In Home Funerals, Families Care For Their Dead When a loved one dies, most families look to professionals at funeral homes to help with the final arrangements. But until the last century, most funerals took place at home. In home funerals, family members prepare the body for viewing and burial.
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In Home Funerals, Families Care For Their Dead

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In Home Funerals, Families Care For Their Dead

In Home Funerals, Families Care For Their Dead

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Many of us prefer to postpone decisions about our own funerals. We all think there will be plenty of time to consider caskets, cremation and cemeteries later - much, much later. For some, religious tradition will dictate the final arrangement and most of us will find professionals at a funeral home to take care of the body, find a plot, conduct the burial and handle the paperwork. Until the last centuries, most funerals took place at home.

Family members prepared the body for viewing and burial. When the funeral industry developed after the Civil War, the process became less personal and more expensive. Today, as home funerals stage something of a comeback, we'll look at the pros and cons and about how it works. Later in the program, we'll check in on the frontlines of swine flu. If you work at an ER clinic or a doctor's office, Email us now. Tell us what you are seeing, But first, if you have experience with a home funeral, we'd like to hear from you. And we also want calls from those of you who work in the funeral business. Tell us your story, phone number is 800-989-8255, email You can also join the conversation on our Web site, go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We start with Max Alexander, who wrote a story in last months Smithsonian Magazine about his experiences and joins us today from the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. MAX ALEXANDER (Author and freelance journalist): Thank you Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you had the unfortunate experience of having both your father-in-law and your father die over the course of just a couple of weeks and two very different experiences.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes, that's right. My father-in-law died late November of 2007 and we had planned to have a very sort of personal home death care and home funeral type arrangement for him. And 17 days later, my own father died. And he had made arrangements far in advance for a considerably more conventional type funeral. So we had these two experiences really, back-to-back, which really provided kind of a striking comparison of what can be done in death care these days.

CONAN: The first example then, making a funeral for - for a loved one. Making a casket, starting with that must be strange.

Mr. ALEXANDER: It was a little strange, especially because we were - my father-in-law had cancer so we knew the end was near for him, so we had time to plan and prepare. And we were - my son and I were actually making his casket just before Halloween and the neighbors all thought that we were making like a Halloween prop for the front yard, so that was kind of strange.

CONAN: And then after he died, this required members of the family to well, anoint the body, to wash the body, to clean it. Most people, I think, would be put off by that.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes, I think that people would be, initially, and I think in my own family, my wife and her sisters and her mother were a little bit nervous about it, certainly. None of them had ever done this before. But what we all found was that really, after only just a few minutes of dealing with my father-in-law's body, it really started to feel very natural and there wasn't anything, you know, gross or disgusting about it. It was actually a very beautiful part of the whole experience.

CONAN: Then the different experience, very different, with your father.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, my father was the type of person who - who loved ostentation of any sort. You could sell him anything if you described it as being the Cadillac of ... fill in the blank. So, he had wanted the Cadillac of caskets, the Cadillac of funerals, you name it. And he had made all sorts of pre arrangements for his funeral and for his death care. He had - my father actually had his own personal logo and he had it pre engraved on his casket. So they - he had done all of this work in advance and really left not that much for us to figure out on our own.

CONAN: There was a moment, though, after the experience with your father-in-law, where you went to the funeral director for your father's funeral and said, I want to see the body.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah. This had - this was about, I'm guessing, you know, just a few days, after I had been physically involved with caring for father-in-law's body in his house, here in Maine. And so now I was in Michigan dealing with my dad who had died in the hospital a few days before I had arrived. And the hospital didn't understand why he died. He - he had some kind of a heart problem. They don't to this day know what happened. But - so they wanted to figure it out. So they had done an autopsy that my brother and I agreed to allow.

And when I asked the funeral director if I can see the body again, having just seen my father-in-law's body, and knowing what that was like, and knowing the emotions that that brought, and the - kind of the closure that that brought, I wanted to see my father's body. And the funeral director who was - who was, in truth, a very nice man, really tried to put me off of it. And he finally succeeded by pointing out that it had been a full cranial autopsy. And, you know, I realized that as much as I wanted to see my father before he was embalmed. I didn't really want to see him, you know, with his head cut open. So, I - I finally relented.

