Originally published on Detroit Free Press on January 11, 2015, by Ann Zaniewski
Sharon Bailey died at her daughter’s home in a bed with a dark wood headboard that she bought more than 50 years earlier, around the time she got married.
Her daughters, Laura and Beth, gently washed her body with soapy water. They rubbed rose-scented salve on her skin and dressed her in brown trousers, a brown turtleneck and a pretty pink fleece.
Under her hips and shoulders, on top of fresh sheets, they placed small bags of dry ice.
Bailey remained there for three days. About two dozen visitors said their good-byes to the 72-year-old former teacher in a serene room near a bouquet of red roses and a few candles.
“I’m really proud of how she died. I feel that my mom had a luxurious death,” said Bailey’s daughter, Beth Bailey Barbeau, 51, of Ann Arbor. “She died safe in a home with people caring for her and loving her.”
A small but growing number of people are seeking out more natural — and typically less-expensive — options when it comes to final arrangements for their loved ones
Barbeau chose a home funeral rather than embalming and a funeral home visitation for her mother. Bailey was cremated, an option that’s skyrocketing in popularity in the U.S.
Environmentally friendly green burials are becoming more common, too.
Most states don’t require people to use the services of a funeral home. Michigan allows do-it-yourself funerals, but both a funeral director and a doctor or medical examiner must certify a death certificate. A funeral director or county registrar has to sign the permit needed when a body is moved to a cemetery or crematorium.
Three cemeteries and 19 funeral homes in Michigan are certified by the Green Burial Council, an organization that advocates natural funeral and burial practices.
There are no statistics about the number of home funerals. But interest is growing, said Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance. The advocacy group has nearly 600 members, up from 350 one year ago.
“People are looking for more affordable, Earth-friendly and meaningful,” Webster said. “It all boils down to authenticity: They want their end-of-life processes and rituals to reflect their life in a way that we haven’t really seen before.”
Baby boomers are leading the movement, she said.
Green funerals and burials typically include no embalming or embalming with fluids considered less harsh than formaldehyde. Bodies are placed in biodegradable containers with no metal, such as a wicker casket, plain wood box or even just wrapped in a cloth shroud.
Green cemeteries allow bodies to be put in the ground without a concrete vault.
The Preserve, a green cemetery that opened in 2010 next to All Saints Cemetery in Waterford, has sold 156 burial sites. Twenty-seven have bodies.
Small numbered discs mark lots that contain six graves apiece.
“We don’t have marble statues or man-made carvings. When you go out there, you feel like you’re in a prairie,” Russ Burns, cemetery director, said.
Bailey’s family went the home funeral route because it reflected her natural lifestyle and they wanted to spend as much time as possible with her after death.
Cost was a secondary factor. Barbeau said her mother’s home funeral cost less than $1,000. Most of that was for cremation. She spent $60 on dry ice.
In contrast, the median cost for a funeral in 2012 — with embalming, a metal casket and burial with a vault — was $8,343, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Depending on what a customer wants, green funeral and traditional funeral costs can be comparable, said Chuck Oliver, a funeral director at Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors in Utica and Royal Oak.
“Nowadays, funerals are very nontraditional,” Oliver said. “Everyone has a different vision for how to memorialize their loved ones.”
Funeral homes have seen a surge in cremations, which are often cheaper than traditional burials. By the end of 2015, the cremation rate in the U.S. is expected to surpass the burial rate for the first time ever.
The cost-conscious have other options, too. Retailers such as Costco and Walmart sell caskets. Prices start at less than $1,000.
People who can’t afford end-of-life arrangements can seek help from the Michigan Department of Human Services. The state spent $3.83 million for the burial of 6,723 bodies — some of them unclaimed — in fiscal year 2014.
Home funerals were the norm until around the Civil War. The desire to preserve soldiers’ bodies for transport from the South to the North led to embalming becoming more widespread, as did the multicity tour of Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed body, said Gary Laderman, an Emory University professor and author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in 20th Century America.”
The era gave birth to the use of “mediators,” such as funeral homes and hospitals, between the living and the dead, he said.
“Back then, you usually died at home surrounded by family,” he said. “I think there was an intimacy that existed with the dead that is not so prevalent today.”
