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Caring For Your Own Dead: Myths and Facts

1/30/2009 Joshua Slocum, FCA Executive Director

Caring for one’s own dead isn’t something the majority of families do. Most of us are so distant from the realities of death, we’ve forgotten that our great grandparents regularly waked the body at home, and an undertaker was a helper, not a funeral director. But in my six years as the executive director of FCA, there’s been a surprising resurgence of interest in private, family-directed funerals. Formerly confined to a few hippies (I mean that affectionately) in Northern California, or in the pages of Lisa Carlson’s Caring for the Dead, Your Final Act of Love, home funerals are finding new life in volunteer groups and in the mainstream media. In 2004, Public Television aired an hour-long documentary on the topic.

But families in seven states (CT, IN, LA, MI, NE, NY, UT) face legal obstacles. Astonishingly, those states have seen fit to require families to engage a funeral home for everything from filing the death certificate, to transporting the casket, to getting the body released from the hospital. Whether the family wants to hire a funeral director or not, whether they can afford to pay one or not. Click READ MORE for the rest of the story. . .

I know of no other instance in which private families are forced by law to engage the services of an outside business for such an intimate event. No law compels us to hire a nurse to supervise us when we care for our kids home sick with the flu. No regulations make our grandmothers the property of state-licensed nursing homes if we’d rather let them spend their declining years cared for by family. So what do these states know that the 43 other states which do permit home funerals don’t know?

According to some funeral directors, the state has a legitimate interest in “supervising” the care of the body by compelling families to hire a funeral director. According to a recent article in the Good Funeral Guide, a blog based in the UK, Thomas Lynch is among them. Lynch, you may remember, is suing Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Funeral Ethics Organization in federal court, claiming that various criticisms of him by both organizations are libelous and defamatory. Obviously, FCA disagrees,  and we’re not about to stop commenting on a public figure’s pronouncements when they relate to our consumer protection mission. And Lynch’s certainly do.

It’s easy to get confused on this issue, and easy to get bamboozled by misinformation. Charles Cowling, the author of the Good Funeral Guide, probably doesn’t know enough about US funerals, funeral law, and funeral costs state-side to know which of Lynch’s arguments hold water, and which don’t. That’s OK – no one could expect the average person, especially overseas, to know the ins and outs of US funeraria. This is a good opportunity to clarify FCA’s position on family-directed funerals and to lay to rest self-serving industry arguments that deprive families of an important right.

[Note – I’m going to respond to Cowling’s reports of Lynch’s statements, assuming in good faith he’s portrayed them accurately. If it turns out otherwise, I’ll be happy to correct this story. The issues remain the same, regardless].

Cowling notes that Wendy Lyons, president of the FCA affiliate in Detroit, Michigan, is campaigning to repeal a 2006 law that requires a funeral director’s involvement in every funeral. So he asked Lynch what this law was all about:

First, that 2006 law. It was brought in after some abusive parents burned the body of their child. The state now requires that someone supervise the handling, disposition and disinterment of a dead person, someone, in Tom’s words, “having some oversight, some witness to the verity of who died, of what, and what was done with the corpse … In our state of Michigan the occupational group charged with collecting and registering these vital statistics and medical certification is licensees in mortuary science … an occupational class which it licenses and regulates”

Reality Check 1: I’m not aware of the case Lynch cites, but it’s impossible to figure out how the presence of a funeral director is going to stop people who murder their relatives and hide the evidence. Most murderers, after all, don’t show up on the doorstep of a local funeral home or the medical examiner’s office.

Reality Check 2
: In all US states, the last attending physician must certify the cause of death on the legally required death certificate. When there is no attending physican, the local medical examiner must certify the death, and the medical examiner has the authority to examine the body to be sure no foul play was committed. Once the death is certified, the state’s interest in ensuring that murders don’t go undetected has been satisfied. Requiring a family to engage a funeral director adds nothing but unnecessary costs and unwanted intrusion for those who want to do it themselves.

