Care for the Dead: How to Plan an Affordable, Low-Impact Funeral

A green funeral can save you money, but more importantly, it can be a personal and intimate experience for grieving friends and family.

October 20, 2009

Green funerals and ecofreindly burials are easier to arrange than you may think.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Death is as natural as the changing of the seasons, which is probably why Halloween and similar ghostly festivals coincide with the season of falling leaves and fading daylight. But in modern times we've become so far removed from it that the idea of being in the same room with a dead body sends shivers up some of our spines. These days, a funeral home steps into the picture shortly after a loved one dies and handles the body straight through the burial process. But it wasn't that long ago that home funerals and wakes were the norm. In fact, your great-grandparents most likely celebrated the lives of late loved ones in a more intimate, less invasive, and less toxic setting. A "green funeral," as this approach sometimes called, not only takes less of a toll on the environment, it can also feel more meaningful and personal to those involved. And as a side benefit, it may cost thousands less than a conventional funeral.

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"People I've spoken to have talked about the opportunity that a home funeral afforded them to spend plenty of quiet, private time with the deceased in a comfortable, familiar setting and on their own schedules, something not possible at a funeral home," says Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (Scribner, 2008). "It also allows families to care for their departed with love and affection, just as they had with the deceased in life and, perhaps, in their decline." That more intense, direct engagement with the deceased can help family members cope with their loss, says Harris. "As one woman who held a home funeral for her 7-year-old daughter put it to me, 'When you allow the funeral director to whisk away a body, you miss out on the comfort and healing that comes from physically caring for the dead.'"

THE DETAILS: The average funeral in this country costs more than $6,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. And many can run easily above $10,000. A common misconception is that families are legally required to call upon funeral home directors when a loved one passes on. But in fact, families can handle home funerals on their own in all but six states: Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and New York. "In those states, a funeral director must be involved at some point in the process," explains Harris.

WHAT IT MEANS: Using a funeral home to help take care of the arrangements can ease the burden that families feel immediately after their loss, but it can also be very expensive. Also, modern funeral practices often involve processes that are harmful to the environment. For instance, embalming costs an average of $550 (in addition to the nearly $1,600 basic service fee), and involves the use of carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde. Metal caskets, on average, cost about $2,255. Harris says there's enough coffin wood in the average 10-acre cemetery to build 40 houses, as well as 1,000 tons of steel from metal caskets, 20,000 tons of concrete in burial vaults, and enough embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool. "Each year, we divert enough metal to construction of caskets and lining of some burial vaults to completely rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and enough concrete for burial vaults to create a two-lane highway running halfway across the country," Harris says. "All for a short period of preservation."

For many of the above reasons, and the fact that green funerals held at home are often more intimate and personal, more and more people are turning back to traditional funeral and burial methods.

Here are some things to consider when planning a green funeral.

If possible, plan before the end. It's a good idea for everyone to make a living will and record their wishes for funeral and burial services while still alive. Some people wishing to have green funerals and burials even purchase biodegradable caskets before they pass. The caskets can be very affordable and serve a therapeutic service for surviving loved ones, too. "A number of families I interviewed bought cardboard caskets from local crematories and decorated them," says Harris. (Learn more: Green Burials Slideshow | Story)

You can also purchase the Before I Go, You Should Know funeral planning kit from the Funeral Consumers Association for $12. The book allows you to spell out your wishes, including a living will and other advance medical directives. It comes with a plastic bag so you can store it in the freezer—where you know it can easily be found in case of an emergency.

Know what to expect after a death. If your family is going the natural route and having a green funeral, it's important to know what to expect shortly after a loved one dies. If the person passes at home, you'll need to contact authorities so a coroner can pronounce the death. If the passing occurs at a hospital or nursing home, an attending physician or nurse will declare the death. Sometimes, a medical examiner and/or coroner will need to sign off too, Harris explains. "The attending physician will then have to sign the medical portion of the death certificate; a family member can usually fill out the rest of the death certificate and then file it with the proper authority, which is often your local registrar," he says.

Know policies for releasing the body. Preferably before an ill loved one dies, know the hospital or nursing home's policy regarding releasing remains to family members. This will help you plan accordingly. "Some may balk at your request; others may ask for written proof that the deceased wants you, not the funeral director, to remove his or her remains from the hospital," explains Harris. If the hospital will only release to a funeral director, find a funeral director who is willing to help you plan a green burial.

Know that help is available. A growing number of funeral directors are offering help with home funerals. A cost is involved, but it's much less than conventional funeral home services, and it can help those who need aid in cleansing, cooling, and/or transporting the body. "If you'd rather not go it alone, you'll find a home-funeral-friendly funeral director at the Green Burial Council website," says Harris. You can find an example of how one Texas family held a loving, moving home funeral in The Home Funeral chapter of Harris's book, Grave Matters.

Think about transport. If you're going to transport the body to the cemetery or crematory from the home, you'll need to gain a burial transit permit from the registrar. You can get that when you've submitted a death certificate.

Harris explains: "If families have their paperwork in order, if they've gained that burial transit permit, family members themselves may be able to remove remains from the hospital or nursing home themselves, and bring the remains home. Again, with that transit permit, they may then transport the remains to the crematory or cemetery themselves following the home vigil."

Cleanse the body for the home vigil. In preparing for green funerals, you can put together a kit with materials for washing a body and laying it out, including towels, a basin, organic, pure essential oils to infuse into the cleansing water, soap, clean bed sheets, and chucks (bed) pads to place beneath the deceased to absorb any body fluids, including waste. "You wash the body in the same way you would a bedridden patient—washing the body with soap and water, maybe with sponges, drying with towels," he explains. "You may need to expel waste by pressing on the abdomen. It's a good idea to place a plastic sheet or absorbent chucks pads under the deceased to keep the mattress dry."

Keep the body cool. Find out your state and local laws regarding postdeath matters. For a state-by-state review of funeral laws, see Lisa Carlson's book Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love (Upper Access, 1997). "Generally, if you're holding the body at home for longer than 24 to 48 hours, you'll be required to cool the body, either by placing it on dry ice, on gel packs, or by simply turning up the air-conditioning," says Harris. "And you'll have to file a number of forms."

Make sure you have dry ice handy, or know where to purchase it. Harris says you'll need anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds to cool the remains for a three-day vigil. "Depending on the condition of the body at death, remains may be laid out for several days, usually with the help of dry ice," explains Harris. "You'll need about 20 pounds of dry ice per day. Break the dry ice into chunks, wrap chunks into towels or pillowcases (wearing gloves), and place wrappings under the deceased's abdomen, pelvis, and chest, and on the stomach." Since dry ice releases carbon dioxide, which can cause headaches and hyperventilation, make sure you crack a window or keep the room well ventilated otherwise to allow the gas to escape.

Lay the body out. You can create whatever kind of service you want. Harris says some families he interviewed laid the deceased on a bed, or in a coffin that's set out in the living room or bedroom, placing a chair beside the deceased for visitors. "It's a good idea to do a test run with an empty coffin, to make sure you can carry it through all the doorframes on the way out of the house," he suggests.

Learn more about green burials. Those who wish for green funerals may also want a green burial. Learn more: Slideshow | Story

Additional Resources:

• Author Mark Harris—Grave Matters blog | Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial

•  Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love (Upper Access, 1997) and I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch (Upper Access, 2001).