Monday, October 21, 2013

A final act of love: Slamming the door on Morticia

A dignified, loving farewell, no morticians or toxic chemicals required.
    Our mothers cared for us from the moment we were born, attending to our needs in countless ways. We emerged from their bodies, and that intimacy was never eradicated by time or distance. They devoted themselves to nurturing, protecting and supporting us. They would have died to save our lives.
    So when a mother -- or any loved one -- dies, how should we feel about having his or her body briskly zipped into a plastic bag and whisked off to one of those dungeons known as mortuaries, to be stripped naked, and then (among other indignities) punctured, clamped, drained, and glutted with chemicals?
    We do have options. We can keep our loved one with us, at home, and take care of the body ourselves, in one final act of love. There are networks all over the country that can help us through this process. Not everyone would want to do it, of course, and even among those who wish they could, it might be too complex and traumatizing during a time of grief. But for those who are able to cope, it can provide the rewarding sense that you bestowed upon your beloved the warm, all-embracing farewell that was so well-deserved. -- rather than one that was sterile, lonely, cold and invasive. 
(This article also includes info on intriguing alternatives to burial and cremation.)

Sorry babe -- we can take care of our own loved ones. You may go now.
A gentle and beautiful send-off by people who insisted on doing it their way.

    Jewish theologians regard what happens in a mortuary as "doing violence" to the deceased. Now that I have learned for myself what goes on in there, I agree.
    I feel traumatized by the specter of having someone I love deeply, and who has just died, unceremoniously bagged and hauled off by the "professionals," when what I need and want is to be a caregiver during that person's final hours on Earth. I am not ready to have my friend or relative yanked away, as if he or she now belongs to someone else. This seems absolutely barbaric. I want to be present until the very end, not to have my loved one alone, in stark, clinical surroundings -- being treated as a "stiff," who needs to be "prepped" -- while I sit miles away, overwhelmed with grief. It makes no sense. I want to minister to those who are most important to me, in an atmosphere of comfort, sunshine and beauty, rather than delegating this ritual -- which has been with us since the human race began -- to a corporate enterprise.

    "Undertaken with Love, A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities," can be downloaded for free or can be purchased bound It is just one of many wonderful resources, some of which I will enumerate below.

    The do-it-yourself funeral movement has been growing for more than 20 years, as economic, environmental and cultural concerns have converged. Baby Boomers are adding great impetus to this shift. 

    (UPDATE: A March 13, 2014 New York Times article documents this shift:

This wicker casket is featured in the Times coverage.
     There is increased cynicism about the predatory sales tactics of the funeral-home industry, an aversion to the chilly, fake-gardenia-scented mortuary atmosphere as a place to conduct services (nontraditional competitors, including hotels and event planners, are vying to host them), and a reluctance to pump solvents such as formaldehyde, methanol and ethanol into the bodies of loved ones. "Cadillac" caskets are going out of style. Burial itself is losing ground, so to speak. Even affluent Boomers may resent paying close to 10 times as much for a "conventional" funeral as they would for one that is produced and directed by their friends. Many ex-beatniks, hippies and rockers may find the funeral-home approach to be creepy, man -- very uncool.
Very uncool, and yet so totally chilling.
    "Home funerals can provide more meaningful end-of-life rituals, and this helps the families take the time they need to grieve in a familiar environment," the invaluable website, Home Funeral Directory, says. "In the comfort of their own home, family members experience less fear of death and they are free to mourn in their own way. This more natural pacing deeply honors the deceased and the experience. Additionally, being physically involved in the process helps in grieving. It gives more closure to the loss of a loved one. And it’s a relief to many people because they can 'do something' rather than sitting idly by waiting for a funeral home to take care of arrangements." 
    James Stevens, below, has been fighting city officials for the right to keep his wife's grave in their yard, as she requested (photo by Kendrick Binson, New York Times.)

    Home Funeral Directory's excellent, thorough site provides many helpful resources, books, articles and advice for handling your loved one's body and final disposition. It also provides links to individuals and organizations in every state that can advise you This site provides a thoughtful checklist for organizing a home funeral: In a Smithsonian article, "The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral," Max Alexander writes about his disgust with the funeral industry, and his rejection of it: Do some Googling, and you'll find lots of great material.

