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Home Funerals and Burials in Massachusetts

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 March Issue Newsletter

By Luke Pryjma

As Ann-Elizabeth Barnes of Sacred Undertaking looked
over my rough draft she said, “You also want to die how
you lived your life. That is the key thing for me because
otherwise here I am organic my whole life [then I am] shot
full of embalming fluid and taken out of my own home.”
 
Ann-Elizabeth started doing home funerals when an elderly
friend at church asked her to do his. Although a seemingly
strange request, it wasn’t completely out of the blue; in their
church, a home funeral was often preferred. Her friend
died April 4, 2007. She had guidance and assistance from
Joe Roy, the town funeral director, and the laying out, wake,
and funeral went well. Then a few weeks later a friend died
of cancer and Ann-Elizabeth laid her out, organized her
wake, and officiated at her funeral. In May, another friend
died and in June, her father-in-law passed away. In July,
her aunt and a neighbor’s wife died. In all, Ann-Elizabeth
organized twelve home funerals that year. Joe taught her
what to look out for and how certain deaths require certain
procedures. He offered advice (for instance, don’t do
septicemia) and helped with paperwork or transport. Now
Ann-Elizabeth has a new partner, Jonitha Hasse. They
work together in both New York and Massachusetts and
continue to work with Joe, referring people to him for
services they do not do. When Ann-Elizabeth and Jonitha
were bringing people to a small cemetery in New York
State, the owner approached them and asked if they wanted
to take over its management. They said sure and now run it
as a non-profit. “Is it a green burial cemetery?” I ask. “It is
now.”
 
The subject of home funerals and burials is a huge one. I
first had an inkling that something was “up” with our
current funeral system when I read The American Way
of Death by Jessica Mitford written in the 1960s. What
Fast Food Nation was to the industrial food system, The
American Way of Death was to our industrial funeral
system. My suspicions were confirmed after going to my
grandparents’ funerals and feeling like I was in a hotel
museum. Years later, I just wanted to know are there simple
caskets and home funerals and burials? If the legalities of
farming can seem daunting, this was a quagmire and I left
the idea alone. Recently, however, a series of events have led
me to a better understanding of home funeral and burial in
Massachusetts.
 
I belong to the Western Massachusetts Permaculture List-
Serve. We have discussed a variety of topics from rocketmass
heaters to holistic investing. Of course we talk about
growing food, too. About a month ago a member wanted
to know if anyone had heard about home funerals and
burials. For the average question posted to the list-serve
we get between two to three responses. Within five days
of this question, there were 46 responses and allusions to
more off-line discussions. They ranged from praise for a
much-needed topic, to revulsion, to shock at the naiveté of
such an undertaking (pun not intended), to offering support,
experience, and references for resources for home death.
People shared their experiences of simple home funerals.
 
Less than a week later my community center hosted a
forum called “Spiritual Views on Death and the Afterlife,
An Interfaith Forum” organized by the Rimon Resource
Center for Jewish Spirituality. Representatives from many
religions spoke on death and dying and Ann-Elizabeth
spoke about home funerals. Like a midwife making the
environment more welcoming for birthing life, the people at
Sacred Undertaking create a healthy and safe environment
for saying goodbye to life. At the talk, Ann-Elizabeth
related some historical events that led to embalming as
common practice. The Civil War was the first time when
many people could not grieve over the bodies of their
loved ones. Soldiers were dying hundreds of miles from
home. Traditionally they were buried where they lay or in
mass graves, but a change in consciousness was occurring
around death. Families were requesting their loved ones
be brought home via train in a casket. Sometimes the
journey could take weeks and the bodies were in no shape
to be viewed or mourned over. At this time, embalming
was viewed as barbaric and unsanctified. Then Abraham
Lincoln was assassinated and embalmed for his long trip
home. This allowed the funeral train to stop in towns along
the way and the public was able to grieve over the loss of
their president. Embalming became more accepted and
the modern funeral industry was born. No longer were the
women of the family able to care for their dead at home.
Now professionals were needed, special equipment, and a
beautiful funeral home for a “proper” send-off.
 
