Conrad Richter, in the book, The Trees, describes the burial of Sayward’s pioneer mother. Sayward was just a teen, but she took charge of preparing her mother’s body for burial – instructing her sisters to help her wash her mom’s body, clean the clothing to bury her in and sew a pillow to put under her head. All the while the two smallest siblings were watching their father make a wood casket and dig the burial hole. Richter writes “ When he was done, they all lent a hand carrying it over to the white oak. Even little Sulie and Wyitt helped, for this was the last thing they could do for their mam.”
A movement is afoot to re-learn how to take care of our own dead. Americans have mostly relinquished control of the burial customs to funeral homes and directors.
Most don’t realize that you don’t have to put a person in a coffin (in most states), or have a concrete vault around that coffin to protect it (in most states). Most people don’t know that you can lay a person out yourself, in your own home, for family and friends to visit one last time. Most people don’t know that, in most states, you can bury your family member on your own land, even transporting the body yourself to the burial spot.
Proponents of home funerals claim that they allow family members to heal following the death by letting them care for the body of their deceased, doing one last thing for them – just as Sayward and her siblings did back in the days when Ohio was America’s frontier.
Typical American Burial Customs
For those who don’t know, burial customs in most American cities involve a person dying in a hospital, being transported to a morgue to await being sent to the mortician for burial preparation. Burial preparation typically includes injecting the body with embalming fluid, which contains high levels of carcinogens. Human remains do not normally represent a public health risk, nor do they degenerate rapidly within a few days of death, according to a Smithsonian magazine article, The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral.
The body is dressed and the skin is covered with cosmetics and the hair fixed – typically from a picture supplied of the deceased by the family. Next the body is put in the coffin, placed on a gurney and put into a room in the funeral home. Flowers arrive from grievers and are placed around the casket. One or more days of visitation are held at the funeral home – so that people who knew the deceased or want to express sympathy to the survivors can come together.
The body may be transported to a church for a service or a service may be held in the funeral parlor. Finally the pall bearers carry the body to a limousine which then drives it to the cemetery, where the pastor usually says a final blessing.
Alternately, the body may be cremated and a memorial visitation and/or service held.
A typical funeral home burial, not including the cemetery costs of the plot, the gravestone and the opening and closing of the grave can be upwards of $8000.
Green and Frugal Burial
What if you could be as green and frugal when you enter the hereafter as you try to be now? What if your family didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars to dispose of your body? What does this look like?
A home funeral is one in which the family takes charge of preparing your body for visitation, burial or cremation. Funeral care is the time period between death and burial or cremation. A home funeral can be assisted by a funeral director (for a fee) if the family so desires.
It can mean keeping (or bringing) your loved one’s body at home for up to three days, perhaps standing constant vigil over it, washing it and otherwise preparing the remains, the casket, the clothing and etc that will be used in the burial. It can mean holding a visitation for grievers in your home. It can mean transporting your loved one’s body from their death bed to your home and from your home to the cemetery or crematorium.
It is not easy, family members have to learn how to care for their dead. They have to understand the laws of their state regarding death and may have to deal with bureaucratic details (such as getting a permit to transport a body or getting a death certificate) typically handled by the funeral home; but there are now resources, such as Crossings, to help families who wish to have home funerals.
A home funeral can be greener and less expensive than the typical American funeral. You can get a coffin from somewhere other than a funeral home (actually you can do this even if you do use a funeral director) or make one yourself. You can have a visitation without embalming the body (unless you need to transport the body across state lines). You can avoid the expenses of the body preparation and the costs related to the visitation, service and transportation by the funeral director.
Home burial refers to actual interment of the body on your own property. Most states allow this, but may require a declaration that you are burying human remains. Certain practical concerns will need to be addressed, such as how to get a deep enough hole, how to get the body to the hole and how to lower it in.
According to the NY Times article Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative a home burial can cost as little as the material for a pine box or a few hundred dollars for a cemetery plot.
Green Aspects of Both the Home Funeral and Home Burial
A simpler, biodegradable casket (or none at all) without the cement vault will allow the body to decompose naturally. You can even buy a plot in a ‘green’ cemetery – a place which adheres to certain green standards.
Avoidance of the carcinogenic embalming fluids, either by using dry ice under the bodies or essential oils on the surface or injected into the body, avoids health issues for the living who deal with the dead, and allows the body to decompose faster.
The Green Burial Council is setting green funeral and burial standards and qualifying funeral homes and cemetery’s which meet them. Their goal in part is “to see eco-friendly end-of-life rituals become a viable option for honoring the dead, healing the living, and inviting in the divine.”