A cozy and lovely farewell.
     "It is something whose time may finally have come. It is at the other end of the spectrum of natural childbirth and a logical extension of the hospice movement," says Lisa Carlson, author of "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love." 
    (Although, you need to keep an eye on those profit-hungry hospice people
    Rev. Lynn Acquafondata, a Pittsburgh, Pa., Unitarian minister, stresses that the psychological benefits of home funerals can outweigh concerns about performing tasks for and around a corpse. "“It really helps a family to work through and process grief instead of walking away and keeping it at arm’s length," he says.
Rising above convention, they fulfill a friend's last wishes.
    Embalming rates continue to decline in the U.S.  Economic considerations play a role, as do the substantially increased use of cremation, and a growing awareness that embalming is not necessary for public health. All of this is causing "widespread panic" among morticians, who see themselves becoming more irrelevant by the day. 
It's an '80s jam band, as well as a state of mind.
     One funeral director association is fighting back: "The objective of this training session is to emphasize the importance of having client families say YES to embalming and to outline implications for the family (and the profession) if they decline embalming." The major selling point for families, according to course material, is the psychological importance for them to have a positive "final impression" of "the decedent." The tutorial essentially counsels funeral home directors to use scare tactics -- to warn clients that exposure to an unembalmed corpse will create nightmarish memories that will haunt them for life. It is ghoulish and disgraceful.
    (Another way they're fighting back is to transform the bleak, stultifying funerals of yesteryear -- and yesterday -- into multimedia extravaganzas, filled with color, music and videos, and streamed live on the Internet. Laughter and tears! Party favors and balloons! Cupcakes and punch! It's a Dead Man's Party! 
    One firm offers a variety of themes in its One Last Party™ collection. Wouldn't a Mardi Gras bash be fun?

Don't forget the cupcakes! Grief never tasted so good.
Another funeral-party firm provides a DJ and an open bar. Celebrate!
    In some states, "death midwives"  are quietly informing people that they have the legal option to care for their dead loved ones in the home -- sensitively and lovingly -- without pouring money into the pockets of local mortuaries. This site encourages the bathing, anointing and dressing of the body by the family, and then placing it into a simple cardboard or wooden box:
     Increasing numbers of families are turning to informal, do-it-yourself memorial services -- in the backyard, at the city park, down by the riverside -- that don’t involve funeral homes at all. 

Nobody paid. Everybody prayed.
    That is what I would hope to do.  My aunt recalls her youth in the 1930s rural South, where a person's death brought the family together in a collaborative effort to care for the body with the greatest of tenderness and respect. Once the body was washed,  groomed, and gussied up in Sunday-best attire, it was set out in the middle of the parlor, so friends and neighbors could stop by to offer consolation.
Surrounded by love and light, in the comfort of home.
     There were no strangers puncturing the skin, and shaving it all over (men and women), and no use of strong chemicals to sanitize bodily orifices. No bizarre instruments were employed on that beloved flesh. There was no sucking out the lifeblood, even though the life was gone. There was no stuffing the eyelids with cotton, or gluing them closed. There was no pumping of toxic, malodorous chemicals into the beloved's body. There was no rupture of bodily cavities, or jamming anything into them. There were no infusions of filler into the face, to preserve that "lifelike" look. There were no makeup artists, with their palettes of concealer, eye shadow, blush and lip color, to make death synthetically beautiful.
    Instead, the family somberly attended to the body, and then it was buried in a homemade wooden box. 
Their precious Nellie, untouched by strangers. by C.L. Hickerson
   That's how it was done, before death became a "growth industry" and a "business opportunity," ripe for entrepreneurs and professional hand-holders, who would guide you gently toward the "finest" products and services. And it was way before funeral homes became commoditized, and were snatched up by profiteering chains.
    Now, people around the country are looking back to the "good old days" for a simpler, more meaningful, more reverential approach. People are beginning to ask, "Do we really need 'help' in easing our friends and families into a tasteful departure?"
Friends to the end, no "professionals" required.
    "Having your loved one’s body at home after he or she has have died is legal in all states. Some states require that a funeral director be involved at some point (to sign the death certification, for example), according to the Home Funeral Directory site.  "Embalming is not required in any state (except in a very, very few limited situations), nor does it take a licensed mortician to transport a body in most states. A casket for burial is also not required by law." 
    In a touching Feb. 2, 2014, New York Times essay, a dying man describes the enriching process of constructing his own simple pine casket. He intends to be cremated, but he wants his unembalmed body to be present, albeit unviewed, for his funeral (

