More people turning to DYI funerals

  • Article by: MORGAN JAREMA , Newhouse News Service
  • Updated: February 1, 2008 - 5:39 PM

Proponents say it's more personal, less toxic and less costly than traditional funeral services.

Patti Feiger and Richard Hansen were married Dec. 8, and already they are talking about "till death do us part."

For most people, it's about choosing a funeral home and burial vs. cremation. For Feiger, 53, a corporate office worker, and Hansen, 54, a graphic artist in Grand Rapids, Mich., it's "Embalm or not?" "Homemade casket or store-bought?" And, "Visitation at home, but which room?"

Both want to be cremated, and both want a priest to be involved in their funerals to honor their Catholic faith. But that's where their vision of a mainstream sendoff takes a turn.

"There is no reason in the world for me to be embalmed," Feiger said. "I want my friends and family to bathe and dress me, put me in a box they can decorate, ship me up north [to a friend's] for a funeral, have me cremated and scatter my ashes" on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

A growing movement of people want to return to the task -- some say honor -- of washing, dressing and laying out bodies; having visitation at home; providing their own burial or cremation containers; and for some, transporting the body themselves to a cemetery or crematorium.

Proponents of the do-it-yourself movement say it's more personal, less toxic to the environment and less costly than traditional funeral services. New groups are teaching them how to do it, as well as their legal rights.

Laws vary by state

Most people don't know their options when a loved one dies, said Steve McCowen, a funeral director with the Today Center of West Michigan in Battle Creek.

The rules vary by state, and Michigan is among the most restrictive -- it's one of only seven states where it is illegal for people to fully care for their dead without using the services of a funeral director.

Basically, that means you're going to have to find a funeral director who will oversee the process.

McCowen said the Today Center, part of the Life Story Network of about 20 funeral homes in the Great Lakes region, has overseen more than 30 do-it-yourself funerals and "green" or natural burials in the past year.

That includes families who choose to skip embalming -- not required by law except under certain circumstances -- hold the visitation in their homes and opt for a cloth-covered pine or cardboard coffin.

McCowen doesn't see the home funeral movement as a threat to the profession.

"A lot of [funeral directors] perceive it as maybe people think they're doing something wrong, or that the idea [of home funerals] is an insult," he said. "But there's just a population that wants to do something different, people who are sitting at a visitation or in pews during a service saying to themselves, 'I don't want that.'"

Wendy Lyons, a board member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and vice president of the Funeral Consumers Information Society of Greater Detroit, serves as an advocate for consumers.

"It's a natural part of the way I have lived my life, so home death seems like a natural thing to do," she said. "Not just a natural thing to do, it's a holy thing, a sacred ritual for those you love."

At-home death care is a lot to handle and not for everyone. It might not be the best arrangement if a death is sudden, for example, or if a body is disfigured or not everyone in the family agrees on it.

In Minnesota

It's possible to do-it-yourself in Minnesota, but it can be difficult, said David Benke, manager of the Minnesota Health Department's Mortuary Science Section.

Hospitals and nursing homes, for example, can have policies restricting whom they release the body to, he said. In some cases, the cause of death means that a medical examiner is involved. In addition, cemeteries set their own rules and may restrict such burials.

It takes a lot of planning, Benke said. But the Health Department is willing to work with families to help it happen, he added.

The time frame for burial or cremation is 72 hours after death or the release of a body. That can be extended to six days with proper refrigeration.

'A space full of love'

Hansen and Feiger admit it's a tall order for those who would have to carry out her wishes.

Hansen worries it might be a burden for those who are grieving, but "I was with a close friend when she died, holding her hand, and I think if we would have talked about it, and that's what she wanted, I could have done it for her."

Feiger says family and friends have told her they would be willing.

"The only reason it might be disturbing to us is because we've been screened from it for so long," she said. "It's a natural part of the body completing its cycle."

Elizabeth Knox will tell you that home death-care can bring "a fullness and silence and beauty that often surprises people -- a space full of love."

Knox is founder of Crossings, a Maryland-based nonprofit that teaches people how to care for their own dead. She also travels the country giving workshops.

She speaks from experience. Knox's 7-year-old daughter, Alison, died in 1995 from the impact of an air bag during a low-speed auto accident.

She took Alison home from the hospital for a three-day vigil. Among other reasons, Knox said being allowed to mourn at home, at the family's own pace, and allowed them to take part in ways not found in typical funerals -- delivering legal papers, picking up dry ice or helping rearrange furniture to make way for a coffin.

"It gives us something to do, a way to work out our grief, rather than sit around feeling miserable," she said, "We heal through our acts of love and service."

  • RESOURCES

    • "Caring For Your Own Dead: Your Final Act of Love" by Lisa Carlson, Upper

    Access, $20.

    • "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial" by Mark Harris, Scribner, $24.

    • "A Family Undertaking," a PBS documentary available on Netflix or for sale from Fanlight Productions, 4196 Washington St., No. 2, Boston, MA 02131, or call

    1-800-937-4113.

    ONLINE

    Home funeral organizations and funeral advocacy groups can be found at:

    Crossings.net

    Finalpassages.org

    • Funeralinformation society.org

    Funerals.org

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