Doing a Natural Home Funeral

home funeral

In this Samhain Hallowmas series I seem to be doing, I wanted to add another article by Nora Cedarwind Young, Death Midwife, Hospice Chaplain, Ceremonialist and Green Burial Educator. This one is about the custom of Home Funerals.

Providing sacred space and comfort for a dying person so they can be with their loved ones is very sacred. A home funeral is a funeral held in a private home or any place of choice instead of a funeral facility or church. The deceased remains in the love and comfort of their home typically for two to five days. Family members can bathe, dress, anoint or drape the body, or can ask for the guidance and support of a death midwife or home funeral guide. Rather than embalming, dry ice is used to help the body remain in a natural state while loved ones care for it and say their good-byes.

Jerrigrace Lyons, a rebirther of the modern Death Midwife movement and one of my teachers, shares: “We care for our loved ones when they are living; there is no reason why we should not care for them when they are dead.” Final disposition of the body can be with direct cremation or burial, including green burial and graveside services. In her book Midwifing Death, author Leslene della-Madre shares this insight: “Creating sacred space is a cross-cultural spiritual practice. Placing a shared intention in the space creates openness and allows for pristine awareness or presence to emerge. Conversations happen, old hurts fade, people come together and witness the spiral of life and the ever turning wheel as we see death awaits us all. We all deserve for it to be sacred and beautiful.”

It’s Really Nothing New . . .

A home funeral is a traditional funeral. The modern practices that we usually sign up to pay for in our greatest time of grief and shock are not traditional! As baby boomers continue to age, we recognize that we have aging parents, aging partners and a few gray hairs of our own. We also know that death can call at any time and is not reserved for the the terminally ill with fair warning.

Baby boomers tend to be educated consumers and want to be able to determine what is a good fit for their budget as well as for the stewardship of the earth. Embalming is not mandatory after death under the majority of circumstances, although many consumers are lead to believe that it is. The average basic funeral today ranges from $6,000 to $10,000! Home funerals have substantially reduced expenses, which removes an additional layer of stress from the family.

We must educate ourselves on the truth about the laws regarding death in our own states. The rebirth of the home funeral movement is providing families with a slowed down, carefully planned for, hands-on experience. Family members can decorate a cardboard cremation casket or build a simple wood coffin. Some choose to transport the body themselves and even observe cremation or participate in the digging of the grave and returning the soil to the grave. These are age-old traditions. People are beginning to remember that they offer healing, peace and comfort at a time of loss.

From Home to Funeral Home

During the Civil War, we slowly began to hand over the care of our beloved dead to “professionals.” No longer were the people of the family, the spiritual community or loved ones gently caring for the body, washing, dressing, anointing it while celebrating memories of a life and sharing good-byes and blessings. Through tears, laughter and the action of loving care, family and neighbors worked together to care for their dead. Traditions like wakes or being laid out in the parlor moved from the family home to the funeral home. Death, like birth and the elderly, was out of sight and out of mind.

Lisa Carlson’s book Caring for the Dead – Your Final Act of Love is another must-read. The first half of the book contains hands-on information and the second half is a state by state listing of laws and regulations on caring for our dead. Laws are listed by code. Several laws have changed or been amended since this book was published. These updates are available for download here. I suggest you keep a copy of these changes inside the book. If your state has changes, note them directly on that page in the book so they do not go overlooked.

home funeral2

So, in a nutshell, and a little help from Rodale News here’s what you need to know about home funerals:

It’s not all or nothing. You no longer have to pay $8,000 or more for complete funeral home services. The industry is recognizing that many families want to perform some or all of the duties involved with caring for the dead — like washing the body, laying it out for a home funeral, and even transporting the body to its final resting place (or, if the person dies in a hospital or somewhere else, from that point to the home for an intimate viewing or vigil). Because of the growing interest in home funerals and green burials, funeral home services are often now a la carte, not complete packages.
For instance, if the thought of carrying a body down a flight of stairs and bumping it off of corners sends you into a panic, you can hire a funeral home to move the body (or ask someone a bit more removed to do it — sometimes, moving the body can be a bit overwhelming for immediate family members, but not always). A funeral director can also transport the body from the hospital to home, or from home to the burial ground or crematorium, if the family does not want to obtain permits to do this themselves. Some funeral directors also offer to wash the body, although Rhodes says many family members find this cleansing ritual, where you generally just use a soft cloth and warm lavender water to gently cleanse the hands and face, is therapeutic. She adds that some family members who are initially vehemently opposed to home funerals wind up being the ones find the most closure during the home funeral process.
Make the right calls. Ideally, a person who wants a home funeral and/or green burial will clearly write out these wishes while alive and assign a designated agent. This person helps implement the deceased’s wishes. But whether someone’s been designated or not, there are important immediate calls that need to be made just after a loved one passes on.
1. If the person is in hospice, the associated nurse will likely already be there, and can pronounce the death. If not, call the local county coroner to perform this task.
2. Next, you’ll want to call the Bureau of Vital Statistics in your state and report your loved one’s passing. Numbers are posted in the phone book and online through your state’s health department.
3. That agency will direct you to call the proper local registrar, who produces the official death certificate. You also deal with this person to obtain a transport permit if you’d like to drive the deceased to your home, to a burial ground, or to crematorium. (It must be in an enclosed vehicle, and you also need a disposal permit if you are taking the body to a cemetery or crematorium.) Some people hire a funeral home just to complete the paperwork end of things, while the family focuses on the intimacy of caring for the deceased loved one.
Set up a vigil. Home funerals work for people who die at home, for instance, in at-home hospice care, or for those who pass in the hospital or a nursing facility. If the person died at home, Rhodes suggests getting rid of all signs of illness before a home viewing or funeral. “Clear tables of medicines, and take away oxygen tanks and the hospital bed,” she says. “All that’s over with now.”
It helps to keep an air conditioner in the room to keep the body cool, but dry ice can work, too. It’s legal to keep the dead body in your home for up to three days.
Beyond that, the setting should be highly personalized. Some prefer candles, flowers, and soft music, while other prefer less embellishment for loved ones who lived simply.
There’s help out there — lots of it. A strong network of experts and guides are available to help counsel you on planning your own home funeral (it’s always best to plan ahead) or to help you carry a home funeral out according to a loved one’s wishes. And Rhodes notes that although not all deaths can be foreseen, there’s a lot of help out there, enabling families who lose someone unexpectedly to honor their loved one through an intimate home funeral.
Here’s where to find help:
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