No metal tables, tubes, buckets or chemicals -- just devotion.
    I have read about the attitude toward embalming in various religions and was surprised that so many of them around the world discourage or preclude it. 
    Traditional Jewish law forbids embalming or cremation, and burial is to be done as soon as possible – preferably within 24 hours." According to a Chabad site, "a person upon his demise should be laid to rest naturally. There should be no mutilation of his body, no tampering with his remains, and no handling of the body other than for the religious purification. Disturbance of the inner organs, sometimes required during the embalming procedure, is strictly prohibited as a desecration of the image of God. The deceased can in no wise benefit from this procedure. So important is this principle, that Jewish law prohibits the embalming of a person even where he has specifically willed it."
Ritual immersion follows methodical purification.
    "It is not a sign of respect to make lifelike a person whom God has taken from life. The motive for embalming may be the desire to make of the funeral a last gift or a lasting memorial, but surely mourners must realize that this gift and this memorial are only illusory. The art of the embalmer is the art of complete denial."
    Today, many Jews -- like the rest of us -- have fallen away from tradition, and have turned death over to the funeral industry. But there has been a nationwide explosion of interest in returning to the two millennia-old rituals, according to the New York Times. A new generation of Jewish volunteers is learning "a set of skills that was common knowledge for many of their great-grandparents: the rituals of bathing, dressing and watching over the bodies of neighbors and friends who have died." ( 

The cleansed body is ensconced in a pristine burial shroud.
    The body is thoroughly cleansed of dirt, body fluids and solids, and anything else that may be on the skin, and then it is ritually purified by immersion in, or a continuous flow of, water from the head over the entire body. "A chevra kadisha is an organization of Jewish  men and women who see to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial," according to Wikipedia.
     Embalming is not practiced by Muslims, who are urged to bury their dead within 24 hours, Wikipedia adds. "The body is washed, usually by a close relative. He or she is then dressed in a clean, perfumed, plain white burial shroud, called "kafan. People gather to hold a joint prayer for the dead called 'namaz-e-janaza'. They do not use coffins. Instead, the two meter deep grave has edging approximately one meter down, where a slab is placed which in turn is covered with loose dirt."
Lithograph circa 1888 depicts Muslim procession to grave site.
     Some sectors within Eastern Orthodoxy profess an absolute ban against embalming except when required by law or other necessity, while others may discourage but do not prohibit it, Wikipedia continues. "Members of the Baha’I faith are washed and placed, unembalmed, in a cotton, linen or silk shroud after death. The body is to be buried within one hour's journey from the place of death, if this is feasible. Cremation is also forbidden."

I don't want a funeral, but you guys have fun.
Like them, I don't feel like partying when someone dies.

   I have quoted this material in its entirety from "The 5 Stages of Embalming," by Jamie Frater:
The tools of the trade don't inspire heavenly images.
         In the embalming room, "All clothing, bandages, IV needles, catheters, etc., are removed. A strong disinfectant spray is used to clean the skin, eyes, mouth, and other orifices. If rigor mortis (the stiffening of muscles after death) has set in, it is relieved by moving the limbs and head about and massaging the muscles. If the decedent is a man, he is normally shaved at this point. Even women and children are shaved to remove the fine “peach fuzz” we all have on our faces. This is done to avoid the makeup from collecting on the hair and making the makeup more noticeable.
    "Next begins the process of placing the facial features and the body itself in the position it will remain in the casket for viewing. This is done before arterial embalming, because the body will be truly “set” – firmed in position, once formaldehyde reaches the tissues. 
Pick your poison.
     "Great care is taken to close the eyes. The traditional method for doing this involves placing a bit of cotton between the eye and eyelid. Many times after death the eyes sink back into their sockets, so small plastic “eye caps” are placed on each eyeball. A small amount of stay creme is placed on the eyecap to avoid dehydration of the eyelids. Contrary to popular myth, the eyelids are never sewn shut, but in some cases that may be glued together to prevent separation. 
    "The mouth is closed either by tying the jaw together with a piece of suture string or by a special injector gun. With the suture method, a curved needle with a piece of suture string is threaded through the jaw below the gums, stuck through the upper jaw into to the right nostril, threaded through the septum of the nose into the left nostril, and then passed back down into the mouth. The two ends of suture are tied, careful not too tightly, so that a natural appearance of the mouth is created.
The jugular vein is opened as the embalming fluid inflates the body.
    "Arterial embalming is begun by injecting embalming fluid into an artery while the blood is drained from a nearby vein or from the heart. The two gallons or so needed is usually a mixture of formaldehyde or other chemical and water. In the case of certain cancers, some diabetic conditions, or because of the drugs used prior to death (where body deterioration has already begun), a stronger or “waterless” solution is likely to be used for better body preservation. Chemicals are also injected by syringe into other areas of the body.
    "Once the embalming fluid begins to flow into the arterial system, pressure begins to build up in the entire vascular system. This helps the fluid reach all parts of the body and penetrate into the tissues. Evidence of this can be seen in bulging veins throughout the body. The jugular drain tube is opened periodically (it is normally closed) to allow blood to escape and prevent too much pressure in the vascular system, which could cause swelling." 
    "Once arterial injection has been completed, the arterial and jugular tubes are removed, the vessels are tied closed, and the incision used to access the vessels is sutured closed and sealed with a special chemical.
Painting from a triptych in Bruges depicts embalming of Christ.
    "Arterial fluids mainly treat the skin, muscles, and organs. What’s inside the organs (such as urine, bile, etc.) begins to decompose. Gases and bacteria can build up and cause distention, odor, and purge (such as brown fluids coming out of the mouth). These bacteria can sometimes spread to other parts of the body, even after arterial embalming, causing decomposition problems.
    "Cavity treatment starts with aspirating (suctioning) fluids out of the internal organs in the abdomen and thoracic cavity. This is accomplished with the use of a trocar. The embalmer uses it to puncture the stomach, bladder, large intestines, and lungs. Gas and fluids are withdrawn before “cavity fluid” (a stronger mix of formaldehyde) is injected into the torso. The anus and vagina may be packed with cotton or gauze to prevent seepage if necessary. (A close-fitting plastic garment may also be used.)
Embalming was uncommon in the U.S. until the Civil War made it desirable.
     "After embalming, the body and hair are washed once more to remove any blood or chemicals and then thoroughly dried. Any restorations are done now, such as rebuilding features, masking sores or abrasions, etc. Makeup gets applied to the face, neck, and hands. Either a translucent makeup is used, or an opaque makeup is applied if the skin is discolored. The fingernails are trimmed. The hair is styled, either by the embalmer or by a professional hairdresser or barber."
Lenin had a talented embalmer, but Mao later outdid him. Damn!