The college town of Lawrence, KS has a cemetery with a dedicated green section. ‘Green’ burials: Biodegradable caskets, no artificial flowers, an article on USA Today describes their services. Although this cemetery has not been qualified by the Green Burial Council, you can search on that site to find one.
If you would like to suggest your survivors put you to rest with a green funeral and burial, check out this green funeral planning guide from the Council.
Would you be able to care for the remains of your loved one? Do you think they could honor a request from you for a green home funeral or burial?
This post was written by Marie.
Fascinating! I was just researching the cost of funerals for one of my staff writing positions, and I found out about the option to rent caskets if using a funeral home for services. There’s so much to learn in this area!
So how much does it cost to rent a casket and then what do you bury the body in after the rental is returned?
Although my religion frowns upon cremation, I like the idea. Nice, neat and simple 🙂
and it doesn’t necessarily take up any land.
Wow, I really don’t know if I/my family could handle it. I bet we could. My Irish grandmother was telling me about how she remembered funerals (in the States) as a child. They would sit the body in a chair. Everyone would get really drunk and have a party. The first person to get drunk enough would dance around with the body. It sounds creepy to me now, but I think for the people of the time/place it truly was a celebration of the person’s life. And honestly, we’re just going into the ground anyways…why would we need to spend a ton of money on a fancy box? I think I could deal with pine.
That is a very interesting story! I’ve never heard of that tradition until now.
I don’t know if I feel obligated to have a frugal funeral in general. However, there are some people who I would want to honor by fulfilling their last wishes, even if it is a frugal funeral. I guess for me it depends on the person. I’m not for cremation personally though.
I think it depends on what will help your survivors deal with your death…whatever that is, should be done. You won’t be caring anymore – right?
WOW. I had NO idea that we coudl do that! It’s almost silly that we don’t. We hand over our dead relatives to complete strangers to pump them full of nasty stuff and put on makeup (that never looks good with or without a picture). It makes so much more sense to do it ourselves (provided you have a yard if you want to bury in your yard). It woudl take planning and forethought since it’s not done a lot, but wow, I just had no idea. GREAT post!
I hadn’t realized it (before I started researching)either. I think I could handle it…I’m not sure it would add to my comfort though.
Amen, Amen, Amen!!
I am so glad to see you writing about this. As I’ve seen written, people don’t know they can do this. Why would they? It’s not as if funeral homes want to let on that their services are not needed.
When my eleven year old daughter was dying from brain cancer, I asked at the funeral home. They actually told me I could not keep her at my home after her passing and have visitation there. I’m glad I did not accept that answer. After further investigation, that is exactly what I did.
People later told me they initially thought it might be morbid. After they came to pay their respects to Olivia, they told me it was beautiful and intimate. That was my intent. I gave my birth to my daughter in the birthing center in a “my kind of way” approach. Why would her passing be handled any differently?
To think of turning her over to a stranger to care for in her last hours/days on this earth goes directly against my maternal instinct. To have someone embalm her seemed morbid to me. Do we (as a society) know why embalming was started? It was started to help preserve soldier’s bodies during Civil War time so that they could arrive back in the US in a preserved state. That at least has logic to it. Nowadays? Not so much (in my opinion, of course).
I held my daughter’s visitation in our home. I covered her hospital bed in purple velvet and dressed her. Later that night, I slept next to her for one last time. It was, as you wrote, one of the last maternal acts I’d be able to do.
The whole institution/business of funeral homes seems like it is just that.
Death is not scary. It is life that is scary.
Thank you for the wonderful comments. My hair dresser lost her 7 year old son to brain cancer. He was diagnosed at 2 years and underwent many treatments. I hope your daughter died peacefully and your family has started the journey to healing. I can’t imagine losing a child.
I hadn’t thought about this at all.
I don’t think burials are allowed in the UK other than in particular areas so home burial is not an option. And most funerals I’ve been to have been cremations anyway. The one that sticks in my mind is of my dear best friend who passed away almost 3 years now and his widow prepared a woven casket for him. It was very moving.
But like most people I do find it difficult to deal with death, which is why there are so many funeral parlours of course which never go out of business.
I hear you.
This is a truly original article. I’ve never understood the weird customs that we so tightly adhere to around death. It doesn’t seem natural to shoot someone up with a poison and place them in a cement vault. I told my best friends that if I were to ever die, I wan’t to be buried simply and without spending thousands on a casket et al. Take that money instead and throw a party in my memory and let people have there final thoughts be happy ones!
My brother wants his body donated to science, which I believe is totally free for the family.