CONAN: And the two experiences you had, I think - you write a very satisfying experience bearing your father-in-law, and that the handling all the affairs yourselves and - made everybody closer and made it a little bit easier to come to terms with. On the other hand, you had the other experience where you weren't able to see your father's body before it was embalmed, and nevertheless, that was exactly the service that he wanted.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes, and certainly the kind of service that I think most Americans, either want or expect to have, or assume that they will have. And, you know, I think a lot of that is wrapped in our - sort of our fear of death and our - as you eluded to in your introduction, we tend to kind of avoid thinking about death, probably for the same reason people don't like to think about writing a will, for example. It's just - it's thinking about something that they really don't want to think about at all.

And by letting a professional deal with the funeral stuff, it's a way of kind of distancing ourselves from these unpleasant tasks. And - and what we found with my father-in-law, was that there was nothing unpleasant about it at all. In fact, as I mentioned, it brought a great deal of closure - handling his dead body really made us realize that he wasn't there anymore. And it gave us the time to appreciate that he was gone, rather than just sort of taking his body away and then suddenly we're seeing him sort of made up with rosy cheeks like a wax figure in a casket in the funeral home. So it was actually a much more satisfying experience.

CONAN: Thank you Max, very much. We appreciate it.

Mr. ALEXANDER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Max Alexander, writer and freelance journalist. His story "The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral" appeared in the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine. And he joined us today from the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Portland. Joining us now is Lisa Carlson. She is executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization, author of "Caring For The Dead: Your Final Act Of Love." She joins us today from the studios of Vermont Public Radio in Colchester, Vermont. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. LISA CARLSON (Executive Director, Funeral Ethics Organization; Author, "Caring For The Dead: Your Final Act Of Love"): Thank you Neal. It's wonderful to be here.

CONAN: And Mat - Max Alexander has experienced with his father-in-law becoming more common, not just of the price, but that does play a factor in this.

Ms. CARLSON: Indeed. In the last 10 years, we've seen a real explosion in the interest for home funerals. It's the other end of the spectrum from natural child birth, a logical extension of the hospice ideas, and it really allows the family a sense - having something physical to do, takes away the sense of helplessness that people often feel at a time of death.


Well, there's a lot else that people have to do, not just to deal with the body and the funeral. There's a thousand details. Look, you've buried two husbands, you know this better than I do. Aren't people busy enough without having to deal with the funeral arrangements?

Ms. CARLSON: Did you notice that Max said when his father had preplanned and prepaid for everything, they had nothing to do. And in fact people who do preplan and prepay for their funeral may be taking away the therapeutic involvement of their survivors that is a healthy form of grieving.

CONAN: There are things, though, that people need to know about having a home funeral, and one of them is the laws and the regulations in whatever city or state they may happen to live.

Ms. CARLSON: Exactly, and I didn't realize this until listening to Max, that his father died in Michigan. The laws in Michigan were changed after my book came out. Michigan is now one of only six states where a dead body becomes a hostage of the funeral industry, where you have to involve a funeral director to file the death certificate and possibly to oversee the final disposition.

The other five states are Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New York and Nevada - no, Nebraska.

CONAN: Nebraska, and the other states, the attending physician can sign the death certificate, and that takes care of it?

Ms. CARLSON: In all states. There are two parts to the death certificate. In all states, a doctor is required, or medical examiner, to explain the medical cause of death. The other part of the death certificate is the demographic information: Social Security number, mother's maiden name, occupation, that sort of thing.

That's the information that comes from the family but that is usually filled in by a funeral director. When a family is acting as its own funeral director, they would simply fill that in, and on the line where it says funeral director's signature, Max probably wrote his name and the word son where the license number is usually requested.

CONAN: There also can be difficulties in transporting a body.

Ms. CARLSON: There may be. I had a friend who was 6'8" and in a car accident, and his feet stuck out of the police cruiser while they took him to the hospital. But typically, anyone with a van, station wagon or pickup truck could manage to transport a body from one location to another.

CONAN: There's no special dispensation needed to have a special vehicle or anything like that?

Ms. CARLSON: No. A few states may require that the body be shielded from view, but I suspect families would be inclined to do that out of dignity and respect, anyway.

CONAN: Lisa Carlson, stay with us if you would. We're talking about a new trend, or sort of a return to an old trend: home funerals. For some people, they provide comfort. Give us a call if you've experienced one, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

When a loved one dies, it can be hard to even begin to think about the arrangements that need to be made. For some people, the process of grieving can be eased by making funeral arrangements themselves, a home funeral.

