When funeral homes began to rise in the early 20th century, they forever changed the nature of death in the United States. Now, the alternative death community is eager to force that change back, to empower people to make their own decisions about living and dying in a country where most deaths take place in hospital settings and most bodies are routed through funeral homes. Now, natural burial is on mainstream television, while pioneers of home death, compassionate hospice, and caring for bodies at home are making the headlines of national publications. The alternative death movement isn’t a flash in the pan, but a serious force to be reckoned with, and the funeral industry is quietly on notice.
Some people are working within the system, establishing their own funeral homes to help guide people through the process of developing the funerals they want. Maybe employees come to the house of clients to help them lay out a body, providing useful supplies and handling tasks people may not be comfortable with. Perhaps they help coordinate the purchase of a coffin, or handle the logistics of buying a plot in a natural cemetery or setting up a cremation. Maybe they help people pursue more ‘traditional’ routes.
Others work outside the system, acting almost like death midwives by acting as information portals for those who want to pursue DIY funerals. Many people are surprised to learn that few states have extensive regulations about how people handle dead bodies, beyond laws requiring a death certificate and permit for disposition to ensure that a body is disposed of responsibly and not abused. It’s entirely possible to die at home, have a visiting doctor sign the death certificate, apply for a certificate of disposition, carry the body to a crematorium, and conduct any ceremonies families and friends want to perform, all without setting foot in a funeral home or dealing with the funeral industry.
Proponents of alternative death argue that this experience can be incredibly empowering, putting people in charge of a sensitive, complicated, intense part of their lives. I agree — I don’t like how death has become sanitised, and I don’t like how we distance ourselves from death. The thought of dying in a hospital troubles me, as does the thought of being handled coldly and impersonally by a funeral home after my death. I simply want to die in peace, to be laid out for a day or two on a bed of dry ice, and then to be cremated or lowered into the ground in a shroud — ideally in my own back yard, which is perfectly legal in California with the proper permits if you’re in an area zoned for it.
But I am beginning to worry that the rise of alternative death and a push for consumer empowerment may wake the dragon. Currently home deaths and funerals represent such a small percentage of funerals taking place annually that they aren’t really worth the trouble, from the perspective of the industry. It may lose some money in business, but likely the margins on such funerals would have been low anyway, as many families interested in home funerals also seek simplicity, and if they were going through funeral homes they’d be searching for the least invasive and most simple option. Not out of cheapness, but out of a desire to divorce themselves from the trapping of highly baroque, fancy death that refuses to face facts.
But if more and more people start engaging with alternative death — or traditional death, really, because it hearkens back to modes of handling death and dying over millennia — and as more people open funeral homes and consultancies that provide services explicitly to people interested in managing death on their own, that could start to represent a threat to the industry. Potential customers might turn away from the industry as death positivity grows, or seek much more basic, simple funerals in light of what they know. This certainly happened with The American Way of Death, which triggered not just huge regulatory reforms to put a stop to the abuse of grieving families, but also changes in the way people wanted to conduct funerals — a distinct uptick in cremation happened as the book spread and people talked about it.
Faced with this, the large-scale funeral industry may be inclined to start lobbying for regulatory changes that could hamper, shut down, or frustrate the traditional death movement. The classic tactic is just to throw more red tape at a problem, making it hard for families to care for their own dead unless they’re intimately familiar with an individual county and state’s regulations. Such regulations can also tighten up on the type of care families can provide at home. The funeral industry has the funding and dedicated lobbyists to push lawmakers, and may raise the spectre of ‘public health’ and other issues as it attempts to promote changes to the existing relatively light regulation on what people can do with dead bodies.
This is a disturbing prospect, as members of the traditional death movement are fighting at the opposite end of things, trying to expand options for people who want to explore options like composting their dead. Lawmakers on the alert and made aggressive by the funeral industry are likely to oppose efforts to reconsider the way we handle our dead, creating more latitude for ‘acceptable’ methods of handling a body — and this could pose serious obstacles to a community that’s already struggling with weird social attitudes about death, dying, and bodies.
Image: A Jazz Funeral for Doc Paulin, Derek Bridges, Flickr