Home at last: As tradition of loved ones performing funeral services grows, Austin workshop teaches them how to do it
July 26, 2009, Austin American-Statesman
No one wants to die, but Fleur Hedden goes ahead and volunteers anyway.
A tall woman, she clambers atop a long country-kitchen table in an Austin home, lies supine, closes her eyes and dies. Like that.
Becalmed onlookers place a rose-patterned sheet over Hedden’s body, leaving her face exposed. Her feet dangle off the end of the table, but she doesn’t mind. Death will do that – expose trivialities for what they are.
Hedden, still and at peace, is surrounded by caretakers who gently lift her arms and rub them with damp cloths. A mood of elegiac serenity fills the room. The air conditioner blows at a low hum, and a stately grandfather clock ticks and tocks.
And then the quiet is rent. The corpse opens her mouth and asks a question.
“Oh, my God, it’s a miracle!” Donna Belk exclaims.
“She speaks!” says someone else in the room.
The dead laughs. Everyone else does, too.
We are in Belk’s rustic home, where a workshop on home funerals is being taught on a hot June day. Home funeral advocates Belk and Sandy Booth lead the class of six, which includes Hedden, today’s volunteer dead person. Every workshop requires someone to play possum for a few hours, and the challenge for that person is to sustain a state of almost Zen-like immobility.
“It’s an active role, but that active role is to be as still as possible,” Hedden says after the class.
The Austin workshop is testimony to the small but growing popularity of the self-done, homemade funeral service, in which loved ones take funeral rites into their own hands, bestowing their own meaning on them, while rejecting the costly and more impersonal funeral home tradition that many people still believe is the only option. Though official figures aren’t available, groups such as Belk and Booth’s have sprouted in at least 20 states, according to Booth, who, with Belk, runs the home funeral sites crossingscircle.org and homefuneral.info and has helped dozens of local families put together home funerals.
With a surge in interest in so-called green burials, which dispense with toxic embalming fluids and often opt for cremation over casket burial, home funerals, also known as family-directed funerals, are being recognized as a cheaper and eco-friendly way of putting the dead to rest.
But it’s not only about saving money and helping the environment. Many deem home funerals a more emotionally and spiritually rich experience, a way of staying close to a loved one and saying goodbye through the process of preparing the body for burial or cremation. Friends, family members or hired helpers clean and dress the deceased and place the body on dry ice for wakes that can last three days in the home. They often build their own casket or buy an inexpensive model, such as cardboard or pine, and decorate it with personal flourishes reflecting the dead’s interests and style. A musician’s casket, for instance, might be embossed with an instrument, musical notes and song lyrics.
“I call it final gifting, because it’s a last gift, the last thing that you can give to the loved one,” says Rodger Ericson, president of the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society and a retired Lutheran pastor.
Ericson and his family performed a home funeral for his mother a few years ago, and while he saved thousands of dollars in funeral home fees, he says, “The personal benefits are far greater. It’s about what I did for my mom, and what it did for me. When we were washing her body, just the gesture of that, the sense of appreciation and cherishing — the therapeutic value was immeasurable.”
Ericson chokes up as he recalls the process.
“Having a funeral at home really allows the family to take charge, and that can be quite comforting at their time of loss,” says Doran Levine, bereavement coordinator at Hospice Austin. “People are going back to a more simple and natural way.”
Ericson has seen a slow rise in home funerals, and he calls it the “resurgence of a very old concept,” in much the way home birthing has found currency in recent years. Preparing the body in the home goes back to the days before embalming fluid came into common use.
“They are not a new idea. It’s where the notion of the funeral home came from,” says Paul Beaty, president of the Texas Funeral Directors Association. “It all started in the home or in the back of the hardware store, because that’s who had the lumber for the casket back in around the 1850s.”
Beaty says home funerals are far from a trend but that they could pick up in popularity the way cremations have in recent decades.
While some in the funeral industry don’t care for home funerals because it eats into their business, others like Beaty, who runs the Beaty Funeral Home in Mineola in East Texas, are glad to help in the process, be it embalming, making a death certificate, transporting the body or burying it. “We can do as much or as little as they want us to do,” Beaty says.
Texas law allows family members to act in lieu of a funeral director, fill out and file death certificates and transport the body in a vehicle to a home, crematory or cemetery. Embalming is not required, and caskets can be homemade. In very specific cases, the law does allow the burial of loved ones on private property, but there are restrictions.