We're talking today with Lisa Carlson. She's executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization, and author of "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love." A little later, we'll hear from a funeral director, and we want to hear from you.

If you have experience with a home funeral, give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Here's an email we got from Mally(ph) in Portland, Oregon. My godfather - excuse me. My godmother had a home funeral when she died, and it was a really incredibly sweet and personal event for all of us. Her family clothed and laid her out on a bed in her living room. All her friends brought food and flowers. We were able to look at her face and touch her hands and say goodbye. I would be honored if my family carried on the same tradition for me.

And this from Gail(ph). My husband's first wife was cremated and buried on their property. It seems like it will be a very challenging thing to address when we take steps to sell the house. What do we do? Of course, then there are the children. Will they still be able to visit her?

And Lisa Carlson, not all people who have home funerals decide to be buried at home. Some of them can, and some of them can't, also there, but Gail's question. What happens to the resale value of the home?

Ms. CARLSON: Well, my guess is with the growth of green burial and that sort of thing, and home funerals, that it may, in fact, add to the value of the property. Bill Cosby buried his son, Innis, on his estate in Massachusetts. A family burial ground on your property is a wonderful American tradition. You drive out in the country, and almost every farm has a little cemetery on it. I don't think it disturbs the value at all. I think it may, indeed, add to it.

Whether you have access to the property really depends either on state law or the kindness of the people who subsequently purchase the land.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Karen(ph), Karen with us from Tucson.

KAREN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Karen.

KAREN: Thanks for this program. It's very interesting. I've been mulling over - my parents died in 2003. They died a week apart of unrelated instances, and they had prearranged and prepaid for their cremations. So everything was all taken care of, for which I was extremely grateful, because with all of this going on all at the same time, it just took it right out of my hands.

The other thing that we did was we didn't have a funeral, per se. We just had a party at the house. We invited everybody over, and if they wanted to come, they could come, and if they didn't, they didn't have to. And it was very informal and friendly, and that was that. And it was the way they would have wanted it. They didn't want a fuss.

CONAN: They didn't want a fuss, and indeed, Lisa Carlson, that was your experience, too, with one of your husbands.

Ms. CARLSON: I think that it's kind of interesting to find that we can both laugh and cry. That hearing wonderful stories about the person who died is a tremendous way to share the significance of that person's life.

CONAN: And it can be sort of a hybrid experience. It doesn't have to be everything handled at home. It can be some things handled at home and some things not.

Ms. CARLSON: Yes. Even in the six states that require a funeral director, if the death occurs at home, you can keep the body at home for a day or two before you call the funeral director. So indeed, you can work with funeral directors. And any sensitive funeral director will understand when a family needs or wants to be involved.

Maybe you don't have an appropriate vehicle for transporting the body. Maybe you will want to use a funeral director. And in the case in my family, we weren't in Florida when my mother died. We had spent time with her during her illness. I was very grateful that, in fact, we could call a funeral director in that instance.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's hear now from somebody in the funeral business. Glenn Taylor is president and owner of the Glenn Funeral Home and Crematory in Owensboro, Kentucky, also president of Selected Independent Funeral Homes, a professional association of independent funeral-home owners, and he's with us today from the studios of Louisville Public Media in Louisville, Kentucky. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. GLENN TAYLOR (Owner, Glenn Funeral Home): Neal, thank you so much for allowing me to be with you today.

CONAN: And I know you've been listening to the conversation thus far. When people call you about funeral arrangements, do you get questions about home funerals or about things they can do themselves?

Mr. TAYLOR: Not frequently, but on occasion we certainly do, and we're prepared to respond to that and to provide services as families might ask us to or as they may not ask us to.

CONAN: And that includes help with home funerals?

Mr. TAYLOR: Absolutely.

CONAN: What kind of services do you provide, for example?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I'll give you an example. The caller from Tucson made reference to a scenario that we find ourselves in frequently, where the family may have either, by prearrangement or the survivors at the time of need, have said we want to have an immediate cremation without a visitation, without a funeral. We would like to have a gathering and celebration in our homes.

Then we provide, to the degree that they wish us to, perhaps transfer from the place to the funeral home. If they are not - if their home is not such that would allow either the ceremonial or just the personal bathing and preparation that they might like to do, we have created a separate room within our facility that allows family or religious or ritualistic cleansing and preparation. We can facilitate the cremation. We can take this as far or not as far as a family would choose.

