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In a scene from the documentary A Family Undertaking: Home Funerals in America, farmer Bernard Carr watches while his son Keith decorates his homemade casket by burning the family cattle brand into the wood. Mr. Carr died a few weeks later. ANDREW KIST
In a scene from the documentary A Family Undertaking: Home Funerals in America, farmer Bernard Carr watches while his son Keith decorates his homemade casket by burning the family cattle brand into the wood. Mr. Carr died a few weeks later. ANDREW KIST

DIY Funerals

Home funerals restore intimacy to grieving rituals Add to ...

When Carol Long's mother died of heart failure a year ago, the undertaker was the last one on the scene.

Instead, four generations of family gathered at her mother's home in Port Townsend, Wash., and cared for the departed themselves.

They tied her jaw shut the age-old way, and picked out clothes for her.

Then, with help from her relatives, Ms. Long washed the 89-year-old body that had given birth to her decades before.

Family members filled the room with flowers, shed their tears and decorated the cardboard box in which the body was moved - nearly 24 hours later - to a crematorium.

Touching her dead mother was frightening at first, Ms. Long says, but the vigil with her family gave her a deep sense of closure. "Although we were grief stricken, it was as if we were also transported into this ecstatic place."

The idea of keeping a body at home may seem macabre to those who have watched gruesome episodes of Six Feet Under. But home funerals were the norm until the U.S. Civil War era, when soldiers' bodies were preserved for shipping with embalming techniques later marketed as a sanitary way to honour the dead.

Do-it-yourself funerals are reemerging as an alternative to the modern funeral industry, which has made death an alienating experience, according to the documentary A Family Undertaking: Home Funerals in America. The film will be screened this Saturday at Vancouver's Mountain View Cemetery as part of a day-long forum on death and dying.

As baby boomers bury their parents and contemplate their own demise, home-funeral advocates say, many are seeking ways to restore the intimacy of traditional grieving rituals.

"We're the same generation that reclaimed home birth," says Nora Young, a hospice chaplain and home-funeral guide in the Seattle area. "We're very educated consumers and most of us are pretty committed to green standards."

Embalming, which replaces bodily fluids with formaldehyde-based preparations, is expensive and harmful to the environment, Ms. Young says. Toxic chemicals used in the procedure can leak out and pollute soil and water sources.

By contrast, bodies buried in their natural state have minimal impact on the earth.

At room temperature, a corpse takes several days to begin decomposing, and can be preserved longer using dry ice. Unless a body is mutilated by an accident or suicide, embalming is usually unnecessary, writes Lisa Carlson, author of Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love.

For shell-shocked families, however, the logistics of a home funeral may seem overwhelming.

Death certificates must be obtained from a doctor or coroner, and the family must either apply for legal permission from the province to transport human remains, or hire a professional to take the body away.

Since corpses must be moved in rigid containers, do-it-yourselfers order cardboard coffins online (at Ecocoffins.com) or hammer together their own plywood box using instructions downloaded from a website such as Lastthings.net.

By looking after the departed themselves, families save an average of $10,000 for a funeral, Ms. Young says, "and have the blessing of the grief work and the healing process that happens when we do care for our own."

There is a time-honored technique for washing and anointing the deceased, which may expel bodily fluids after death, Ms. Young says. "All of this is done with the utmost of dignity and respect," she adds. "The body is always draped, just like getting a massage."

In the United States, a growing network of home-funeral guides help families with the legal and practical matters of dealing with the deceased. Some members of the National Home Funeral Alliance, including Ms. Young, market their services online as "death midwives."

Home funerals, including fees, cost between $500 and $1,500, she says.

Death midwives are rare in Canada, since in many provinces only licensed professionals can accept money to help families with funeral arrangements. Nevertheless, support for home funerals is available from non-profit organizations such as Dumont Creek Burial Society in British Columbia's Interior.

About 120 permits are issued in the province each year to individuals seeking to transport human remains, according to Consumer Protection B.C. But officials don't track how many families care for a body at home and then hire an undertaker for interment or cremation.

A home funeral isn't an all-or-nothing affair, notes Ms. Young.

By the same token, funeral directors will accommodate family members who want to help wash or dress the body or witness a cremation, according to Justin Schultz, president of the Funeral Service Association of British Columbia.

"We have been asked to even bring a casket into a home for a viewing," he says.

According to Ms. Young, some families are better off working with a funeral director instead of a death midwife.

Ms. Young has turned down a daughter who hoped to care for her late mother's body single-handedly - an unrealistic expectation, she says - as well as a family embroiled in conflict over whether to use her services.

Ms. Long, who is about to mark the first anniversary of her mother's death, says she remembers one relative was "appalled" when the family decided to look after her mother's body at home.

But the experience helped Ms. Long clarify her wishes for when her own time comes.

"I want to die with my loved ones around me," she says. "I want them to prepare my body, and I don't want to be embalmed."

 

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