Alphabetical List of Links and Notes
Challenging the High-Priced Funeral Industry, More Americans Are Choosing Home Funerals and Death Midwives Major shifts are underway in dealing with the aftermath of death in a more personal way. By April M. Short / AlterNet October 15, 2016

The modern Americanized handling of the end of life—plastic body bags minutes after the last breath, injection with chemical preservatives (a.k.a., embalming), impenetrable metallic coffins, expensive burials arranged by strangers on acres of groomed lawn, and funerals that cost between $5,000 and $40,000—is a relatively new thing. Few people realize it’s not the only option.

The modern Americanized handling of the end of life—plastic body bags minutes after the last breath, injection with chemical preservatives (a.k.a., embalming), impenetrable metallic coffins, expensive burials arranged by strangers on acres of groomed lawn, and funerals that cost between $5,000 and $40,000—is a relatively new thing. Few people realize it’s not the only option.

Death midwives almost all of them women, are spearheading the movement. Not unlike the way a birthing midwife works with a pregnant woman, a death midwife (sometimes called an end of life guide, or death doula) supports a person through the process of dying, helping them prepare mentally, emotionally and logistically for the upcoming event. They counsel the dying through their fears, concerns and questions, and help plan the ceremony for after their death.

“We have a great belief in this puritanical bullshit about a stiff upper lip around death,” she says. “That's really not appropriate. What is appropriate is grieving. Done right, grieving is such a beautiful experience. It is so honoring for the person who has died. ... If you can't accept the fact that this hurts terribly, you miss them terribly, that is a dishonor to you and the relationship you had with that person.”

She says our cultural avoidance of painful emotion perpetuates a self-fulfilling fear that once we’re dead, we’ll be forgotten.

“As long as we are talking about our ancestors, they are alive,” she says. “But because we live in such a youth-oriented culture here in America, we tend not to bring our dead into any meaningful sense of conversation, even in our family get-togethers. We don't remember our dead. And that's what all of us are afraid of: we're gonna be totally forgotten when we're dead."

She continues, “There’s this idea that we get over it, you know, that we move past it and heal. You never fully heal, I hope, from the death of somebody you love. There is always a part of you that aches for that person.”

Ward says dying people are often so concerned with protecting their families from the psychological and financial burden of their death that they fail to prepare themself for the experience. Working with an end of life guide can be “very cathartic.”

“If you're lucky you go through this whole life and you come to the other end and you’re dying—and you know it,” she says. “If you have any sense of your own humanness, you know when things are turning around. You know when you are close to leaving this Earth. And here you are, left all alone because nobody wants to talk about it.”

Enter the death midwife.

Home Funerals

Death midwives like Ward often offer home funerals as part of their services, meaning instead of turning a loved one over to strangers, families have the option to keep the body at home for one to three days, and host the funeral ceremony on their own terms from home. The home funeral coordinator (often, but not always, the death midwife herself) talks the family through the process, from washing and dressing the body, to laying out dry ice to preserve the body in a designated space if it's staying for more than a day, to carrying out the loved one's burial wishes.

The website of the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) is a veritable encyclopedia for do-it-yourself funerals, from state-by-state legal resources to directories of death midwives and home funeral coordinators (including a good number of clergy members). NHFA president Lee Webster says her organization’s “ultimate goal" is to become obsolete.

Olivia Bareham is a death midwife and home funeral guide in Los Angeles who runs one of the few death midwifery training programs in the country. She says it takes time for people to integrate the experience of a loved one's death, and home funerals allow for a healthy slowing down of that process.

"There’s no need to rush this, and it’s so often rushed," she says. "Death, natural death, is considered an emergency now, like you've gotta get the body out of there within two hours—but you don’t. The body can lay 24 hours [without refrigeration] ... it can just lay there peacefully. It’s a beautiful thing that’s housed the spirit of somebody you loved very much, and I think it’s honoring to give it a little more time."

When Bareham's mother died, a hospice nurse invited her to wash the body, which she says was her “initiation into being with the dead.” The experience changed the way she looked at death as well as life.