Lisa made references to the six states that still require a funeral director. Kentucky is not one of those. In fact, the Kentucky death certificate has a specific area for the signature of the funeral director or person acting as such, and it is - go ahead.

CONAN: No, I was just going to ask. In that regard, is this considered, well, encroaching on your business?

Mr. TAYLOR: Not really. You know, my great-grandfather started in this business in 19 and three, and he was around at the time when the custom was that almost everything took place in the home. And there are a variety of aspects to any funeral-service business, and it's difficult for me to imagine a reputable, conscientious funeral director, or as Lisa referred to as a sensitive funeral director, saying you know, that's encroaching on our business, we think we'll not do that. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

CONAN: Do you get requests for green funerals, with simpler, soft wood coffins and no fluids, no chemicals in the body, that sort of thing?

Mr. TAYLOR: It's interesting. We have prepared ourselves for those requests but have yet to receive them. And the difficulty sometimes is in the definition. How green is green? You made reference earlier to the word hybrid with relationship of involvement or non-involvement of a funeral director - same issue with green burials.

We have some Jewish clientele for whom the process is, in fact, almost a green burial. It's not a full green burial, but it's close. Also with Muslim families we serve.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to David, David with us from Clovis in California.

DAVID (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

DAVID: Hi. Well, my wife and my experience was that we had a two-and-a-half-year-old son that drowned. This has been about 28 years ago.

CONAN: It's a long time, but you know, you don't get over that. I'm sorry.

DAVID: No, you don't, but what we were able to do helped us heal much easier than I think we would have otherwise. Because it was an accidental death, he had to go to a funeral home and have an autopsy by California law, but when we went to, at the funeral home's request, to dress him, they let us know that we could take him home if we wanted.

And so we went home and got a cedar chest that he'd had his toys in and came back and picked up his body, brought him home, put him at the foot of our bed in the cedar chest, and for the next three days, it was an incredible experience for us.

We had two other young children. Our daughter was able to see his body, give him gifts, drawings that she made, this type of thing. Our son who was younger did want to see him, which was fine. However, at the time that we took him on the third day for his funeral, our son ran up as we were carrying him out of the house and said I have something for him and had picked some wildflowers and put it on his hand.

It was a very healing experience. We had friends and family come to the house, and those who wanted to see him could. I don't know - I mean, other people that have lost children I think can relate to the fact that there's a physical missing of that child. You miss that weight in your arms and just to have him there and be able to see him when we needed to was a truly healing experience for us.

CONAN: David, your phone is - your battery's running down. So we're going to let you go. But thank you so much for the call.

DAVID: You're welcome.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

DAVID: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And David's call raises a number of questions. Lisa Carlson, among them, how do you deal in a home environment with someone who's had an autopsy or someone who's been in an accident?

Ms. CARLSON: If you let the medical examiner know that the family is going to be involved in handling this death, many of the medical examiners' offices will go to a great deal of effort to sew the body back up again rather than leaving the stitching for the funeral director. But that is a cause for concern. I would say let the medical examiner know ahead of time because the may do a less invasive procedure if that's the case.

To comment a little further on what the caller shared, indeed there's a pediatric oncology nurse in California who says there really is a dramatic difference in the healing when parents who have lost a child have had a hands-on funeral experience.

CONAN: Yeah, I can see that. I can see that. Let's go to Spencer. Spencer with us from southern Utah.

SPENCER (Caller): Yes. I'm a completing intern but I'm a second generation in the funeral home industry, and I just wanted to make a few comments as far as Lisa said earlier about the family needing something to do, and I support that wholeheartedly.

Just from being - in my experiences growing up in the funeral industry as well as now that I'm in the industry and working in the industry now, families do by far grieve much better when they are involved in the funeral process.

CONAN: Glenn Taylor, is that your experience as well?

Mr. TAYLOR: Absolutely. In fact, we find ourselves in cautioning families who, for whatever reason, decide to prearrange - pre-funding being a separate issue entirely. Leave something for your family to do. Don't make all of the decisions. Give them the opportunity for input.

CONAN: Give them the opportunity for input. Spencer, which business are you planning to go in?

