Home Funerals: An Old Tradition Returns

"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."

Funeral Myths

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.

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