DIY Funeral Care: Family-directed
Post-death Care and Funerals (often called ‘home funerals’)
Can you do your own post-death
care and funeral arrangements?
In the simplest words, ‘yes’.
Before the 20th century,
it was common for people or communities to take care of their own dead
— both before and after the death. Most people died at home,
supported by friends, faith communities, or the local midwife (who often
attended both births and deaths). Sometimes doctors attended
the death in the home — but primarily to witness it and offer support.
Post-death care — washing
and dressing the body — by the family members was considered a ‘last act
of love and/or respect’. The community helped organize a time of
‘lying in honour’, final farewells, or wake, where friends would come to
the home and offer their last blessings to the deceased and condolences
to the family. A friend or family member usually made the coffin
or shroud; others would dig the grave and then help fill it in after the
coffin was lowered into it.
The parish clergy — who mostly
likely knew the deceased and their family well — would do the traditional
funeral service; but if that wasn’t appropriate or available, the family
would create the service themselves. Tradespeople would often make
the coffin and the gravestone; but other than that, most of the death care
and arrangements were done by the family/community. Even in cities,
where there was likely to be a local undertaker who would dig the grave
and transport the body to it, the post-death care still happened in the
|In fact, this approach to
post-death care has only been lost for a few generations — many older people
remember their grandmothers taking the equivalent of a ‘death midwife’
role in their family or community. Many non-Western, ethnic or religious
traditions around the world have preserved this kind of post-death care
to the present day — and it is also still maintained in many rural areas
of North America.
Towards the end of the 20th
century, people began to question the current funeral practices for several
reasons — ecological concerns, expense, the loss of the ability to carry
out the Death Journeyer’s expressed wishes, etc. In addition,
without a hands-on approach, a significant part of the opportunity to process
grief and other emotions is lost — although in fact the family may not
be aware of that at the time. As a result, many people are
considering other options — including those which are more family-directed,
hands-on, personally meaningful, as well as usually less expensive — such
as ‘home funerals’.
History of funeral homes
and the costs of a standard funeral
Embalming was used during the
U.S.A.'s Civil War, as a way to be able to transport soldiers’ bodies home
to be buried; and it became even more popular after the Second World War
for the same reasons. It eventually expanded into the commonplace
practice that it is today. The skill of embalming required special
training and certification, as well as the necessary equipment and a place
to house it. Especially in cities, it soon became more convenient
to hand over post-death care/arrangements to a funeral director.
On one hand, there is considerable
legitimate expense in maintaining funeral-home premises, equipment, and
a range of products, as well as an on-call funeral director (prepared to
pick-up the body within an hour’s notice of death) — services which are
usually included in the ‘basic arrangements’ fee. However, over time,
embalming, ornate coffins, and various other ‘optional’ products were added
and became status symbols. Eventually, the funeral industry expanded
until the public came to assume that it was the only (legitimate and legal)
As the industry grew, so
did the range of secondary products and services that funeral homes offered
— as well as the mark-up fees on them. Extra services — like arranging
for flowers, filing the obituary, transporting the body and supplying limousines
for the family, providing pallbearers, having mementos available for those
who attended the ceremony, making arrangements with third parties (clergy,
cemetery/crematorium, etc.) — may be included in the total fees; and it
may not be acknowledged that they are additional costs until the family
receives the final bill. In many cases, lower-priced options (such
as low-cost coffins) are hidden, while only the higher-priced ones are
in the viewing rooms; or inexpensive choices are not offered at all and
only made available upon specific request — assuming that the family even
knows that they exist.
The ‘death taboo’ of our
culture forbids us to speak about death at all, except in the most indirect
and roundabout terms. This taboo, added to the status-symbol dynamic,
means that it is often considered inappropriate (perhaps even undignified)
to consider the cost of various funeral options. Both of these constraints
result in a reluctance to question the necessity or the value of the options
presented to us — it is essentially considered ill-mannered to do so.
Funeral homes tend to assert
that all these options are integral parts of the over-all status — although
they are unlikely to actually use the word ‘status’, and instead imply
that one can only truly honour their dead loved one by adding all of these
services and products. Unfortunately, because of the cultural status-symbol
effect, family members may also insist that the deceased deserves the most
expensive option, to the point of shaming the decision-maker into that
choice. Now a funeral can be one of the largest single purchases
a family may make, outside of a house or car — generally ranging from $2,000
to $10,000. [Note: cemetery and cremation expenses are not usually included
in the initial estimation of costs.]