Reality Check 3
: Requiring mortician involvement in every burial is no guarantee the right thing will be done. Here’s a story about a funeral home in Mr. Lynch’s own state:

Jordan’s body was stored in a locked garage at Notier-Ver Lee-Langeland Funeral Home, 315 E. 16th St., the Holland funeral home handling arrangements. Priority Arrowaste [the trash company] of Zeeland came Jan. 5, 2006 to pick up the funeral home’s refuse and recyclables, which were in the same garage as the body. The driver noticed the box with the body, which was labeled with Jordan’s name, on a gurney. He contacted a company representative and went ahead with loading the box in the truck, officials said.

Later Jordan’s body was dumped by Priority Arrowaste into Autumn Hills landfill in the southeastern part of Zeeland Township.When the funeral home realized the body was missing, they contacted Priority Arrowaste and searches with state police cadaver dogs were conducted at the landfill. Jordan’s body, however, could not be located.

Is this the “witness to the verity of who died, of what, and what was done with the corpse,” Mr. Lynch intended? No one would claim this sort of thing is common in the funeral industry. It’s obviously an isolated case of negligence. But it gives the lie to the claim that the presence of a funeral director guarantees “dignity” – or even cemetery burial. I doubt the family would have been so careless – so callous – with the body. To claim that we must have funeral director supervision to make sure some insane family doesn’t cremate their dead in the backyard is not only nonsensical, it’s a slur against the vast majority of decent people. We can trust families to take care of grandma at home with occasional hospice help, but the minute she stops breathing we need an undertaker’s watchful eye to ensure they don’t defile her corpse?

Cowling continues:

Tom goes on to say (and I include this exclusively for its word-music): “In Milford we can’t burn leaves in the autumn, bury our trash in the back yard, drive an unlicensed vehicle or tend to the duties of our toilet in public.  Nor can we hunt squirrels, coyotes, deer or dogs in town.  “We the people” have made our laws, on these and a million other matters.  Including the dead.”

Reality Check: Musical it may be, but it’s also misleading and inept. No family is asking to burn or bury their loved ones in their suburban backyard. Home funeral families do the same thing with their dead that morticians do – they file the necessary paperwork and bring the body to the cemetery or crematory. And what this had to do with driving unlicensed vehicles is a mystery. Last I checked, citizens were able to file the paperwork for their licenses and vehicle registrations on their own without paying a high-priced courier to do it for them. I’m not even going to dignify the remark about public defecation with a response. Would Mr. Lynch take such a vulgar view of the motivations of one of his customers if a family he’d served before decided to do it at home this time around?

Cowling asks Mr. Lynch if the Michigan law gives funeral directors the upperhand:

Does this give Tom a stranglehold over families who would wish to care for their dead themselves? I put it to him. “Would I,” I asked, “in the State of Michigan, be able to keep [my dead wife, Sharon,] with me and tend to her and take her to her place of final dissolution (earthly or fiery) without the intervention of a funeral director except in an administrative capacity as the envoy of the state government? Would I be able to engage a funeral director in a consultative capacity to drop in, say, twice a day and deal with the stuff that’s coming up out of her nose, but stay his hand in matters I wanted him to keep out of?”

Tom’s reply: “What you describe as what you want for you and your Sharon, and the partnership or collaboration that you have control over with the funeral director, is PRECISELY allowed under the law and ENCOURAGED (right word) by me and everyone who works with me.

Reality Check: While most families will use a funeral home, and many home-funeral families do appreciate (and gladly pay for) limited assistance from an undertaker, that does not make it ethical to force  this “help” on unwilling people. An unwilling customer is not being helped; he’s being coerced.

More from Cowling’s article:

What that 2006 law means is that (Tom’s words) “any legal next of kin may make any decisions about handling, possessing, burying, burning, scattering, disinterring a body, and is not prevented from doing so at their own home, in their own style, at their own pace, with their own people … It DOES NOT MEAN that only a funeral director may handle or dispose of a body.  It only means that a funeral director must supervise.  What level of oversight might be involved is up to the agreement between an individual family and the individual funeral director. “

Wendy Lyons says there’s a human rights issue in this. Can’t see it, Wendy.

