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.
"We come from a very wide demographic area, and home funerals have been a tradition with many of the farm families in this area," said John Carmon, funeral director with Carmon Community Funeral Homes in Windsor, Conn., and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Like many funeral directors, Carmon is finding ways to facilitate the special requests people may have for honoring dead family members. This includes home funerals and other, more unusual requests.
Carmon spoke of one local farm family who preferred that their deceased father be transported by his John Deere tractor instead of a black hearse. Carmon's funeral home was ready to accommodate that request, even though they lost revenue as a result of having no hearse charge.
"Our job is to help families no matter what their choices are," Carmon said. "The experience that they're going through is one of tremendous transition. Our job is to make this transition as successful as possible. We have the experience, the equipment and the ideas to make these experiences as meaningful as they want them to be."
Many people who would otherwise be interested in a home funeral are doubtful about the health regulations that apply to the handling and transport of dead bodies. But Slocum said their doubts are rooted in the many myths surrounding death.
"One of the myths is that most bodies start decaying immediately," said Slocum. "But most bodies are not going to decompose within two to three days if kept in a reasonably cool room or packed with ice or dry ice."
Slocum also expresses doubt that embalming is a necessary, beneficial or safe procedure.
"Embalming as a public health measure is absolute poppycock. It's not supported by any science and has no basis in research whatsoever," he said.
And as a health concern, Slocum points to research identifying the health risks associated with embalming.
"There's actually a risk to the embalmer," he said. "Formaldehyde [used in embalming] is a carcinogen. And the embalmer is exposing himself to blood-borne pathogens. Dealing with embalming is a very invasive process."
Some studies have shown a link between exposure to formaldehyde and an increased risk for leukemia and brain cancer, though the Environmental Protection Agency lists formaldehyde as a suspected carcinogen only, and further studies are needed.
Legal Issues Vary Nationwide
The laws in the United States surrounding home funerals are a confusing patchwork of state and local regulations, according to home funeral advocates.
"Caring for the dead at home is legal in 45 states," said Slocum, "though often you will find laws giving funeral directors exclusive rights to transport and prepare bodies for burial. These laws were put in at the behest of the funeral industry lobby."
Lyons, who has helped hundreds of families through the home funeral process, finds that most resistance to home funerals is based on a lack of understanding.
"Most people are unaware of what the laws are. They make the assumption that it must be illegal," she said. "It's just out of ignorance that people don't know what their rights are."
A Family Affair
The home funeral, according to Lyons, appeals to those who seek more control over how the funeral arrangements unfold.
"These are people who want to take charge and be responsible for their own family members, and to lend themselves to more privacy and intimacy," she said. "Many religious and spiritual backgrounds call for this type of home wake."
According to Lyons, the home funeral greatly helps survivors with the grieving process. "There's coherence and continuity for the family. It allows more time to visit and view the body, to say prayers, and to visit in the middle of the night," she said. "It brings death back into the cycle of life."
John Wilkerson, who buried his parents on their farm in north Florida, credits active participation in the funeral with helping him after his father died.
"Going through the physical participation in that event clears little pieces of guilt," he said. "Everyone has something that they wish they had done or didn't do. Being physically involved helps undo these things and helps clear them up. Therefore, your grieving process goes much quicker."
Wilkerson has now devoted himself to other burials on a section of the family farm called Glendale Memorial Gardens. "It has become a passion for me. It's very rewarding," he said. "There's not a lot we can do anymore that's a service to humanity, but this is one."
And Love has no regrets about having a funeral at home for her friend Odom. "Some people can't deal with death," she said. "I think it's a privilege. I count myself blessed."
This article is the third of a three-part series.