Home Funerals: An Old Tradition Returns

For centuries, caring for dead relatives at home was a traditional part of family life. Bodies were laid out in a dining room or parlor, and visitors dropped by to spend time with the family and pay their last respects to the deceased.

Now, a dedicated group of home funeral advocates is trying to recapture that tradition and, by doing so, change the American way of dying.

But their efforts may run contrary to the interests of the multibillion-dollar commercial funeral industry.

"The typical American funeral is a commercially created tradition," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a grassroots organization raising awareness of alternative funeral choices.

"The general line in the industry is that a traditional funeral has a fancy casket and a hearse. But the truly traditional funeral in America is a home funeral," Slocum said. "The dead were laid out at home, and the family was more involved. Chances are the casket was purchased from the local cabinetmaker."

Slocum points out how, in most countries around the world, the home funeral is still the norm. "Only in the U.S. and Canada will you see embalming and putting bodies on public display, then buried in mass-manufactured steel caskets and concrete or marble vaults," he said.

Honoring the Dead

For Rebecca Love, the best way to honor the death of a close friend was through a home funeral.

"He was like a brother to me," Love said of her neighbor Tommy Randal Odom. "We'd been like family."

An artist living in Sonoma County, Calif., Love found the process of preparing Odom for burial was filled with emotion.

"It's tough, in a sense. He was my friend," she said, "But I wanted to honor his passing. It's a beautiful way of preparing your loved ones for their final journey, and it's beautiful closure."

For guidance on how to conduct a home funeral, Love turned to Jerri Lyons, an experienced home funeral guide who lives in the area. She also turned to the Bible.

"Tommy was a Christian, and I'm a Christian too, so I went into Scripture," she said. Referring to ancient tributes to the dead, Love said, "The women would bathe them and anoint them with oils. It's an old tradition that we've lost."

Love brought Odom's body back to her studio, where she prepared him for burial. She cleaned his body with herbal-infused water and anointed him with oils.

"We wrapped him in beautiful white muslin, and he was draped in red over his heart," she said. Love also sprinkled myrrh, frankincense and flowers over Odom's body.

To preserve the body for viewing, "We put him on dry ice because he was there for two days. You don't need to embalm," she said.

The Industry Perspective

Some of the most powerful players in the funeral industry insist theirs is the preferred way to conduct a funeral.

Service Corporation International, a Houston-based corporation, is the world's largest provider of funeral services and products. Regarding home funerals, the company issued the following statement:

"While we recognize that alternative approaches to funerals and the disposition of remains exist, our experience is that an overwhelming majority of families are more comfortable seeking the assistance of funeral and cemetery professionals."

But many others in the funeral industry are making an extra effort to accommodate the interests of families, even when those interests run contrary to the industry's profit motive.

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