Being hands-on after a relative dies is often comforting, said Merilynne Rush, a home funeral guide who founded Ann Arbor-based After Death Home Care in 2010. She has helped with more than two dozen home funerals, including Bailey’s.
Many people don’t realize they can have funerals at home.
“We’ve been guided to think it’s somehow morbid or dangerous” to be around a dead person, Rush said. “It’s not weird. It’s very healing for families to be involved.”
The do-it-yourself-route isn’t for everyone. Home funerals can be emotionally or physically difficult.
“The reality is it’s not for most,” said Pat Lynch, president of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Clawson and past president of the Michigan and National Funeral Directors associations. “It’s rare to find a person who wants to care for their loved one completely on their own.”
“Most people don’t have the knowledge base, or the equipment necessary, to handle a dead body in a way that is acceptable to the vast majority of the community. That’s what funeral directors are trained to do.”
He said funeral directors can, for instance, spot and handle unexpected problems related to decomposition.
Mark Evely, the mortuary science program director at Wayne State University, said people considering a home funeral should know there may be health risks. Pathogens such as HIV, Ebola and tuberculosis can remain in the body after death and pose a risk to others, he said.
Some funeral homes, such as Lynch & Sons, will help people plan and carry out home funerals. Lynch & Sons also gives families the option of using dry ice instead of embalming for funeral home visitations.
Not all funeral homes embrace green practices. It’s usually because they’re not familiar with them, said Mike Mitchell, co-owner of Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home in Chelsea and Caskey-Mitchell Funeral Home in Stockbridge.
Mitchell is a leading home funeral and green burial advocate who has made dozens of Earth-friendly arrangements.
“It’s something that’s deemed new,” Mitchell said, “but really it’s the oldest, newest trend in funeral service. This is what my predecessors used to do.”
An intimate service
Bailey had bone cancer for two years; doctors believed it stemmed from an earlier bout with breast cancer. She had been under hospice care for eight months when she died in November 2009.
Barbeau, Bailey’s daughter, said keeping her mom at home felt more intimate and less invasive than having a funeral home remove and embalm the body. It allowed her family to grieve gradually, on their own time. Visitors brought meals.
“I found it wonderful to be there. We could get our coffee and just sit in the room and be with her in our bathrobe,” Barbeau said.
The family chose a simple cardboard casket. Bailey’s children and grandchildren decorated it with crayons and glitter markers.
Generations Funeral & Cremation Services picked up and drove Bailey to be cremated.
When she left the house, a small container of her favorite butter pecan ice cream was tucked under her arm.
Her hands held the bouquet of red roses that sat near her bedside.
“This kind of ending,” Barbeau said, “it had grace and elegance and peace.”
Laws and regulations
Many people don’t realize home funerals are legal in Michigan. Here are some related laws and regulations:
■ Embalming is not required in Michigan if a body will be buried or cremated within 48 hours. However, some people interpret the law to mean that embalming is not required at all except under rare circumstances.
■ The law doesn’t address using cooling methods to slow decomposition. Funeral homes and morgues sometimes keep unembalmed bodies for long periods with refrigeration.
■ Funeral directors can only embalm with the consent of a relative or a person entrusted to look after the body
In Michigan, both a funeral director and a doctor or medical examiner must certify a death certificate.
■ A funeral director or county registrar must sign the transit permit needed to move a body to a cemetery or crematorium.
Considering a home funeral?
Here are some basic tips:
■ Determine whether a home funeral is right for you. The condition of the body, the final wishes of your loved one, and your own level of comfort with caring for and keeping a body at home are important factors to consider.
A home funeral guide or a funeral home that’s amenable to home funerals can provide guidance. Preplanning can make the process easier.
■ Know the local regulations. Michigan allows do-it-yourself funerals, but it’s one of the states that require funeral directors to be involved in at least some aspects of what happens after death. For instance, a funeral director must certify a death certificate.
■ Learn about body care. Home funerals are typically a very hands-on affair, though you can hire someone to help. The National Home Funeral Alliance and other groups recommend preparing the body according to certain guidelines. Bodies need to be washed and kept cool to slow decomposition.
If a body will be at home for less than 24 hours, turning on the air conditioner may suffice. For longer home funerals, dry ice, Techni-ice or ice or cooling gel packs should be placed under the body in certain areas.
Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnZaniewski. – see more at http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/01/11/home-funerals-becoming-popular/21605207/