The Thinking 

On De-Commercializing Death

January 7, 2013



I am encouraged by some of the comments, here and here, regarding cremation, funerals, and burial. I say “encouraged” because my heart rejoices at any glimmer of people weaning themselves from the control and ordinances of illegitimate authority. I believe the funeral industry is such an authority.

Some years ago, I read several books on death, dying, and funerals, including Lisa Carlson’s excellent “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love.” I used this book as a jumping-off point for a Sunday School class on “A Christian View of Death, Dying, and Funeral Preparation.”

After covering the history of funeral practices in America (including many of the interesting ones familiar to those from the Appalachian South), I drew attention to the moneymaking nature of modern embalming & preparation practices. I also spent one entire class session in describing and showing in gruesome detail just exactly what goes on in a typical embalming & preparation. We discussed federal, state, and local laws governing funeral issues, and I (hopefully) demonstrated that the family has much more authority and latitude in these decisions than most people think. Most of the class members were surprised to learn that many states (including my own) allow for burial on one’s own property as long as the burial meets certain reasonable requirements. We discussed coffin construction, body preparation, washing, and dressing, and family traditions in funeral rites. Most of the class members found the subject matter interesting and encouraging.

What I found interesting as a teacher was the number of folks who, at the end of the semester, told me that the class hadn’t changed their intentions to allow the funeral industry to take charge of their family funeral arrangements. It reminded me of how Americans can read extensively and talk with enthusiasm about healthy food, the Christian agrarian model, and the evils of industrialization … and yet remain enslaved to pizza and microwaves and Jenny Craig. It’s just easier to let Big Brother take care of the tedious details.

I recommend that your readers continue thinking and discussing these issues. There are many superb resources out there, including some home funeral movements and green funeral groups. Mrs. Carlson’s book is a good place to start, as it contains a wealth of links and addresses to different organizations.

The death of a loved one is too sacred a matter to be entrusted to the people who have destroyed a once-great land.

—- Comments —–

Mary writes:

To our astonishment my siblings and I were recently informed by our mother that she would like to given a wake at home, a statement she delivered in the same casual way she might a restaurant preference. She says it’s no big deal but, in truth, she’s never actually been to a home wake – has only heard about them – but loves the idea and therefore is leaving it up to us, except for adding something helpful like, “Oh, who needs a funeral home!”, which in my mind equals: oh, who needs electricity! or, who needs gas! i.e. something potentially worthy but fraught with peril and requiring thoughtful planning before jumping in with both feet. Truth be told we like the idea very much. It seems like one of those lost, lovely things that most of us don’t even know we’ve missed. But we are at a loss as to where to start. We know of no one who has any experience with this whatsoever but thought maybe some of your readers may have some experience/advice.

Laura writes:

Lisa Carlson’s book, mentioned by Mr. MacPherson, is probably a good place to start.

Buck writes:

Your series of entries on the disposition of human remains got me curious. I searched Maryland codes and other sites for answers to what is lawful. How and where and by whom can human remains be cared for or stored? Ceremony and funerals aside, there seems to be no clear answers, or restrictive prohibitions. The law seems only to be interested in business licensing, easements, dis-internment and re-internment court orders.

Preservation by embalming is for final viewings. A decorative casket is a coffin, which typically goes into a protective vault, usually concrete, or is covered top and sides by a concrete or metal liner to prevent crushing and the uneven settling of the site. All of that is cosmetic and none is required by law.

We can be buried with no coffin or preservatives as shallow as eighteen inches below grade. “Six feet under” is a myth.

My backyard is half septic field and half required reserve field. No permanent structures can be within twenty feet of any component of the large system or reserve. The code requirements and permitting process is tedious and extensive. A failed water table or percolation test and my house is condemned, as are 25 percent of the homes in the United States.

I can find no references to a fear of ground water contamination by human remains. I don’t believe that’s a problem.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Terry Morris writes:

Yes, people have forgotten what the term self-government means, and the American heritage of Christian self-government. In my state, for example, I can’t even go to the barber of my choice to have my hair cut because of state licensing of barbers, and of the attendant restrictions placed upon them. So one of my daughters has been cutting my hair for the last couple of years, as well as the hair of our three dependent sons.

In a dependent society, what is the first answer to every single dilemma one faces, or fears he may face? Make a new law, of course. No wonder the economy is collapsing.

Jewel writes:

This topic has touched me deeply as well. And it has wonderfully informed me and encouraged me as a Christian to think forward towards death. I went and searched for an online will kit, and made my last will and testament, which was quite simple, since I own very little, save for my children and my husband, and there is even a casket building page to help people with woodworking skills be able to build their own coffins. I also looked up my own state’s laws concerning funeral homes, embalming and burial, and it is possible to build your own casket in my state, nor do I have to embalm.

Not that I look forward to dying, but I have made these requests known in my last will and testament. My husband (who is a skilled carpenter) will be able to build a simple coffin, should he not die before me. Fortunately, there are many carpenters in my family who are up to the task when it arises.

