Caring for the Dead

I just finished reading an awesome book called Caring for the Dead, which is about, uh, caring for the dead. I’ve always been interested in death culture and the American funeral industry, and I am especially intrigued by the idea of caring for your own dead. The thought of surrendering someone to a funeral director to sit in a freezer for a few days is deeply repugnant to me, as is the thought of removing bodily fluids, like a vampire, and replacing them with toxins. There was a time when Americans cared for their own dead, and that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, and that is really unfortunate.

Not only because funerals are expensive. Even the most basic of funerals runs to thousands of dollars, and I think that funeral directors really take advantage of consumers who might be feeling distressed or disoriented. It’s also because giving up your dead does not allow you to mourn them. I feel like caring for a loved one after their death would be really important to me, and I’m surprised that more people don’t do it. I like the idea of holding a big party to celebrate the deceased, and of allowing people to visit with the dead, if they so desire. I also firmly believe that death care is an important ritual which allows us to deal with our fears and uncertainties about death.

In addition to providing basic tips and information, the book also provides an overview of prevailing law in most American states. A lot of people are surprised to learn that, in most areas, it is perfectly legal to care for your own dead. You can keep them at home, and take them to a burial spot or crematory on your own. You do not need a funeral director to have a funeral, although some regions might make it really hard for you to hold a funeral without a funeral director.

Since a lot of my readers are Californians, I thought that I would briefly discuss the section on California law. There are also a lot of organizations which help people take charge of their own funerals, like Final Passages and the Natural Death Care Project. If you are interested in handling funeral arrangements yourself, make sure to look up prevailing local laws to make sure you do it right; and you may want to think about preparing ahead of time.

To care for your own dead in California, you need the following documentation:

Death Certificate. If someone dies at home, get the family doctor to sign a death certificate. In the case of an unattended or suspicious death, the coroner will probably perform an autopsy and provide a death certificate. Electronic death registration is probably on the way, in which case this procedure may change. In the case of fetal death, a fetal death certificate is required after 20 weeks of gestation.

Transport and Disposition Permit. You need to present the registrar of the health department with your death certificate to receive this piece of paperwork. It allows you to transport the body, and it indicates the intended final disposition (burial, cremation, etc). You need to file one copy with the registrar in the county where the disposition occurs, and another with the registrar who originally issues it.

If you intend to cremate the body, you will need a container appropriate for cremation, and you will need to make sure that implanted medical devices such as pacemakers are removed. I would highly recommend working directly with a crematory, rather than a crematory attached to a funeral home. If promession ever becomes available in the United States, I imagine that the requirements will be similar to those for cremation.

If you intend to bury the body, you need to use an established cemetery. If you want to bury at home, talk to your county registrar and find out whether or not you can establish a cemetery on your land. People in rural areas are going to have much more success with this, but it’s still the sort of thing that you need to plan ahead; if you know that burial at home is something you want, get cracking now. Many green cemeteries are happy to work with people who are holding their own funerals, and some crematoriums are willing as well, but if you want a burial in a more traditional cemetery, be prepared to put up a fight.

If you’re interested in burial at sea, naval burial is available free to veterans, active duty, and retired military members, along with their immediate families. Several private companies offer burial at sea or ash scattering to people who want these services; a sea burial or ash scattering does need to be noted on a disposition permit.

California does not have any law requiring embalming, and there is no legal time schedule for disposition of a body which has not been embalmed. However, for obvious reasons, it’s a really good idea to get things taken care of quickly. The Jewish tradition of burying a body on the same day of the death is a rather sound one, in my opinion. In cool weather, it may be possible for a body to remain uniced for several hours, but it’s a good idea to pack the body with dry ice in all other situations. If you intend to hold visiting hours, tie a scarf around the decedent’s head at the time of death so that the jaw will not fall open, and weight his or her eyes; the Greek tradition of coins for the ferryman is practical as well as mystical. You should also use diapers or padding to absorb body fluids which may leak.

If you choose burial, you have a number of coffin or shroud options, depending on where you bury the body. Be aware that many cemeteries require a coffin liner or vault for burial. Others may let you use a shroud. In any case, you are entitled to build your own coffin, if you choose to do so, or you can purchase one from a private purveyor. Cremated bodies must be cremated in containers of some kind; a natural wood or wicker coffin is a great choice because it will readily burn. Avoid coffins with treated wood or metal fixtures which will cause air pollution while they burn.

If you do decide to use the services of a funeral home, you are protected by law from a lot of predatory practices. Every funeral home, by law, must provide you with a copy of the general price list, and you can select a la carte services, although you will still be required to pay a basic, non-declinable fee. You are not obligated to embalm a body unless it is being transported by air, and the funeral home may not carry out an embalming without your permission. You are also permitted to bring in your own coffin, although a funeral home might fight it. Get and sign a contract clearly specifying the desired services and price. Avoid “package deals,” and consider holding memorial services off site to avoid price gouging. You should also be aware that funeral directors are trained in the art of manipulation, so you’re going to hear a lot of “If you really loved your ______, you would go with this service,” or “Show your love for your ________ with this casket,” and so forth. Funerals are for the living, not for the dead, and you already know exactly how much you love the decedent; you don’t need to prove it with a lavish funeral.

I’ll try to have a less ghoulish entry tomorrow, I promise. But I would love to hear from my international readers about funeral traditions in your part of the world, since I get the impression that American funerals are really pretty unique.