    As I have tried to imagine handling a loved one's body in preparation for a simple burial, I have had many reservations. I don't cope well with grief, nor do I function competently when I'm under great stress. While we may find mortuaries to be unsavory in some respects, they do briskly take care of administrative chores -- death certificates, transit permits, obituaries, etc -- that might overwhelm someone who is in deep mourning.
    But there are larger considerations. A wonderful friend of mine, Kerry Don Peterson, who worked in mortuary science for many years before becoming head of the university's body donor program, told me: 
    "Moving a dead body from one place to another can be done without the proper equipment, but it is difficult and often times looks very disrespectful. 
    "Dead bodies do void bowel and bladder contents, and not just once at the time of death.
    "The County Health Department, Vital Statistics will help folks with the death certificate and transit permit, but catching the doctor to sign it can be difficult.
    "Keeping your loved one at 40 degrees (to retard organic decomposition) at home with dry ice is difficult and may leave one with a bad 'memory picture.'
    "Lack of proper refrigeration will lead to quick onset of organic decomposition. The byproducts are very bad.
    "The timing of details is important…e.g. you can't inter until the death certificate and transit permit have been filed, and the cemetery will need the proper paperwork."  
    Kerry adds: "If you think you can do these things and have quality time in the last moments with your loved one, the experience can be very rewarding."
    It certainly isn't for the squeamish, as the list of needed supplies below suggests. I'm sure that some families, who have the right skills, commitment and harmonious relations, can do it in a gratifying manner. For others, it could turn into a nightmare.


The following section is excerpted from an earlier post, "Dead Man's Party."
    Another enlightened trend that imperils the conventional death industry is the growing interest in “green burials,” in which the body is interred in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition, enabling it  to “recycle” naturally.
    This approach ensures that the burial site remains as natural as possible. Unembalmed bodies are placed in a  biodegradable casket, shroud, or a favorite blanket and covered with two feet or less of soil to enable composting to occur.
    A green burial  “takes place in a natural environment where native flora and wildlife flourish. A green cemetery provides habitat for endemic birds and animals, returning lands to their native grasses, flowers and shrubs,” according to
     Currently, there are only  22 cemeteries with natural burial grounds certified by the Green Burial Council, up from one in 2006, according to a 2010 Newsweek article. But that number is likely to rise. Industry analysts predict there will be a major uptick in green burials in the next decade as the baby boomers, who are more concerned about the environment than previous generations, begin to plan their funerals.
    But it's not easy, and it can become unwieldy and overwhelming.