Laura writes:

Yet one more good reason to marry a carpenter. : – )

Lisa writes:

Caring for the Dead is an excellent and helpful resource, with state-by-state laws and precedents. After seeing our family give birth to children at home, as well as work and school at home, my grandmother was very willing to come to our home for a “little vacation” in what we did not realize were her final few weeks, with cancer already in her lymph system, though her doctors had not told us what in hindsight became glaringly obvious. Since she lived in Louisiana, which, at the time treated (and may still do so) any death outside a hospital or nursing home as criminal, her pre-arrangement funeral director there, whom I called when she died concerning transporting her body back to her home state, called the sheriff with a criminal complaint. Thankfully, we had a sensible local coroner who ran interference for us, since we had not yet enrolled in any hospice-type program (in Missouri at that time, the patient waived the right to ANY more hospital care for ANYTHING when signed up for hospice), but had established her as a patient with a local doctor just to cover our bases and do check-ups to reassure extended family.These issues came up because we did not know what questions to ask, and so it is good to confer about “home dying” beforehand with others in your state and any state to which the deceased will be transferred.

All that aside, my grandmother gave our family a truly wonderful gift. She had led a rough life, and couldn’t show us how to live, but she surely showed us how to die.

That morning, she woke early and called out from her bed, “Is it Easter?” My husband, getting ready for church with our older children, told her that yes, it was Easter morning. She had been very much enjoying the lovely Easter lily in full glorious bloom on her table, a thoughtful present given by absent family members.

At noon, I noticed her breathing was a little more rapid, but she was acting like nothing was wrong, and was still able to walk with a little assistance. When she settled for a nap, I opened my Bible to Proverbs 27, as the date was the twenty-seventh of the month. I read verse one: “Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” In a couple hours, it was evident she was failing very quickly, but only had a little pain in the arm swollen to nearly twice normal size by run-away breast cancer she had hidden from all of us until the last month.

We called her sons in her home state, and they said their tearful, sweet goodbyes, knowing there was not enough time to travel to us. Our pastor came, prayed and sang to her. “Beautiful… ” she gasped with calm effort, now unable to move at all. She was responsive until ten minutes before her final sigh, and though we’d asked if she wanted to go to the hospital since we had no pain medicine for her, she said no, and assured us she was in no pain. I whispered a prayer in her ear: “Lord Jesus, take my grandmother quickly to You.” In just a few minutes, surrounded by her great grandchildren sleeping on the floor in her room at our feet, she passed away on Easter eve, just before midnight.

I called family in Louisiana to tell them, and they passed the word to friends. When one old friend heard of my grandma’s passing, she said in surprise, “She died on Easter?! She told me a long time ago she always wanted to die on Easter!” God’s tokens for good to His children are a kind mercy in grief.

Alissa writes:

What do you think? My idea is to bury in the future any family members and dear friends by first embalming them and then burying them in the ground with no caskets or anything but with a plate with their names on it and other stuff above their burial ground. Their bodies will probably decompose and return to the earth and to the heavens. That seems primitive, no? I don’t know. I’m not into cremation. It signifies something weird. Can caskets decompose too? Wood doesn’t stay hard forever no? It goes in cycles right?

Laura writes:

I believe coffins serve a practical purpose in that they keep animals away and make it easier to transport the body. Also, it seems more respectful to place the body in a container than to lay it in the dirt.

Mrs. P. writes:

Unless a casket is placed in a sealed vault, water and bugs can get into the casket. The bugs can feast on the body of a loved one then. This is not a pretty thought. Neither is this a respectful way to treat the deceased when we have the option of a vault. Decomposition of the body is bound to take place over time. That can’t be avoided. But the body of the deceased need not become food for an army of bugs.

When my great-grandfather died in the 1920’s the family laid his body on the kitchen table and washed it in preparation for his wake which would have been held in the home. He would have been buried without the benefit of a vault, too, because that is how it was done back then. Today we have other options.

Mr. MacPherson writes:

Alissa, if I may ask, why embalm at all? Most states do not require it. If the burial cannot take place within a day (and usually, it cannot, since distant relatives will want to travel to the homeplace, etc.), funeral homes will refrigerate the body for you. Refrigeration will preserve the body quite well until the day of the funeral and burial. The “gotcha” is that The Industry usually charges the same price for refrigeration as they do for the lengthy, grotesque, and toxic process of embalming.

Laura’s thoughts about burial without a coffin or with a minimal coffin are interesting. You might want to do some research on the “green burial” movement. There is a growing number of people who desire that their remains and/or the remains of loved ones return to dust as quickly and as unimpeded as possible.

Drina writes:

In response to Mary, my grandparents’ and one of my aunt’s bodies were laid out at my grandparents’ home after they died. My grandparents had lived in a large, old farmhouse, where they had raised their eighteen children. My mother and some of her sisters were involved in making arrangements with the funeral home, and it worked out very nicely. I’m fairly sure they purchased caskets from the funeral home, and also used their services to transport the deceased from the home to the church for the funeral and then to the burial. My aunts took care of preparing the bodies – washing, doing hair and makeup as needed. I don’t know the particulars regarding my aunt, but I’m fairly sure that neither of my grandparents was embalmed. Their deaths were very much expected, and the visitations and funerals took place within a couple of days of the death. The deceased were laid out respectfully, in a home that was very dear to the whole family. The family and friends who visited were in a warm, welcoming and familiar atmosphere, not to mention just a mile away from church and cemetery. I encourage Mary to look into it. I think she’ll find it not all that intimidating.

Share:Email this to someoneShare on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest0Share on Google+0