Do it Yourself Funerals
Monday, December 8th Morning Edition

A grieving father builds a box for his month-old baby's corpse, and plants it under a cypress tree in the yard. The unorthodox burial took place this year -- not a hundred years ago when death was still a personal phenomenon. Gradually the work of burying the dead has become the exclusive domain of the funeral industry. But there is growing discontent over the cost and perceived chicanery of the profession. and some people are trying do-it-yourself funerals. A look at the Funeral and Memorial Society which has 140 chapters in the U-S and its instructions on how to care for your own dead. JACKI LYDEN, REPORTER.

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BOB EDWARDS, HOST: This is MORNING EDITION. I'm Bob Edwards.

Until this century, funerals were a family ritual. The body would be on view in the living room amid relatives who saw the deceased from death to burial. As the funeral industry emerged, the process became less personal and increasingly more expensive.

During the 1990s, do-it-yourself funerals have become more popular. The Funeral and Memorial Society, which offers instructions, has 140 chapters in the United States and Canada.

NPR's Jacki Lyden reports on arranging funerals without funeral directors.

JACKI LYDEN, NPR REPORTER: Last summer, George Foy (ph) stood in a crematorium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, clutching a small, white box. Inside was his month-old baby's body. It was the final moment for father and son. From the time the child had died two week's earlier, Foy decided he wanted to take care of the baby's body himself.

GEORGE FOY, FATHER OF DECEASED INFANT: I would have liked to bury him on our land, but that would have taken way too much paperwork and time. So, we agreed to have him cremated. There was a crematorium in Cambridge that would cooperate with us.

So, the first step was to build a box for him, a coffin. I put stuff in the bottom of the box, like sand from the beach and beach grass and flowers and a stuffed lamb. And I painted a little picture of a tugboat on the front of it, because he'd always, when he was alive, he'd always reminded me of a tugboat in the fact that he was kind of small but tough and stubborn and cute.

JACKI LYDEN: Foy never thought of giving the child's body to someone else. It would have been, he said, like missing one of the four systems, or eliminating a winter night. He held his son's coffin until the last possible moment before placing it himself on the crematorium's roller.

In a book he's writing, Foy criticizes what he calls the cold and proffered hands of morticians.

GEORGE FOY: I'm not saying that they're bad people, or even most of them are. But a lot of them do now belong to big chains and they do have this kind of institutionalized separation between them and the family and the deceased. And I think it's that separation that might be the point. That's what I reacted against.

And what I reacted toward was to be able to stay in touch with this boy, who was still alive inside me and in the lives of my family. And the only way I could do that was by taking care of him myself.

JACKI LYDEN: Such is the sentiment of those who care for their own dead, disdaining funeral homes, casket makers, and embalmers -- the undertaking trade.

Most people assume that undertakers somehow need to be involved in a funeral. But in all but eight states, that is not the case, as Lisa Carlson (ph) learned back in 1981 in Vermont when her husband committed suicide.

LISA CARLSON, PRESIDENT, FUNERAL AND MEMORIAL SOCIETIES OF AMERICA: The state's attorney asked me which funeral home to call to take the body for the autopsy. I said, kind of instinctively, without having thought anything through, there won't be any funeral home. John, he was a very private person. He wanted to be buried at home. So, as a young couple, our funeral planning was pretty minimal.

JACKI LYDEN: So was her budget. A typical funeral costs $5,000, not including burial plot and tombstone. Carlson called around frantically. One mortician told her a cremation would cost $700, including the required casket.

Finally, Carlson found a cardboard casket for $60, and she had her husband cremated the same day. If there was one regret, it was that she didn't bring the body home for a funeral.

LISA CARLSON: When we got to the crematory that night, I had a need to see John's body again. And so we got a screwdriver out from under the front seat of the truck and lifted the lid off. And it was, it was very clear to me, looking at a body that looked dead, it was much easier to let go. If John had been restored to a lifelike condition, I would have bargained with God to wake him up.