As a result of both the expense
and pressure to buy options, many people are now opting for less expensive
funeral homes which specialize in ‘direct cremation’ — which is generally
a quarter or a third of the cost of a medium-option burial. In this
case, the body is removed from the home, hospital, or residential facility;
stored in the funeral home’s morgue for the required 48 hours; and transported
to the crematorium — without any visitation, funeral service, or other
involvement by the family/friends. However, if these funeral homes
also offer further services (such as visitation), the final costs may be
close in price to those of the more conventional funeral homes.
Do I have to use a funeral
director or a funeral home?
To our knowledge, there is no
province or territory in Canada that legally requires embalming (unless
a body is transported over a considerable distance), or even the use of
a funeral home or director. In fact, many religious traditions (such
as Jewish and Muslim) require that the body not be embalmed; and that family/community
be directly involved in the post-death care and/or burial, with minimal
intervention from a funeral home (if at all) — and these traditions have
been honoured throughout Canadian history.
All the post-death care and
arrangements can be done by the family and friends at home. Cooling
the body to the required temperature is easily achieved by the use of dry
ice or Techni-Ice gel packs (which need to be ordered in advance).
Burial or cremation arrangements can be made directly with the cemetery
or crematorium. All arrangements for visitation/final farewells,
and funeral and/or memorial ceremonies, can be planned by the family/friends,
with or without the leadership of clergy or spiritual advisors. All
of the legal paperwork is available on-line from government sites, and
can be filed directly with your local Vital Statistics office — although
special body-transport permits, if required, are usually obtainable from
Consumer Protection Agencies.
The value of ‘doing it
yourself’ — (1) family-directed post-death care
Presently, if a funeral home
is used, the body may be taken away as early as an hour after death.
‘Open coffin’ funerals are becoming less popular; and many funeral homes
require that the body be embalmed for this type of funeral, and/or charge
extra fees for them. Unless the family is willing to pay the extra
cost of visitation, they — and those travelling from a distance for the
funeral — will not see the body again, and have no opportunity to say their
‘final farewells’. As a result, there is no tangible evidence
of the reality of the death; and even if visitation or an ‘open coffin’
is allowed, cosmetics will be used to make one’s loved one look like they're
‘only sleeping’. As a result, the family and friends may be
left in an emotional netherland, which can become a significant obstacle
to moving through the healthy stages of bereavement. In the end,
our cultural ‘death taboo’ is only reinforced.
The primary feature of the
death taboo in our culture is in regards to handling the dead body — and
yet many of us have held the hand of our loved ones or kissed their forehead
shortly after they died. We are instilled with a fear that the body
will significantly decompose immediately after death — which is not the
case — and decomposition can be easily delayed by reducing the body temperature,
using dry ice or Techni-Ice gel packs (to cool the body to the legal requirements)
for the 2-4 days before the burial or cremation.
Post-death care (washing
and dressing the body before rigor mortis sets in) is not significantly
different from pre-death care, especially if we have been caring for our
loved one throughout their final days — except that we no longer need to
worry about hurting them. Doing the post-death care is a time-honoured
‘gift of love and respect’ that has been maintained by ethnic and religious
cultures across the world. For those who have been caregiving pre-death,
it is a brief period of ‘extended caregiving’ — time to tend their loved
one for one last time, and gently transition out of the caregiver role.
For those who live at a distance, or were not otherwise able to help with
the pre-death support, it is an opportunity to participate in the last
act of caregiving.
Keeping the body at home
allows the family/friends to explore what ceremonies or customs would be
most significant to them or their dead loved one; and to arrange for what
is most personalized and meaningful to them, and do so in their own timing
(i.e. without the restrictions of the funeral home’s rules or business
hours). Such ceremonies/customs can also include children in appropriate
ways, and allow them to come to their own terms with what death means —
which are generally healthier and more inventive that we would have guessed.
Making the coffin or shroud,
and/or decorating a standard cardboard coffin in a personalized manner,
allows others to be involved in the post-death process — especially those
who are not prepared to do physical care themselves, or who were unable
to arrive in time. It is another variation of a ‘final gift’; and
can provide an evocative means for both releasing grief and reconnecting
with family/friends — as well as something else which children can directly
It is quite possible for
the family and friends to choose to “do it yourself”. [The CINDEA
website provides detailed timelines and instructions for post-death care,
as well as resources for paperwork and other support systems, for each
province/territory — see http://cindea.ca/home-funerals.html.]
