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Home funeral services grow

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.

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