— Editor's Note by Ada Fetters

Just because some people feel the need to have a huge funeral in a big parlor with lots of to-do and expense, that does not mean it is any more meaningful than something you could arrange at home. In fact, quite often, it means less. Funeral homes do not want you to know this, but (especially at the one where I was employed) the programs they have for their services are cut-and-paste. 

The place I worked for, which shall go unnamed, called their services “packages.”

This was meant to imply that you were getting the best value for your dollar with service, gravesite, and coffin included. In reality it was exactly what it sounded like: a pre-packaged production-line promotion proffered as personal and palmed off to a pining populace.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: very upscale, classy funeral homes that are willing to sit down and truly customize a funeral. However, you’d better have a lot of money to buy their facility and attention.

The funeral and mortician industry doesn’t talk about it but you can take care of practically every aspect of a funeral yourself. People conducted unpackaged funerals for hundreds of years before funeral parlors were invented and last I checked it is perfectly legal in 44 states.

When death occurs, you are required to notify the coroner as soon as possible. You must then obtain a death certificate from a doctor. Use this to get a burial transportation certificate from the hospital or nursing home (usually less than $5.00) so that you may transport the body where it needs to go.

Some people recommend calling a mortuary or funeral home to keep the body until it is buried, but you can preserve a body at home for up to three days by using dry ice. If you’re going to take longer, use a professional facility. If you don’t choose to have the body embalmed, you can still make your loved one look peaceful. Put coins on the person’s eyes to hold them closed. Nickels are small and heavy. They work best. Put a towel beneath their chin to prop their mouth shut. Leave these things in place for 10 – 20 minutes.

 Suits, dresses, and other clothes are not wrestled onto a body. A slit is made up the back and the sleeves/pant legs are drawn up, clothing is draped over, then the ends are tucked beneath the person’s back. They’re not exactly going to be dancing around so it’ll be fine.

As to memorial services, there are multitudes of things you can do. Chances are, if you are at all interested in holding services yourself, you have your own ideas. Once the funeral home I worked for grudgingly let a Pakistani family have a traditional Muslim service, but my employers put down tarp first. If I were the Pakistani family I would have felt deeply disrespected by that. So whatever you’d like— whatever ceremony or party or service suits you or your loved one— do it at home or in your church of choice. Preserve your dignity.

Most religious MC’s are very accommodating about this sort of thing and should be willing to officiate even if you do not hold the service in church or mosque or synagogue, provided you are considerate and give them enough notice.

Cemeteries require that all burial paperwork be submitted at least 48 hours prior to the event, so make sure to get everything taken care of as soon as possible after the death so that you will not be turned away just because you forgot to fill out a form. The place I worked for actually has done just that. The relatives in question were not amused. Check with the cemetery to see what forms they require. Cemeteries are not standardized. Trust one who used to work in the business: each one has its own archaic system.

For burial, cremation is much more practical than a coffin. While both embalming and cremation must be done by funeral homes, cremation is less expensive. Also, there are very few commercial coffin-makers that are willing to sell to the general public (as opposed to selling to funeral homes, who mark them up). You might consider a homemade coffin, but the regulations for coffins are set by the US government and are pretty strict. There is good reason for this. The fact is that human bodies, even when embalmed, decay. No getting around it. As they decay they release toxic gases that can pollute the ground if not properly contained. Thus it is important to the government that its deceased citizens are placed in receptacles that could practically be blasted into the atmosphere.

Note: many rural cemeteries do not require such regulations. For these, you can use a homemade wooden box or cloth shroud and even dig your own grave. Of course, you will have to check with the cemetery. Obviously it pays to make these arrangements beforehand, because if you don’t, it will be nearly impossible to get all this done in three days… in many places, such as my home state of New Jersey, it is hard to find a rural cemetery. Also, you and your family do not need the stress of running around and making phone calls when trying to remember your loved one.

Regulations are much less strict about cremated remains (“cremains” in cemetery lingo), even in metropolitan cemeteries. Contrary to what funeral homes would have you believe, you do not have to buy one of their expensive urns. Ashes do not release contaminants and may be buried in any container with a lid that can be sealed. You could place your loved one’s remains in their favorite teapot, if it were big enough and you sealed the spout and lid. Wouldn’t you much rather be placed in a meaningful container? Of course, you will want to check with the cremation facility to find out how big the container must be to hold ashes, and check with the cemetery to see how small it must be to fit in a cremation space, unless you plan to scatter the ashes.

Scattering is easier than burial, most of the time. In Washington State you do not even need a permit to scatter ashes in a river. In most states you need a permit to scatter in bodies of water such as lakes and oceans, and a permit to scatter in national or state parks, but this should not be a problem if you do the work ahead of time.

I know of one man who had his ashes placed inside of little key chains that were handed out at the funeral, because he loved to travel and wanted to keep traveling.

There are myriad resources on unpackaged funerals for the intrepid do-it-yourselfer.

The society for home funerals in Washington State

An NPR program in which people speak about their experiences with home funerals versus those at a funeral parlor

An organization that creates coffins, casks, and other burial items and sells them to the public (not just to the funeral industry)

Information on eco-friendly funerals

Information on decomposition and other post-death processes (not for the faint of heart)