Even something as old as death — and how we deal with it — changes with the times, according to a local mortician.
Do I have to be embalmed? And what does that even mean?
No, you don't. Embalming is not required by law, except in specific circumstances. The practice is common only in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, where many people believe it's a mandatory part of the funeral process. (It's not.)
Embalming is a surgical procedure — blood and other fluids are drained from the body and replaced with formaldehyde-based chemicals that delay decomposition. More and more, people are choosing funerals that don't involve an invasive process or the use of chemicals. Some may not want to delay the natural processes that return our bodies to the earth.
So if I'm not being embalmed, how will my body last long enough for a funeral?
With refrigeration and the use of portable refrigerants, like dry ice or Techni Ice, a public visitation can occur within six days of the death without embalming.
How would you characterize a funeral that's considered "traditional" in the U.S.?
What many call a traditional funeral is the modern practice that includes embalming and cosmetics, steel or hardwood caskets, visitation and service at a funeral home or house of worship, and burial at a cemetery using concrete outer burial containers and granite or bronze markers.
What many do not know is that there is no state law that requires a concrete outer burial container — cemeteries require them, and they can choose not to require them. The increase in green, natural or hybrid cemeteries means more choices for families.
What funeral choices are people making that diverge from that?
Natural death care encompasses a wide variety of options that are aimed at reducing a person's impact on the Earth after death. These may include the use of refrigeration in lieu of embalming, choosing flame-based or water-based cremation instead of burial, or burial without the use of a concrete outer burial container, metal or hardwood casket, or granite or bronze memorials.
A home funeral, or any community-led death care, occurs whenever families or communities care for their own dead. It may include those closest to them washing and caring for their body, making a casket or item for them, holding a vigil with their body at home, or organizing and participating in their burial or cremation.
Families who choose these options find that slowing down and being present with the dead helps them process their feelings.
Do you think COVID-19 changed the way people think about death?
The pandemic certainly has changed a lot about our rituals at the end of life. During 2020, there was so much heartbreak with folks dying alone and uncertainty about funeral services. I think those heartbreaks have given us a new appreciation for the power of ritual and the value of coming together to mourn. Grieving is an individual experience, but mourning requires the support of others. It's a sacred time for which there is no substitute and no shortcut.
Do you ever work with families that had never experienced natural burial before?
I'm a firm believer in learning what ways the family would like to honor, commemorate and celebrate the life lived and helping them understand and navigate the options available to them. Whether or not they choose more natural options, the most important thing, to me, is that they feel included, encouraged and lifted up in their decisions. That can make an enormous difference in a person's grief journey.
How is what you do now different from what you learned as a student?
I feel there's been a progressive change toward more cremation services, a greater focus on personalizing services for families and an influx of greener options at the end of life.
How can people get more comfortable with death? Any book recommendations?
People can get more comfortable with death by understanding it as a natural part of life. Spending time with the dead helps us see and experience the peace and stillness. Some folks meditate about their own deaths, and that reduces their anxiety. There are a host of books that speak frankly and eloquently about death, from "Tuesdays With Morrie," to "Beloved" and "Making Friends With Death."
I think that whether a person looks to a funeral director, an end-of-life doula, a pastor, a counselor or a friend, it's important to talk about death and dying, because it's a natural part of life itself.
Angela Woosley is a mortician and owner of natural funeral home Inspired Journeys in St. Paul.