“It was so powerful for me to hold my mother’s body in my arms while we were washing and dressing her,” she says. “I had such an amazing experience of the depth of my love and gratitude. It profoundly changed me. It turned death from this sort of spooky, unknown, creepy thing into holy ground.”

Sacred Crossings: Death Midwifery and Home Funeral Services

There are financial incentives behind home funerals as well. Mainstream funerals organized by a funeral home can cost families between $7,000 and $10,000 on average in the U.S. Between 2004 and 2014, the median cost of an adult funeral increased 28.6%, from $5,582 to $7,181, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Depending on where you live, funeral services and mortuary costs can often add up to $15,000-$40,000.

Home funeral guides typically volunteer their services on a donation basis, or charge between $1,000 and $2,000 for their work, which includes counseling (death midwifery) and help with organizing and education.

While the movement remains small, NHFA's Webster says it’s growing gradually. Over the past eight years NHFA has evolved from “a handful of people” to more than 1,300 members. Where the media once overlooked death midwifery and home funerals, NHFA now receives weekly requests for interviews and information from major news outlets.

There aren’t hard statistics on exactly how many home funerals are taking place nationally, but Webster says NHFA has “convincing anecdotal evidence from our members that there has been a significant rise in awareness.” In the last two years NHFA members record a steep increase in the number of calls they receive.

Home funeral is a perfectly legal—and much cheaper—option in every state, though 10 states have specific restrictions that require everyone, including home funeral families, to hire a professional. However, few people know about home funerals because of the successful marketing and lobbying of the powerful $20.7 billion per year funeral industry, which would prefer to keep its hands on our dead bodies.

This ‘Death Suit’ Makes Burials Eco- and Wallet-Friendly A suit made of mushroom spores helps decompose bodies sustainably.

The Infinity Burial Suit, a one-piece garment designed to be worn in the afterlife, is sewn with mushroom spore–infused thread. Although researcher Jae Rhim Lee debuted the idea in a 2011 TED Talk, her New York–based company, Coeio, only recently announced that the suit will be available for purchase midway through 2016. [Coeio Infinity Burial Suit

The suit is "embroidered with a special type of thread infused with infinity mushroom spores. When buried, the mushroom spores act to cleanse the body of many toxins and gently return the it to the earth," according to the company website.

Their method may seem a little morbid, but it has environmental advantages. Burial, the most popular choice for Americans, usually involves the use of a casket—which pulls from the earth’s wood and mineral resources—and toxic embalming fluid.

In the U.S. alone, 30 million board feet of casket wood is used annually for burials, according to Scientific American. Similarly, the U.S. uses 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, traditionally used to preserve a body rather than allow it to decay, each year. The toxic fluid contains a known carcinogen—formaldehyde—that leaches into the soil following burial. Cremations aren’t much better, emitting 246,240 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year from the U.S., says the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

The mushroom suit takes a load off more than just the environment. It will sell for about $999, said Ma—significantly less than the $7,181 the average funeral cost in 2014 and less than the $6,087 average expense of cremating a body.

Green Burial Shrouds Ensure You Leave the Planet as Gently as You Entered It After a lifetime of environmental awareness, many are turning to green burials to ensure the footprint they leave behind is in harmony with the earth. Since 2005, Esmerelda Kent has created unique burial garments—her modern take on natural shrouds used since ancient times—to lay loved ones to rest.

Esmerelda Kent: In 2004, I was working in California’s first green cemetery, and people were requesting a “shroud burial,” but all the shrouds [long pieces of fabric that wrap around the body, kind of like bunting around a newborn] were religious or long pieces of cloth that didn’t work well. So I designed the first constructed shroud for green burial, with straps for lowering. My prototype shroud debuted on the TV show Six Feet Under in 2005—it was the first televised depiction of a green burial—and I began the company after that.

AARP on Funeral Arrangements
Association for Death Education and Counseling
FAQ on Embalming
Final Exit Network supporting the human right to a death with dignity
Funeral Consumers Alliance "dedicated to protecting a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral"
Funeral Consumers Alliance of San Antonio
Funeral Home Rip-Off how to avoid it
Funeral Pricing Abuse
Is Your Funeral Home Ethical?
Mortuary Science links
Wills and Estate Planning

Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS