Then and Now

india27_16384317By Donna Belk, Margalo Eden,Wendy Lyons, and Holly Stevens

If you visit a funeral home today, you’re apt to find a general price list that includes embalming and a sealed metal casket in its description of a “traditional” arrangement. But for most of America’s history, the traditional funeral was a far more simple and affordable affair.

Many of our grandparents knew exactly what to do when a death occurred, and friends, neighbors and faith communities rallied to help. Often, at least one woman in the community possessed specialized knowledge in the laying out of the dead. Just as a midwife was called upon to assist with a birth, this “shrouding woman” could be called upon to assist following a death and organize the women in the cleaning and dressing of the body. Historically in America, after-death care was considered the exclusive duty of women. Meanwhile, the men built the casket, dug the grave and transported the body.

The Civil War marked the beginning of a historic transition in the way Americans would care for their dead for generations to come. When soldiers died in combat, they were typically buried in the battlefield. But families that could afford the expense often had the government transport their dead home for burial. As the number of dead increased—along with the challenges of locating and transporting decomposing corpses from battlefields, hospitals, etc.— a lucrative market for new “embalming surgeons” emerged. Contracted by the government or working independently, they performed arterial embalming to slow decomposition and better enable transportation over long distances. These embalmers were the forerunners of the modern-day funeral director.

And little by little, caring for our dead went from being an act of love freely carried out by families and communities to a trade that allows for little—if any—hands-on family involvement. And it’s been that way for decades.

After-death care in America is once again in a transition of historic proportions. Lisa Carlson’s trailblazing book “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love,” which was first published in 1987, inspired many families to rethink how to approach burial and cremation. Today, Funeral Consumers Alliance and many FCA affiliates throughout America educate consumers about their right to care for their own dead. Modern-day pioneers in family-led home funerals, including Nancy Jewel Poer, Jerrigrace Lyons and Beth Knox, have contributed to our understanding of the practical skills involved in caring for our dead.

Likewise, those who have participated in home funerals confirm their healing benefits. Many have graciously invited the public to bear witness through photos, videos and newspaper stories so that others are inspired to follow in their footsteps. With each passing year, more people choose to reconnect with this sacred tradition and welcome the funeral back into the intimacy of the home.

Although family-directed home funerals take more effort to arrange and carry out, many families feel they are more meaningful and healing than those arranged for them by a funeral director. A home funeral can help people gently integrate the death into their lives. When the body remains at home for a few days, family and friends lovingly attend to it and remain connected to the process, their deceased loved one and each other. A home funeral offers mourners a sense of control and helps them feel useful. It also enables families to create the ambience, to decide how the body is to be treated, to choose—without pressure—how to facilitate the most meaningful gathering for their loved one’s farewell.

A home funeral does require organization and determination. Even mundane tasks, such as filing state and local forms, while not difficult to perform, may seem daunting to those deep in grief. For this reason, it is important to plan ahead when possible and gather family members and friends who are willing and able to take on various responsibilities. An ongoing home funeral committee can offer acquired wisdom and consistency to ease the process.

A home funeral can be much less costly, as well. When a community comes together to provide this loving service, there are no facility fees, no fees for storing the body, no fees for transportation, flower arranging or cosmetology. Coffins or alternative containers may be crafted and decorated instead of purchased. An urn for cremated remains can be fashioned, or a simple, inexpensive container can be bought and beautifully decorated by caring hands. A family may handle all the arrangements or seek limited assistance from a funeral director for certain tasks.

Ultimately, there is no one right way to hold a funeral. Every family is unique, and there are many options available to reflect that individuality. The family-directed home funeral offers a final, loving, hands-on opportunity to honor our dead and send them on their way–in their home, surrounded by the people who love them.

This article is was originally published in Undertaking With Love; A Funeral Guide For Congregations and Communities. It can be downloaded here.


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One Response to Then and Now

  1. I amazes me how here in the West even death can become specialized and expensive–commercialization has taken the rights of families to care for the dead out of their hands and put it into the hands of specialists (who generally get paid quite well for their services). This is largely the case with birth as well.

    As apparent in the article values are shifting back to a more DIY ethic which is ultimately more healing due to its intimate and personalized nature. This trend is also extending to the realm of birth with more people choosing home births with midwives as opposed to the hospital/factory approach. I see both of these trends as symptomatic of a societal shift toward a more natural way of doing things that our forebears understood very well but has been lost in the wake of technology’s dominance. I hope the trend continues.

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