Reality Check: It may be hard to see because Mr. Lynch doesn’t mention some important considerations:

  • Money. What Mr. Lynch hasn’t mentioned is that, in the US, our Federal Trade Commission – the analog to Britain’s Office of Fair Trading – permits funeral homes to charge all customers a “basic services fee.” This is the fee all customers must pay, regardless of how simple or elaborate the funeral. The fee is intended to cover basics such as the filing of the death certificate, the planning of the burial or cremation, etc. But it is routinely inflated to unconscionable levels. The national average is $1,200, and in many cases it climbs higher than $3,000.

    There is nothing in the law that prevents a funeral home from levying the full fee, even for the minimal work of filing the death certificate. FCA gets thousands of calls and emails from consumers every year, and I’ve seen such usury plenty of times. It does not matter if Mr. Lynch or any other funeral director claims he wouldn’t charge the full amount – there’s no law preventing less scrupulous funeral homes from doing so.

  • Self-serving laws. The laws in Michigan (and several other states) are perfectly contrived to ensure that funeral directors not only have the opportunity to profit from every death in the state, but the right to on pain of legal penalty. Michigan statutes ban funeral directors from from  “(d) Aiding or abetting an unlicensed person to engage in the practice of funeral directing or embalming.” So, even if a funeral director wants to help a home-funeral family, the law could be read to require him to be present and supervise the whole thing from start to finish. And since funeral directors deserve to be paid for their time, the family is on the hook for the bill. How much will he charge the family to supervise, say, a two-day Irish wake?

It should be clear how the laws are conveniently constructed to thwart families who want privacy, or who can’t afford to hire an undertaker, while enabling funeral directors to claim “the law requires me to be here or I could lose my license.”

Cowling ends:

Let’s hand the microphone to Tom: “I’m the one, after all, who has preached for thirty-five years that OURS IS A SPECIES THAT DEALS WITH DEATH BY DEALING WITH OUR DEAD.  And that part of the funeral director’s job is to embolden families to do all that they can themselves.  But you are right, some want to be empowered, others to be served, others not to be bothered at all.  Our job is to meet them where they are on this continuum and help where we can when we’re asked.”


Then please, Mr. Lynch, practice what you preach. If you hold death rites in such high regard, if you care as passionately as we do about empowering families to make meaningful funeral experiences, then join us in overturning these unnecessary laws. Otherwise your words are all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Family-Directed Funeral Resources on the Web

It’s worth saying again: Michigan is in the minority. The vast majority (43) of US states preserve families’ rights to bury their own dead without commercial interference. It’s Michigan that needs to explain why the rest of the country is wrong.

Thankfully, several states offer consumers helpful guides on how to file necessary legal paperwork and accomplish private family funerals. Why aren’t they afraid of   undertaker-free farewells?

  • Home Burials in Vermont – A Guide From the Health Department – A very helpful guide to the necessary paperwork families must complete if they choose a home funeral. Josh Slocum of FCA, and Lisa Carlson of the Funeral Ethics Organization, co-wrote and edited portions of the guide in cooperation with the state of Vermont.
  • The most powerful testimony to the value of home funerals (and the necessity of preserving access to them) is found in Public Television’s groundbreaking documentary, A Family Undertaking. The film follows five families around the country who returned to the simple and private practice of home funerals. Anyone who watches this film would be hard-pressed to argue against preserving this right. The site includes a legal Q&A from Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson.
Home funeral training and support groups and resources:
  • Click here for FCA’s list of 13 volunteer groups and online directories specializing in educating families on home funerals.
Efforts to return family rights to private care of the dead (please support them):

FCA is the only national, nonprofit organization that advocates exclusively for the rights of grieving families. We need your support to continue acting as a watchdog to preserve the rights of the bereaved. You can help with a tax-deductible donation. Thank you for your support!

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