Under the old apple tree

According to Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, every year in the United States we bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 104,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 1,636,000 tons of concrete, and approximately .8% of our population.

The funeral industry needs to change. When open space is at a premium, it’s shocking that we would choose to pollute and corrupt large tracts of land with our dead, sealing this land off and declaring it unusable for any purpose.

Death is a difficult subject, especially in America, where death is feared and hated. We handle our dead in a very peculiar way, a way many people find repugnant. Often we don’t even handle our dead personally, but we farm the task out to others—and pay a fortune for it. Even Americans who want a plain, simple funeral can expect to spend at least six thousand dollars.

The mortuary and funeral home industry has invested a great deal of time and money into misleading us about the legalities of death. Should you call your local funeral director, you will be told a do it yourself funeral isn’t possible, for legal reasons, and you will be encouraged to use his services. You may also be told that bodies must be embalmed, for legal and health reasons, and fed an assortment of other lies.

I would like to take a moment to disabuse you of these wrong ideas, dear readers, even if you may not choose a do it yourself funeral for yourself. It is important to me that we make empowered choices, especially about an issue as personal as death. I encourage all of you to consider caring for your dead more directly, and the information below is intended to be a rough guideline. Numerous books which deal with caring for your dead are available and I suggest you track one or two down. (It is especially a good idea for you to familiarize yourself with the rules about caring for your dead in your own state and county.)

1. A licensed funeral director is not required by law to participate in any aspect of a funeral. Should you choose to do so, you may transport your dead yourself, and you certainly may care for them yourself. Funeral directors serve a social, rather than legal function, and although some people may wish to avail themselves of the resources and services of a funeral home, you are not required to do so.

2. Should a death be expected, a death certificate is a simple formality. It’s an excellent idea to work with a cooperative and helpful doctor who will be available to sign the death certificate as quickly as possible. If a death is unexpected or foul play is involved, it must be reported to the police. However, even if the police do take custody of the body, your wishes regarding the matter must be followed—you can specify whom you want the body to be released to after the necropsy, for example. If someone dies while in the custody of medical services, after the medical examiners office has waived rights over the body it can be released to you for transit. Only in the cases of unclaimed bodies where family members have not been identified may the medical examiner’s office take charge of the body and funeral arrangements.

3. The office of vital statistics needs a small amount of information from you for a death certificate, including the name and age of the decedent, time and place of death, and so on.

4. You will also need a transit permit, available from the office of vital statistics. The forms are short and simple. Contrary to what the funeral industry would like you to believe, anyone may transport a body, as long as they have a transport permit in hand. (Due to the processes of death, I recommend transporting the decedent in some sort of container or wrapping.)

5. On a state by state basis, legal stipulations exist about how soon after death a body must be buried, refrigerated, embalmed, or cremated. Usually you are required to do something with the decedent within 24 hours.

6. Making arrangements in advance, or having a good idea of what to do, is an excellent idea. Make yourself a “death to-do” list which outlines, step by step, how you want your body handled. If you wish to be buried, research cemeteries (more about this below) and pre-contract for a grave, if possible. You should be warned that many cemeteries are owned by the funeral industry and they expect you to use the services of funeral homes if you’d like to buried in them. Find a local cemetery owned by a community trust, if you can. Not only is it less expensive, but the cemetery bylaws usually allow you more control over your own dead. If you wish to be cremated, make this desire explicit as well. Perhaps you want to leave final disposition up to your survivors.

Familiarize yourself with the law and the wishes of your loved ones, as well as stipulating your own wishes. You can care for your own dead every step of the way, should you choose to, and it’s what I would choose for myself. A growing number of American cemeteries are also offering green burial, which is the only logical choice to me. There are a lot of resources available on green burial, although most are based overseas. I would love to be buried out in the wilderness and allowed to return to the earth, but that is unfortunately not an option for legal reasons. But I can choose to be buried in a green cemetery which stewards the earth and allows animals to roam grazing above. I would love to have an apple tree planted over me, so that people can come and visit in years to come and eat the sweet, tart fruits on late fall days.

The dead need to rejoin community life, instead of being exiled to hallowed ground, in my opinion. Not only is a do it yourself funeral a personally empowering choice, it’s a logical and practical choice. Caring for your dead is a final act of love–why contract it out to someone else who will charge you a small fortune for it? Let us break out of the “traditional American funeral” and build our own rituals.

[caring for your dead]