     Consumers are aware more than ever of the huge markups (between 400 percent and 1.000 percent on caskets) and costly “extras” associated with funeral planning. They are gradually choosing to bypass the conventional channels. When Costco (2004) and WalMart (2009) began selling caskets and cremation urns online, it was shocking and funny for a few minutes, and then it started making a lot of sense. Funeral homes typically charge $5,000 to $12,000 for a casket. The discount retailers offer models at $1,000 to $2,000, with a $100 shipping fee. Federal law requires funeral homes to accept third-party caskets. Here is Michael Jackson's  solid bronze, gold-plated $25,000 casket:

    Consumer advocates say a sub-$800 funeral is possible in most places. It requires “direct cremation,” which simply means that the deceased is promptly cremated, without a prior funeral service or viewing. Direct cremation usually includes transport of the body, cremation and a cardboard or plastic container for the ashes.

    You can purchase a simple, well-crafted pine casket at five percent of the cost of the most opulent polished bronze coffin. You can make one yourself for a fraction of that. And artist Joe Scanlan is selling a book for $27.50 that tells you how to make your own coffin from IKEA parts for less than $400:

   These trends are leaving funeral homes scrambling to survive. “Superior profits can be generated only by selling services, not merchandise,” the funeral directors’ journal ICFM Magazine emphasizes. “You’ve got to become an ‘event venue‘."
    And now there’s an iPhone app for that -- the first and only one ever created for funeral directors!

    Not everyone will find that a "green" burial is desirable or  practical. A large number of funeral homes has begun offering cremation services, as owners wrack their brains about how to maintain their profitability, despite the dramatic decline in casket sales.
    For those who think that cremation seems pretty darned uncomfortable, there is a newer technology that claims essentially to rinse you into a blissful nothingness.
    The BioResponse web site makes the method sound quite relaxing, even referring to the receptacle as a “spa.”

    “The alkaline hydrolysis process is essentially an accelerated form of the process which takes place in the natural cycle of life,” it says. “A combination of gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity is used to accelerate the natural course of breakdown accomplished by our ecosystem. At the end of the process the body has been returned to its natural form, dissolved in the water. Similar to cremation, the only solid remains are the mineral ash of the bones, which are returned to the family in an urn. Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as resomation, offers families the opportunity to contribute to a gentle, greener process.”  Resomation is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than cremation. It is currently legal in Florida, Maine and Oregon. 

    You have to leave BioResponse’s web site and look elsewhere to discover that what they basically do to you in these metal cylinders is to BOIL YOU IN LYE. So much for a relaxing splash into eternity.
    The installation of the first commercially sold system for multiple cadaver dispositions was in 1995, for the State of Florida. In 2005, BioResponse  designed, sold, and installed the first single-cadaver alkaline hydrolysis system and placed it at the Mayo Clinic, where it is still used to dispose of the remains of bodies donated to science.
    The public overwhelming prefers alkali dispositions to cremation, according to Jeff Edwards, an Ohio funeral director who offered both for two months, until state officials told him that alkaline hydrolysis "is not an authorized form of disposition of a dead human body," although it is widely used by veterinarians. Edwards plans to appeal.
    Its advocates say alkaline hydrolysis, which costs about $700 and -- unlike cremation, doesn’t produce air or water pollution -- is putting the first nail in cremation’s coffin.
    Cremation, of course, put the first nail in the coffin’s coffin.
    The newest new thing is Promession, which is purportedly an ecologically sensitive method for disposing of human remains by freeze drying. It was invented and patented in 1999 by a Swedish biologist.
    The three-step method consists of first submerging the body in liquid nitrogen, making the remains so brittle that they shatter into a powder, using only slight vibrations. The powder is then dried, reducing its weight by 70 percent. Metals within the remains -- such as those from dental fillings or joint replacements -- are removed and recycled. The remains are then shallow-buried so oxygen can reach and compost them in the natural, aerobic fashion.
    The first facilities for Promession-based funerals, known as Promatoria, are due to be ready this year. They will be located in Sweden, Great Britain & South Korea. So we need to get going -- we’re not getting any younger!

     Another new firm, Social Network, has arisen to advise funeral homes on how to establish an eye-catching “online presence,” now that Web-savvy Boomers are old enough to start planning for their “final exit.”
    “Make friends with this generation -- it will be your salvation,” the site declares.
    A Royal Caribbean cruise recently became the “venue” for morticians who combined sunbathing and Margaritas with a series of workshops provided by the company FrontRunner Professional on “WebSuite 4.0,” which encompasses the funeral profession's “most advanced website / kiosk / marketing center, personalization software, and DVD engine all integrated into a one data-entry solution.”
    That calls for another Margarita! Por favor! Baby, take a bow!
    Now that consumers have directed their bargain-hunting skills to funeral services, another industry -- consisting of high-paid consultants and high-cost DVDs -- has sprung up to teach funeral professionals “how to handle price shoppers.” Sounds a bit ominous.
    So let’s all be sure we know how to handle THEM.