At home funerals and death doulas

A common practice in many parts of the world and among Native Americans, WBUR's Common Health reports on a new trend among United States "boomers" at home rites during dying and death:

Death remains a topic that many of us would rather avoid. And when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of caring for the dead, most of us tend to think it’s best — and furthermore, required by law — to let professional funeral arrangers handle the arrangements.

Well, it turns out that in most states it’s perfectly legal to care for your own dead. And, with new momentum to shatter longstanding taboos and stop tip-toeing around death — from “death with dignity” measures sweeping the country to projects promoting kitchen table “conversations” about our deepest end-of-life wishes — a re-energized DIY death movement is emerging.

This “personal funeral” or “home death care” movement involves reclaiming various aspects of death: for instance, keeping the dead body at home for some time rather than having it whisked it away; rejecting embalming and other environmentally questionable measures to prettify the dead; personally transporting a loved one’s corpse to a cemetery; and even, in some cases, home burials. Families are learning to navigate these delicate tasks with help from a growing cadre of “death midwives” “doulas” or “home death guides.”

Is it legal? Is it less costly?

Would you do it? Have you seen this?

Comments (5)

When my wife Ginger and I were informed on Sunday, June 27, 2004, that the doctors could do nothing further for her, I brought her home by ambulance to a hospital bed that had been installed in our bedroom. Members of the church choir arrived shortly after we did and sang the Beatitudes at her bedside and our priest anointed her. A friend hired a carpenter to make her coffin, which was delivered to our garage. On June 30, at dawn, Ginger died, surrounded by me, our five children, several spouses and the dog. I had said I didn't want strangers handling my wife's body. Two women from the church, assisted by one of my daughters and her wife, washed Ginger's body and dressed it. We found we couldn't get the coffin up the stairs, so Ginger's body was wrapped in a sheet and friends of my sons' carried it down the stairs and laid it in the coffin, and the lid was then screwed in place. We waked and watched for 24 hours while friends and neighbors came by. Then on Thursday we took the coffin to a crematory in the suburbs in a rented van. On Saturday Ginger's funeral mass was celebrated at St. Stephen and the Incarnation and some of her ashes were interred in the church yard. The only involvement of an undertaker was to obtain the cremation permit, which in Washington can take up to two weeks. He got it in an hour.

I like the idea (although the name "death doula" is a tad too precious). It wasn't that too long ago that caring for the dead was something all families did. I wonder if there's any room for a group of local volunteers to do some of this, along the lines of the Jewish Chevra Kadisha?

Bill Dilworth

The "go to" source for information re all types of burials, as well as state laws (which vary immensely) and local resources is the Funeral Consumers Alliance (funerals.org), a non profit with chapters in most states, established to assist consumers in navigating through the $15 billion burial and funeral industry. The majority of funeral homes today are owned by a few large corporations. Strong, active lobby in D.C. and many states - one of the reasons funerals are so expensive and we are discouraged from caring for our own. The just published book "Final Rights, Reclaiming the American Way of Death" should be in every church and clergy library.

As a hospital chaplain my first experience with family care for the deceased was a Buddhist family. Respectful and moving,very similar to the process described above within their own tradition. Caring family members, hospice volunteers, church members - all can assist. A "professional" home death person does not need to be hired.

Check out the WBUR presentation,as well as the FCA - their site offers information we all should have for pastoral care.
Kit Tobin+

This site is another resource for caring for your own at the time of death: http://www.crossings.net/index.html
Another option is cadaver donation. My father - a priest in the Episcopal Church for 56 years - died nearly a year ago. He arranged for his body to go to the Maryland Anatomy Board (the agency here that takes care of body donation). He was a teacher in life and in death.
One great advantage was that his funeral was amazingly simple to arrange. No funeral home was involved at all. The service was at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, with Bishop Sutton presiding. The biggest expense was the reception afterwards.
At the time of his death, which was at the nursing home where he lived, the staff was wonderful, and the Anatomy Board was kind enough to wait until my sister's arrival from North Carolina before they took him away.

Anne LeVeque (added by editor)

I've occasionally thought of offering a "pastoral care package" of services like hospital visitation, funeral planning, last rites, etc... for those who are not regular church-goers but want some care from a priest regardless. Not sure what I'd charge, but contemplating.

Tom Sramek, Jr.

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