JACKI LYDEN: Carlson is now the president of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, or FAMSA, and has written its handbook, which along with its website provides advice on local laws and permits. Where to buy a plain pine box, a cardboard casket. And it gives advice on the first question that comes up on do-it-yourself funerals: what about embalming the body?

LISA CARLSON: People feel very uncertain how long can you have a dead body around without there being a problem. In most climes -- certainly not the very hot ones -- but in most climes, keeping the body at home for a day or two is quite manageable, and possibly even three.

JACKI LYDEN: Most people, of course, couldn't face handling a dead body. Carlson maintains it's only unthinkable because Americans have become so conditioned to avoiding death.

LISA CARLSON: You know, years ago, grandma was laid out in the front parlor. But in a matter of two or three generations, we've lost that experience, we've lost the common lore of what to do at a time of death.

Little by little, the idea of caring for your own dead, I think, is reemerging as a logical extension of the hospice ideas and the other end of the spectrum from natural childbirth. I mean, we're a generation that helped to unmedicalize the childbirth experience, and I think this will be the generation that will do the same thing with death.

JACKI LYDEN: But not without opposition from an entrenched industry that doesn't want to see its profits decline.

When Jan Berman's (ph) mother died after a struggle with AIDS on Martha's Vineyard, Berman washed and dressed her mother herself. She received a burial permit from the city and hired a grave digger. But then, seeing the family's homemade casket, a hospice nurse deliberately gave the death certificate to a funeral director, rather than Berman.

JAN BERMAN, DAUGHTER OF WOMAN WHO DIED OF AIDS: He told us that it was completely illegal to bury a body without a funeral director. And that we had to have a hearse, and that we had to have somebody view the body to make sure that there was actually a body. And he would be the provider of the burial certificate. And that for that, he would charge us $1,900.

JACKI LYDEN: It got worse when she called the state board of funeral directors in Massachusetts. The chairman, who owned 14 funeral homes, threatened to report her. But to whom?

What Berman was doing was legal. And in the end, the local funeral director backed off.

Jan Berman:

JAN BERMAN: I think that there should be choice. And I think that every person should have the choice as to whether or not they want to have a service done by a funeral director. And I don't think that it should be -- you should feel intimated or bad or -- or lied to and told that there's laws and regulations against such behavior.

JACKI LYDEN: The National Funeral Directors Association doesn't officially oppose home funerals, but it doesn't encourage them either.

Thomas Lynch (ph) is a second generation mortician who's also a poet and author. He says he can understand why some people, separated by custom or geography or religion from burying their dead, want to return to the practice.

THOMAS LYNCH, MORTICIAN, POET, AND AUTHOR: On the one hand, we're stuck between the will to do nothing at all, which is, say, pick up our cell phone and our Visa card and disappear our dead from the intensive care ward where we didn't have much to do with him; and then there's the will to do everything we can, which is we want to dress our dead, wash our dead, and bury our dead with our own shovels. These are also good instincts. For many of us, we fall someplace in between.

JACKI LYDEN: As an undertaker, he's buried his own dead.

THOMAS LYNCH: I embalmed my own father. And it was something that I could do for him. Other people make casseroles. But, yes, we can carry our dead, they can be a burden to us. And I think, when we bear that burden honorably, we feel better when it's done.

JACKI LYDEN: Thinking back to his son's cremation, George Foy would not have had it any other way.

GEORGE FOY: This is a continuation of a caring process, of a living being. And a good kid. And it, um, it, it, it didn't feel just like a taking care of death thing. It was a -- it was also a continuation of life.

JACKI LYDEN: His son's ashes are buried under a cypress tree he planted on his mother's land on a promontory in view of Nantucket Sound.

I'm Jacki Lyden, NPR News, Washington.

BOB EDWARDS: That report is part of a series called "The End of Life: Exploring Death in America," which continues on MORNING EDITION and other NPR news programs over the next several months.

More information is available at the website www.npr.org.


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