However — whether the death was expected or not — this can be a very stressful
time for the family and close friends, and it may be helpful to call in
an alternative death-care practitioner to assist. [CINDEA provides
listings of alternative death-care practitioners who provide support services
for either part or all of the pan-death process — see http://cindea.ca/resources-pre.html
The value of ‘doing it
yourself’ — (2) family-directed funeral or memorial ceremonies
In the past, by North American
custom, the local parish clergy would lead the funeral service, according
to the family’s religious tradition. Nowadays, fewer people belong
to a faith community: and family members may follow very different religious/spiritual
traditions and lifestyles from one another. In all likelihood, the
funeral director also has no direct knowledge of the deceased, except what
is conveyed by the family in a stressful and limited time period.
Most of us have experienced a funeral service where the clergy or funeral
director didn’t know the deceased, and/or was following a tradition that
the deceased didn’t belong to and perhaps even disagreed with.
Direct cremation is becoming
more and more popular — in part because it is the least expensive way to
deal with the remains. However, it generally doesn’t
allow for any direct family involvement — although it is sometimes acceptable
for a family member to push the button (starting the cremation process),
but usually only if they specifically ask to do so. Modern families
may only have a memorial service, sometime later than the burial or cremation
— often this is in the form of a ‘celebration of life’. While these
services offer a large community of family, friends and acquaintances the
opportunity to honour ‘the life led’ by the Death Journeyer, they don’t
provide the intimacy of both grief-sharing and the tangible honouring of
the deceased that a service directly connected to the cremation or burial
A family-directed funeral
service (either as part of the burial or cremation process, or at a later
time) allows the family to explore what is particularly meaningful to them.
If the Death Journeyer is conscious and aware before death, they can be
directly involved in choosing the most significant elements of the ceremony.
Alternative death-care practitioners can be helpful in both the exploration
of ideas, and in weaving one or more ceremonies together that uniquely
represent the most evocative and meaningful aspects of the Death Journeyer’s
life and the grief felt at their loss. Green burials usually allow
for the most family involvement — although arrangements can sometimes be
made for family and friends to be directly part of a standard burial or
Memorial services — whether
or not there was a funeral service directly connected to the burial or
cremation — are often added at a later date to allow for a broader community
to gather together and celebrate the life of the deceased. They are
most often arranged by the family and led by a friend; and may be in a
rented hall, a meadow, etc. — anywhere that fits the family’s needs, and/or
that may be special to the Death Journeyer.
What help or advice is
available for doing post-death care and funeral arrangements yourself?
CINDEA (Canadian Integrative
Network for Death Education and Alternatives) maintains a website with
all of the necessary information and resources (for each province/territory)
to handle post-death care, arrangements, and the legal paperwork — without
using a standard funeral home. The website also provides listings
of Canadian alternative death-care practitioners who are able to support
you through the pan-death process.
Although U.S. based, both
the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA — http://homefuneralalliance.org/)
and the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA — http://www.funerals.org/)
support the rights of families to direct their own post-death care and
funerals, and have information on how to do so. The Home Funeral
and Natural End (map and directory — http://www.naturalend.com/)
— both also U.S. based — include Canadian alternative death-care practitioners.
What is a green burial
or natural burial?
A green burial (or natural burial)
refers to a burial where no artificial processes are employed. Natural
products are used for the coffin or shroud; and the grave usually does
not have a cement grave-liner (whose purpose is merely to maintain reasonably
flat lawns that are easy to mow). Most often, green-burial sites
are in woodlands, a conservation site, or lands being returned to a natural
eco-system — places where no irrigation, pesticides or herbicides are used.
A green/natural burial is more aligned with a natural life-cycle approach
and is particularly appropriate for those who are ecologically-minded.
It also tends to be somewhat less expensive than a standard burial.
Most people are used to a
coffin being used for burial — which can be made from wood, wicker or cardboard
for a green burial; but shrouds are also often acceptable. [Links to blueprints
for wooden coffins, and full patterns/instructions for green-burial approved
shrouds, are available on the CINDEA site — see http://cindea.ca/home-funerals.html.]
Headstones or grave markers are usually not allowed, as they interfere
with the land returning to a natural eco-system — although sometimes simple,
natural flat stones may mark a gravesite, or names of the deceased may
be etched into a naturally-occurring rock face. Generally,
modern surveying techniques are employed to record gravesites, making it
possible to identify where each specific person is buried.
Depending on the particular
green-burial site, the family may be allowed to lower the body into the
grave and then fill it in entirely; and then plant indigenous vegetation
or trees on the site in the appropriate season. Although cemetery
workers will be present to safeguard the burial process, they are usually
willing to stand aside — allowing the family to conduct their own funeral
service with minimal interference.
There are only a couple of
green-burial sites available in Canada at the present time — Victoria,
B.C., and Cobourg, Ontario. The Natural Burial Co-operative (Canadian
and the Green Burial Council (http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/,
which has a Canadian branch) both maintain a list of green-burial grounds
in Canada — with updates on new sites being planned or authorized.
