomposition on popular crime shows, it might seem tame, except in this case there is no suspension of disbelief at play: you are looking at a real body. In the film, a South Dakota man who recently buried his mother and whose father is dying finds it inconceivable to send his loved ones away to be "bled and pickled" by strangers.

One would argue that once someone is dead, whatever happens to their body is only painful to the living. However, for those among us who believe that we have a soul and that it detaches from the body after death, some religions and spiritual practices argue that it hovers around the body for a few days. What if this soul or spirit has the same need as we survivors have, to keep near the body in order to make peace with this most precarious severance?

For Lyons, it's always about the living. "People are not comfortable reaching out and touching the body too much during a formal viewing of an embalmed body in a mortuary. You can lean over and give a little peck but that's it. If you want to stay there and put your arms around your loved one, forget that. It's not going to be acceptable. At home you can sit with them, cry, meditate, and talk to them for as long as you need to."

"Most Germans do not embalm," says Barrett. "They do not engage in a lot of cosmetic preparation. They believe the more the family confronts the reality of death, which at times includes the smell and the natural process of the breaking down of the dead body, the easier it will be for them to accept that this is a dead person."

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