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The Purpose and Value of Home Funerals

Author: Cassandra Yonder BA, MArch, CertG&B
18 October 2012

Prior to the industrial revolution in North America death most often took place at home. Families cooperated to provide post death care for their loved ones and usually buried their remains themselves on their own property or in a small local cemetery.

As capitalist society became increasingly specialised and families spread further apart geographically, the role of undertakers evolved and the care of the dead was handed over to professionals. As families have continued to become less and less involved with end of life and post death care we have become alienated from death and dying in general, which has contributed to a pervasive cultural denial of death.
The mission of the contemporary home funeral movement is to support families to reclaim their right to home based post death care (with the understanding that ‘family’ and ‘home’ are defined by each individual in the context of their own community). The resurgence of home funerals gives the impression that it is a new age phenomenon. As the baby boomers start to grapple with their parents' deaths as well as their own aging, alternatives in end of life and post death care are being explored, but of course home funerals actually predate the “traditional” funeral service being offered by most contemporary funeral directors.

Families who want to provide their own home based post death care for their loved ones are acting within their legal rights to do so, and limitations tend to be much less restrictive than most people realize. Many people find that it is helpful and healing to stay with the bodies of their loved ones who have died and to take part in touching and holding them, washing, dressing and laying their bodies out at home for a vigil with their favourite music or whatever seems most appropriate. Families can transport human remains themselves and handle their own ceremony, paperwork and financial affairs. Embalming is rarely required. Caskets and urns can be made by the family and in many cases loved ones' bodies can be buried at home or taken directly to the crematorium or elsewhere for disposition. Medical examiners and tissue donation teams will work directly with families. Memorials can also be handled entirely by the family if they wish. There is very little need for professional intervention, especially if the death was expected.

Many people are fearful about taking part in post death care for their loved ones, especially at a time when the thoughts and feelings associated with bereavement are often overwhelming. Services are offered to families by the funeral industry based on the premise that to handle such difficult matters for families helps to rescue them from grief but, unfortunately; grief cannot be avoided. Healthy grieving requires engagement. When families cooperate and get involved with the post death care of their loved ones (by helping to wash the body, decorate the vigil space, make food for visitors, make coffins, plan a ceremony, dig graves, drive in funeral processions, write obituaries, etc) they participate at a visceral level; thereby acknowledging the magnitude of the loss personally, which is part of healthy grieving. Working together, taking time to acknowledge death and solving problems helps families to make meaning and contextualize death in a way that grief counsellors find to be potentially therapeutic. Most people who have taken part in a home funeral have found it to be an intensely rewarding experience.

Home funerals require teamwork. Many families are without the social support network or the desire to handle the post death care of their loved ones at home. The services offered by a good funeral director can be invaluable. Families may choose to provide as much or as little care as is right for them, therefore; a home funeral might be better described as a continuum as opposed to an either/or situation. Funeral directors are required by law to disclose an itemized list of services so that patrons can select only those that they need or want, and the industry is presently responding to the baby boomers' demand for choice as consumers. Some families are prepared to provide their own post death care, but feel they need some support which might be offered by a home funeral guide or educator.
A home funeral guide works in the field of death midwifery to support families to reclaim their right to care for their own dead. This is accomplished by offering public education as well as individual support for families. Home funeral guides are not licenced to provide direct, hands on services related to care of the dead. Instead they empower families by modelling acceptance of death and providing the information and support they need to do it themselves, or by helping them access the professional resources that are right for them. Ideally, home funeral guides work collaboratively with funeral directors and other end of life and post death care service providers so that families may be as involved as they wish to be. Home funeral guides tend to resist a capitalist business model and work mostly at a grassroots level in their communities to provide no more service than is needed.

Families choose home funerals for a variety of reasons: Many simply want to remain involved with their loved ones' care and resist professional intervention because it might feel cold, impersonal or devoid of spirituality. Some value self reliance or just want to do things at home like their grandparents did. Others are seeking less expensive and/or more ecologically sensitive alternatives to the “traditional” funeral package. While there is a natural and obvious fit between green, home and affordable funerals and burials they are not necessarily the same thing. Folks are certainly free to have a home funeral that is a lavish affair, although most who choose home funerals desire simple, environmentally friendly options.

Home funerals often involve some degree of advance care planning (which is very different from pre need purchasing). Knowing that they are fulfilling the final wishes of deceased loved ones is usually very satisfying for bereaved people. As awareness regarding alternatives in death, dying, post death care and grief increases, families are starting to have important and meaningful conversations about their wishes with one another. As a death midwife and home funeral guide I help individuals and families identify and document their wishes and have personally witnessed the empowerment that results from those explorations and conversations.

The difference between home and “traditional” funerals is subtle yet significant. When families choose to stay present to care for their loved ones in death they come to understand in a real and meaningful way that the physical relationship they had with the person who died is ending. While this can be a painful transition, it offers grieving people an opportunity for adaptation which is difficult to grasp when post death care is handled entirely by professionals. Participation is transformative. Those who stay involved seem to have an easier time locating the continuing bond they still share with the one who has died, and utilize those aspects of the relationship which survive death to move forward in their own lives.

Above all, home funerals bring dying and post death care back to the intimate setting of home. Families who choose to care for their own are usually those who accept that death is a normal and natural part of life that does not necessitate professional intervention. The intimacy of providing post death care for loved ones (as has been done throughout history) is a final act of love which can be surprisingly life affirming.

Cassandra Yonder BA, MArch, CertG&B
Death Midwife; Education, Home Funerals, Bereavement Support
BEyond Yonder Death Midwifery
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