Oct 262007

I read an article on MSNBC a few days back about a small but growing practice of “home funerals.” It’s touted as a way for people to reclaim their death rituals. Having been a funeral director in the past, the title certainly caught my eye.

I am old enough to remember when it was very common for the embalmed and casketed body to be taken to the family home for the wake. I remember relatives being brought home, and while that was on the decline by the time I was working in the funeral business, we certainly still took bodies home from time to time. Anecdotally, I believe this practice was more common in the rural areas of the south, but I have no statistics on that.  We’ve had instances where the funeral service itself was in the home followed by the graveside service at the church cemetery.

Given that, having a body brought back home for a wake, and left over night, would not strike me as terribly unusual. I am also a believer in the importance funerals and the other rituals around death. I think today’s all to common practice of a cremation with just a “memorial service,” followed by a quick reception fails to honor the importance of the life of the deceased person, and doesn’t allow people an adequate outlet their grieving. I want the body there in a casket, to bring home the fact that this person has died, but that they were important enough to the lives of all gathered to be honored and memorialized with a funeral.

I think having a visitation or wake the evening before with a funeral the next day is just not too great an imposition. Today we seem to want to “do the right thing” by having some sort of service, but we need to get it over with with as little disruption as possible to our busy lives. I believe it dishonors our loved ones, fails to acknowledge the importance of their lives, and leaves people without a process for grieving.

Now having said all that, I must admit I found some of the practices with these “home funerals” a bit over the top. Rather than home funerals, they strike my as do it yourself funerals. Here’s the description of one of these funerals from the article:

After Daron died at her home in Bellevue, Wash., Howley kept her there for two days. Family members washed and dressed the body of the teenager who loved soccer and played the cello, placed dry ice under her torso to slow decomposition and moved her to a back bedroom so visitors could pay their last respects. A sister who flew in from New York painted Daron’s nails and applied her makeup. Howley slept in the same room as Daron.

“It was really comforting to be able to go back and touch her, to have her still there,” Howley says.

Now I’m a strong believer in observing the rituals of life and death. I think they are an important part of life. They not only help adults grieve, but help children begin to understand the cycle of life. I have no problem with bodies being taken home for wakes, but I find this to be a just little over-done. Dead bodies are not sanitary, but can be made so through the embalming process. I love my family members, but even after having grown up in the funeral business (my father and several relatives were in the business), and my experience handling and embalming bodies, I do not want to be involved in the preparation of the bodies of my family members. In fact, more often than not, funeral directors and embalmers pass along the task to colleagues. Not because a bad thing to do, it’s just uncomfortable.

Everything considered, I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with going to a do it yourself funeral process, but going through more traditional rituals is certainly an important part of grieving.

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