Cremation is much less expensive
than burial — generally about 1/5 of the cost of burial, if it is a simple/direct
cremation. The difference in cost is also influenced by the fact
that many of the burial grounds in Canada are full; and there is no remaining
land, within city limits, to establish a new one — hence burial costs are
rising. Because of the lower cost, many Canadians assume that cremation
is also the more ecological option — unfortunately, it is not. The
pollution resulting from one cremation is 5 times that of burial; and is
estimated as equal to at least a 500-mile car journey (other sources suggest
a trip across most of the breadth of Canada). Mercury from dental
fillings is often dispersed into the air, unless the crematorium has special
filters to remove it.
Two options to cremation
that are more ecologically friendly have been invented — Resomation (also
called Bio-Cremation), which liquefies the body with an alkaline solution;
and Promession, which freeze-dries the body. Unfortunately, these
two options are not yet available in Canada, although Transition Science
claims to have the license for the distribution of Resomation equipment
in Canada. There are at least two active Resomation facilities in
the U.S., and more in Britain, where the technology originated.
In all cases — cremation, Resomation and Promession — the bones still need
to be pulverized before being given back to the family.
The carbon-footprint of cremation
is extended if a traditional coffin is used (hardwoods, and non-biodegradable
materials) or if the body has been embalmed. Chipboard and
cardboard coffins are both used for cremations, but the chipboard variation
produces more toxic waste than cardboard ones. A range of recycled-cardboard
coffins are now available — which, though they still produce some pollution,
result in less than other options. However, they are not directly
available in Canada as yet, and need to be ordered from other countries.
Cardboard coffins are usually lined with material made from paper or cotton,
which are bio-degradable; but one must ensure that other non-biodegradable
products are not being used.
Legally, you have the right
to buy any kind of coffin from any funeral home or supplier, and have it
used by any other funeral home, cemetery, or crematorium. For
a heavier body, the larger version of a cardboard coffin may need to be
used — check the specifications of the manufacturer you choose.
The Scattering of Ashes
There are endless options to
where ashes may be buried, or more often, scattered [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cremation#Methods_of_keeping_or_disposing_of_the_cremated_remains
for variations]. In general, ashes can be scattered anywhere
— except that in a park or private land, a permit or written permission
must be obtained. If a sea-scattering is preferred, find out what
the regulations state in your area — usually several nautical miles from
the shore. Cremation ashes can also be buried in a green or
conventional burial ground. A simple burial of ashes tends
to be 1/3 to 1/4 of the cost of a standard body/coffin burial; but depending
whether they are buried or placed in a mausoleum or vault, can be as expensive
as a body/coffin burial.
Occasionally, the memorial
service is directly connected to the spreading of ashes — either at the
site of the spreading, or just beforehand in a suitable hall; and friends
may or may not be invited to also attend the spreading afterwards.
More often, one or more members of the family spread the ashes sometime
before or after the memorial, in a more intimate ceremony that they have
designed themselves. One option is to divide the ashes amongst family
members and maintain them for a year’s time; and then share spreading them
in a family gathering, which acknowledges the first year anniversary, and
tends to be a particularly difficult date in the grieving process.
However, any option that is meaningful to the family can be chosen.
Many people are also concerned
about the cost of their ‘end of life’ care. Some studies estimate
that presently, for an average individual, their health (and/or long-term
residential) care costs as much in the last year of their life, as in all
of the rest of their lifetime. As such, and especially given the
recent impact of recessions on health/complex-care, they are concerned
that there will not be enough funding for the health-care that their children
and grandchildren may require to live productive lives.
As well, there is a current
phenomenon of adult children requiring the financial support of their aging
parents (who are more likely to have significant pensions). Many
elderly adults are also concerned that the cost of their death (especially
a conventional funeral home, burial or cremation, coffin, etc.) will drain
their bank accounts and life-insurance policies, leaving little future
support for their children and grandchildren.
As ‘baby boomers’ begin to
address the issues of what they choose both at their ‘end of life’ and
for their remains, and/or the ecological footprint of their death, it is
likely that more and more of them will consider the non-conventional options
||Pashta MaryMoon and Mia
Shinbrot are co-directors of CINDEA (Canadian Integrative Network for Death
Education and Alternatives), www.cindea.ca
— which provides extensive information on the above options (‘home funerals’,
Death Midwifery, etc.) and all the resources required for each province/territory.
Pashta is also a Death Midwife in Victoria, B.C., with Journeying
& Labrador, Northwest
Edward Island, Quèbec,
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