Every state allows an unembalmed loved one to be
remembered at home. Planning is the most important
step in having a home funeral. Do you want your organs
donated or your body given to science? If you do, then a
home funeral and burial is not possible. What do you want
to do with your belongings? Is your will written? Having
your affairs in order ahead of time will make things easier
for your family (these may include naming a health care
proxy and writing down your wishes for after death care).
There is a lot to plan for and prepare. If you work with or
take a class from Ann-Elizabeth, she will go over the many
steps involved in the home funeral, from the paperwork
and transport legalities to purchasing or building a casket
to the rituals for washing (with water and essential oils) and
laying out of the body. Just to reiterate, it is within your
rights to have a home funeral and you have access to all
the necessary forms and permits. The do-it-yourself home
funeral is feasible; between you and your community, you
probably have most of the resources you will need.
 
The average American funeral costs $6,500. Ann-Elizabeth
charges $600 for her help, if it is needed, but she encourages
people to do as much as possible without her there. Ideally
a person has attended one of her workshops and doesn’t
need her at all, though she is always a phone call away.
Other costs for a home funeral include the permits ($50)
and the medical examiner fee of $75 (which I found out
is not always needed). Dry ice costs $100. A cardboard
coffin is $100. Cremation fees range from $400 to $1,600.
Cemetery fees are another cost. With proper planning,
a DIY funeral would be the most affordable, and like
anything, the more you want to do on your own, the more
potentially rewarding the experience.
 
You can plan a home burial, too. You must clear it with
your board of health well in advance. (An inexperienced
board of health official told a friend the DEP would need to
be involved, but that is not in the law.) The spot you choose
has to be 150’ feet from a water source, 25’ from a utility,
and 2-3’ deep. There may be a small fee to sanctify ground.
The area you declare Sanctified Ground has to be registered
in your deed and fenced. “I think it improves the property
value, most don’t,” Ann-Elizabeth states dryly.
 
I had a conversation with a friend who practices
permaculture, prepared a home funeral, and researched a
home burial option, whose story put into perspective that
most outside reliance, specifically the relationship with the
funeral home and/or home attendant, is not necessary.
Most hurdles to home death and burial can be examined,
planned for, and taken care of by you. My friend has a
strong desire to find more healthy ecological ways of living
which include home funeral and burial. I am inspired by
that pioneering spirit as I focus into settling into a healthy
home and reexamine what I rely on in my life. My wife-tobe
and I own Second Hand Farm. We make the most of
second hand resources to improve the health of our land,
animals, and ourselves. That said, I have a ways to go
before I reach my friend’s permaculture self-reliance and
resourcefulness.
 
Please explore the links at the end of this article; there are
more stories and resources. Hopefully with our push for
increased self-reliance, we may bring back the intimate
tradition of bereaving and burying at home.
By the way…would you be interested in a NOFA class
taught by Sacred Undertaking or an experienced home
funeral DIYer? Email Luke Pryjma at secondhandfarm@
gmail.com and if we get enough interest we’ll put it
together.
 
Major Links:
Sacred Undertaking
Funeral Consumer Alliance
For rights by state
Green Burial in Massachusetts
Green Burial Council
Natural Burial
FTC Funeral Rule
 
Books:
Before You Go, You Should Know a Funeral Consumers
Alliance publication
Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love A Complete
Guide by Lisa Carlson (for those making funeral
arrangements with or without a funeral director)
Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death
by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson (Lisa Carlson is the
grandmother of the home funeral movement and is the
Executive Director of Funeral Ethics Organization. Josh
Slocum is the Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers
Alliance.)
 
Personal Stories:
The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral
Home funeral and burial documentary: A Family
Undertaking

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