SPENCER: I'm actually a funeral director. I'm completing my - in the state of Utah, where I work, they're concurrent embalming and funeral director. So we own a small funeral home, so I'm involved in every detail. And then we're also contracted with the medical examiner's office in Flagstaff, Arizona, and then also in northern Utah.

And whenever there's an accident - accidental death in the southern Utah area or in the northern Arizona area, we transport for those facilities. And I just want to let them know, if they're listening - I'm sure they are, we all love NPR here in this area - that they do a very wonderful job in being conscientious about what they do in their autopsy procedures.

CONAN: Spencer, we hope they're listening too. Thanks very much for the call.

SPENCER: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Go ahead, Lisa.

Ms. CARLSON: If I might comment, the laws in Utah were changed to limit a family's right to care for their own dead two years ago. And with the energy of one woman and a Native American couple from Idaho, the law got changed back again this year.

CONAN: Lisa Carlson is executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization and author of "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love." Also with us, Glenn Taylor, president and owner of the Glenn Funeral Home and Crematory in Owensboro, Kentucky.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Virginia. Virginia with us from Oakland.

VIRGINIA (Caller): Hi. My parents died in - both of them in 2007, separated by about seven months. They died at home with hospice. It was a wonderful death. And we cleaned and prepared their bodies and wanted them to be able to buried on our home farm, but we're prevented by the laws of California. So that idea of the nice rural farm with a little family graveyard doesn't work unless you have a preexisting graveyard, apparently.

Anyway, we ended up having to have a funeral director pick up the bodies, cremate my mother. We then illegally sprinkled her ashes on our farm. My father wanted to be buried, so we buried him in a cemetery nearby.

But it was a very moving experience to wash their bodies. The grandchildren were nearby and participated and were able to, I think, say goodbye to my parents in a way that they could not possibly have before.

But I'm wondering how one goes about trying to change these laws because it was a disappointing experience to have to release them to the funeral director.

CONAN: Lisa Carlson?

Ms. CARLSON: Yes. Number one, you can bury or scatter cremated remains in all states. There are no restrictions. In California, you're supposed to tell the state what you did with them, but you're also allowed to bring them home and put them on the mantelpiece, and there are no cremains police running around to see if they're still on the mantel.

Yes, California law says that one must be buried in an established cemetery. That's true of a few other states. But the public health department, the local health department, has the right to permit you to start a new cemetery. And it's too bad you didn't call me and I would've tried to walk you through that process. Anyone who…

VIRGINIA: Well, I didn't know about you.

Ms. CARLSON: Anyone who would like to contact me after the show is over - email is best:

CONAN: And we'll put that email address on our Web site at, so a little bit after the show's over you can go and find it there if you didn't scribbled it down quickly enough. Virginia, thanks very much.

VIRGINIA: All right. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an e-mail from Eileen in Charlottesville, Virginia: I've been intrigued by renewed interest in home funerals, a concept I first encountered in The Tightwad Gazette several years ago.

When my mother died in 1997, she left a note asking my father to arrange a simple funeral since she believed it was wasteful to spend a lot on an elaborate one.

In complying with her wishes, my father's siblings and I encountered the contempt of the staff at the funeral home that handled her wake. It was clear funeral directors wanted us to feel that not spending money on fancy extras showed we did not love my mother very much.

That attitude added a mountain of insult to our grief. It had only been a few hours since she died when we started the process at the funeral home. It was also clear that their main concern was profit.

And Glenn Taylor, I know - we just have a few seconds left - different funeral homes do these things differently, but that's a fear that a lot of people have.

Mr. TAYLOR: And that's unfortunate, because there is a perception of a disconnect. There is not. My suggestion is - and Lisa, with your permission -my e-mail address is gtaylor@glenn - with two N's - I would be glad to talk with anyone regardless of where they are on how to work with their local funeral director to achieve what they want.

I've heard stories like yours, and I'm - it just - I just hate it. It's unfortunate. I like to think that it's not the majority, but I'm afraid to paint with two broad a brush.

CONAN: Glenn Taylor, thanks so much for being with us. And again, we'll put that Web - that email address on our Web site as well. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And Glenn Taylor joined us from the studios of Louisville Public Media in Kentucky.

And Lisa Carlson, thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

Ms. CARLSON: Thank you for the invitation.

CONAN: Lisa Carlson with us from Vermont Public Radio studios in Colchester. She's executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization.

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