Ericson and his brother built a casket for their mother, which they called a “hope chest.” They made it in Ericson’s Cedar Park driveway out of plywood, which they then stained. They showed it to their mother weeks before she died in 2007.
“She saw it and said, ‘That’s wonderful.’ And that’s final gifting. What more could I have given her?” Ericson says.
Belk and Booth met at a home funeral workshop in Austin in 2003, where they joined forces and “stepped into the role of community leaders on this topic,” Belk recalls.
Each had an abiding interest in funeral alternatives after bad experiences with the funerals of loved ones. When Booth was 6, her mother died suddenly. The funeral home took the body, and Booth never saw her mother again. She was robbed of the chance to say a proper goodbye.
“We were protected from the whole idea of death,” Booth says. “It left such a void in my life that I’m drawn to this work of helping families care for their own. It’s a more real experience, and they can be involved.”
Belk’s father died when she was 16, and he was given a military funeral that was formal, formulaic and punctuated with a rifle salute.
“The funeral was so horrible and traumatic that I can’t describe it,” Belk says. “It was manufactured and impersonal. I was pushed out and wasn’t allowed to see the body or say anything. It left a horrible dark place in me.”
Through the site crossingscircle.org, Belk and Booth organize about four home funeral workshops a year, usually at Belk’s home, the Waldorf School or Hospice Austin. The workshops are free, though small donations are accepted.
The duo is available to help families in the planning stages and the execution of home funerals, which Belk says can be done for under $500, casket included. This doesn’t include burial costs, which range widely, depending on the location and whether the cemetery is privately or corporately owned. Burial costs in Central Texas run around $1,000 to $5,000 per grave, according to the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society.
Education is paramount, and a purpose of the workshops is to get people comfortable with the idea of handling and treating a corpse, to get over what Belk calls the “ick factor.”
“That was my response at first,” Belk says. “But how I overcame this reaction was the lovingness that I felt toward the person, even someone I didn’t know. My compassion for even those I don’t know is very deep. I honor and respect the process so much that it creates these loving feelings inside me. So it’s easy to be gentle and respectful and loving. That’s what overcomes the ick factor.”
“It’s not ghoulish and icky,” Ericson says. “It might be a little scary for people who have never done this. But I think it really helps us to confront and accept our mortality. You can tell people that, but once you’ve felt the body of a dead person, it changes everything.”
At the workshop in her home, Belk has just finished reading a Celtic poem about birth and dying by George MacDonald. As the event’s celebrant, it’s her way of opening the funeral ceremony, which bears new and ancient folk influences from myriad cultures.
One of the attendees, Kestrel Daniel, a friend of Belk’s, plays a tune on a Native American-style flute.
Belk and Booth show the participants how to adjust and maneuver the body, how to cleanse it and dress it and how to place packets of dry ice on the stomach, under the shoulders and hips. A scarf is tied around the head and jaw to keep the mouth closed until the jaw sets. Belk sprays a mist of lavender oil in the air.
After the body — in this case the very alive but motionless volunteer Fleur Hedden — is washed, Belk circles Hedden and utters an incantation.
At the end of the workshop, during the “leaving ceremony,” someone reads another poem and Daniel plays “Amazing Grace” on the flute.
“Resurrection!” someone says as Hedden rises off the table.
“I forgot how to be alive,” Hedden quips, stretching.
For some in the class, going through the motions of preparing the body was a surprisingly emotional experience.
“When I was washing her face, hands and arms, I just thought about when I was a young mother, washing my babies, and I thought about if I had to do it for my husband or my children if they died,” says Tonya Riley, a yoga instructor, who almost cried during the faux ceremony. “It would be such an intimate, sad thing, I thought, that it would also be the most appropriate thing.”
Daniel felt “empowered” afterward.
“It was pretty intense, more than I thought it would be,” Daniel says. “It got me thinking about the choices I have. It doesn’t just have to be the standard way. Acting it out showed that I might be able to do it with a loved one. I was scared about it before, but I don’t feel so scared now.”
While some people could balk at having their friends and family handle their remains, Belk sees the flip side of that equation.
“I’d rather be handled by my friends and those who really love me and will treat me respectfully and not leave me naked on a cold metal bed while (funeral home employees) do whatever,” Belk says.
“It’s a sense of satisfaction that you’ve cared for this person in a very human, personal way until you’re ready to cremate or bury the body,” adds Booth, who completed a home funeral with her mother-in-law when she died. “Just having that time helps people say goodbye.”