Lisa Carlson died peacefully at home June 4, 2023 at the age of 86.
Lisa was born in 1938 in Melrose Massachusetts. During her varied career, Lisa was a schoolteacher in Massachusetts and Vermont, proprietess of her restaurant “The Hungry Pig and I” in Plainfield, Vermont, a saleswoman and installer of home vacuum systems, head of the state hospital in Waterbury, Vermont, and author of the first book dedicated to teaching families how to return to the time-honored practice of caring for their dead privately at home.
Lisa was a teacher by nature. She is best known for her work advocating for the fair treatment of bereaved people when arranging funerals. Lisa’s husband John Brackett died unexpectedly by his own hand in 1981, leaving her widowed with small children and little money. An unusually self-sufficient and resourceful woman, Lisa cared for John’s body at home and drove him herself to the crematory.
What may have been a practical financial move was also what Lisa would come to call the “final act of love.” Lisa rediscovered the old tradition of family care of the dead privately, and intimately, without the assistance or cost of a professional undertaker.
This lit a fire in her belly, and she felt compelled to teach others that the grieving do not have to part with their dead—and a great deal of money–in order to lay them to rest. In 1987, she wrote the book “Caring For Your Own Dead,” the first manual of practical care for the dead written for lay families. That same year, the New York Times covered Lisa’s story and her book, opening the eyes of millions of readers to the possibility of reclaiming the most meaningful and intimate moment in family life.
Troubled by the high cost of funerals and the deceptive sales practices in the commercial funeral industry, Lisa served on the board of a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the grieving avoid funeral poverty. In 1996, she revised and greatly expanded her book into a new edition. “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love,” added practical advice for families who wished to use a commercial funeral home but who did not know their options, their legal rights, or the ways to hold a meaningful goodbye on a reasonable budget.
That same year, Lisa became Executive Director of the nonprofit she served, which soon became known as Funeral Consumers Alliance. Her leadership and research expertise made the organization the premier and trusted source for consumers, government, and media seeking objective advice on funeral planning.
During that time Lisa assisted famous muckraking journalist Jessica “Decca” Mitford, on the 1995 updated edition of Mitford’s original blockbuster expose “The American Way of Death.”
Lisa retired from Funeral Consumers Alliance in 2002, but remained active in consumer advocacy through her own nonprofit, Funeral Ethics Organization. In 2011, she teamed up with her successor at FCA, executive director Joshua Slocum, to co-write a third edition of her book, titled “Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.”
Lisa Carlson was a force of nature, and to some, an acquired taste. She liked to drink, smoke, and tell off-color jokes. Strongly opinionated and often uncompromising, Lisa could be at times difficult, as unusually passionate people often are. She was also one of the most caring and generous people one could hope to meet; the mentorship, instruction, and moral support she gave to students, family, and friends could never be recounted in an obituary.
Tough as nails and competent at any job she tackled, Lisa’s heart was tender and loving. She was often moved to tears by the stories of the families she helped through difficult deaths. Nothing satisfied her more than to see a family take her advice and discover that, yes, they could do this, and that it meant more to them emotionally than they could have predicted.
As she wished, Lisa’s body was donated to the University of Vermont for anatomical study. “I’m not going to need it, but medical students need someone to learn on,” she would say. Her friends and family suspect that the first thing she asked for on the other side was a double vodka, neat, and someone to chortle with over a bawdy joke.