In one of the most memorable passages in American literature, John Steinbeck’s fictional family, the Joads, bury their beloved grandfather just off the highway, unable to afford a proper funeral or burial plot. Though they know it’s illegal to bury their dead there without going through the proper channels, the family finds they have no choice, and with love and dignity they conduct their own impromptu funeral—leaving a note with Grampa’s body explaining the circumstances of his death and burial.
Though most of us are unlikely to find ourselves in an identical situation to the one Steinbeck depicts— the story still resonates. After all, for thousands of years, humans have understood death as a universal fact of life. It wasn’t until the Civil War that paying professionals to preserve and transport bodies became common—and that only took off because so many soldiers were dying so far from home.
Now, Americans take for granted that we will leave caring for the “remains” of the deceased to professionals, but a growing home funeral movement is putting after-death care back into the hands of loved ones. Families who participate find the experience emotionally satisfying, and it is also greener and less expensive than leaving the arrangements to a funeral home.
On Thursday, October 10, a national leader in the home funeral movement, Jerrigrace Lyons, will visit the Stony Run Friends Meetinghouse for a discussion about home funerals entitled, “Bringing Funerals Home with Grace and Compassion,” as well as teach two courses in home funeral preparation. The event is sponsored by the Threshold Support Circle, Pivot Point and Phoenix Group of Stony Run Friends.
Families who choose a home funeral, bathe and dress the body, draping it to lie in honor for a vigil in the home. They also transport the body to a crematory or cemetery. The intimate process seems to help families work through the grief of death.
“I needed more than my mind to help me understand what was happening, touching his body and using my other senses helped me to move through my grief and grasp the reality of his death,” said one family member after she participated in her father’s funeral.
Ms. Lyons is one of the best because she has been doing this work for decades. Her own journey into the home funeral movement was as unlikely as any.
When a close friend died unexpectedly, she was asked to participate in the home funeral that others had planned. Ms. Lyons admits she was initially squeamish at the idea of handling the body, but steeled herself and participated. The experience changed her life. She went on to found Final Passages—an organization through which she educates people on the home funeral process and helps facilitate families taking charge of after-death care for loved ones. Her workshops often have waiting lists.
Besides the emotional and spiritual benefits, home funerals defray costs and keep the burial process as green and low-impact as possible. The average American funeral costs between $5,000 and $10,000. A home funeral can cost as little as a few hundred dollars to two thousand dollars, depending on where the body is buried or cremated, and whether the family decides to hire a “death midwife” or home funeral guide (as consultants like Ms. Lyons are known). They’re much more eco -friendly, too: Think of the chemicals used for a traditional burial, not just on the body, but also on the chemically fertilized lawns where the dead are buried and the impact of all those metal boxes in the ground.
What many people don’t realize is that caring for one’s own dead is perfectly legal in most states—and professionals like Ms. Lyons can help guide a family through filing paperwork, preparing the body for burial or cremation, and even the burial itself, should the family choose to bury the deceased on a private piece of land.
In all other rites of passage and meaningful life events we choose to be surrounded by family, to celebrate and observe in a way that reflects who we are, and that recognizes these moments as important touchstones in our lives—complete with whatever emotions they may bring. So while death and its aftermath may be something we usually seek to ignore, Ms. Lyons challenges this notion. “People think we’re not emotionally capable, let alone physically capable, of carrying this out,” she told the LA Times. “Well, what were we doing before when we weren’t supposedly able to take care of people?…We’re always afraid of the unknown, until we’ve been exposed to it and seen that it isn’t frightening.”
Ms.Lyons will be speaking Thursday, October 10th at Stony Run Friends Meetinghouse (5116 N. Charles St. in Baltimore) from 7:30-9:00pm. The Home Funeral Guide Training Workshops will be held October 11-12 (Level 1) and October 13-14 (Level 2). Cost is $350 per level and includes lunch and the Guidebook for Creating a Home Funeral. Workshops will be held at The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies (956 Dulaney Valley Rd. in Towson).