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DIY Death: Natural, At-Home Funerals And Their Boomer Appeal

WELLFLEET, Mass. — When 20-month-old Adelaida Kay Van Meter died of a rare genetic disease last winter, her father, Murro, gently carried her body out of the house to his wood shop in the pines near Gull Pond. He placed her in a small cedar box and surrounded her with ice packs. For three days, the little girl’s grieving parents were able to visit her and kiss her and hug her. Then, on the third day, after the medical examiner came to sign the last bit of paperwork, Van Meter and his wife, Sophia Fox, said good-bye to their baby, screwed the lid on the box and drove to a Plymouth, Mass. crematorium, where they watched the little coffin enter the furnace.

“We took care of Adelaida when she was an infant, we took care of her when she was healthy, we advocated for her in the hospital, we took care of her when she was sick,” her father said. “Why wouldn’t we take care of her when she was dead?” Sophia Fox added: “There was no way I was going to hand her over to some stranger at a funeral parlor where she’d be put in a refrigerator with a bunch of other dead bodies. This way was so much more natural. We saw the life leave her body and we were better able to let go.”

Death remains a topic that many of us would rather avoid. And when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of caring for the dead, most of us tend to think it’s best — and furthermore, required by law — to let professional funeral arrangers handle the arrangements.

Well, it turns out that in most states it’s perfectly legal to care for your own dead. And, with new momentum to shatter longstanding taboos and stop tip-toeing around death — from “death with dignity” measures sweeping the country to projects promoting kitchen table “conversations” about our deepest end-of-life wishes — a re-energized DIY death movement is emerging.

This “personal funeral” or “home death care” movement involves reclaiming various aspects of death: for instance, keeping the dead body at home for some time rather than having it whisked it away; rejecting embalming and other environmentally questionable measures to prettify the dead; personally transporting a loved one’s corpse to a cemetery; and even, in some cases, home burials. Families are learning to navigate these delicate tasks with help from a growing cadre of “death midwives” “doulas” or “home death guides.”

When Adelaida Van Meter died last winter, her parents decided to keep her body at home for several days to say good-bye.

(Courtesy Murro Van Meter)

The DIY death movement is loosely knit, and motivations vary, ranging from environmental concerns to religious or financial considerations. (Traditional funerals can cost around $10,000 or more; when you do-it-yourself, the cost can be reduced into the hundreds, experts says.) Each case is fiercely personal — there’s no playbook — but they all share a very intimate sense that death should unfold as a family matter, not as a moment to relinquish loved ones to a paid stranger or parlor.

This Is Legal?

The highly personal nature of home funerals appealed to Janet Baczuk, 58, of Sandwich, Mass. So, when her 93-year-old father, Stephen, died in September, 2011, she said, “I thought, I’d like to do that for my dad.” “It’s more humane, more natural…and more environmentally sound.”

Baczuk and her sister washed their father’s dead body using essential oils, and got a permit to drive the corpse to the cemetery in their (covered) pickup truck. A World War II veteran, Stephen Baczuk was buried at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, where officials allowed his simple pine and cherry casket to be placed directly on the ground, covered by an inverted concrete vault with no lid, “like a butter dish,” Baczuk said. When her mother died back in 2006, Baczuk said, she had no inkling that home funerals were an option — but wishes she did. “I didn’t know it could be done,” she said. “I think a lot of lay people don’t know this is legal or possible.”

She’s right.

“When it comes to death, it doesn’t matter where you are on the scale of education or socioeconomics, many people are shocked to find that it’s legal to care for your own dead at home,” says Josh Slocum, Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a Burlington, Vermont, nonprofit that works on all aspects of funeral education, from helping consumers reduce costs to advocating on DIY methods. “And I think this speaks to how distant death has become for us in just over a century. In the late 1800s, even turn of the century, caring for the dead was as prosaic and ordinary as taking care of the children or milking the farm animals.”

Slocum offers this analogy: If a woman wants to run a restaurant, she needs approval from the health department and officials, of course, would be permitted to inspect her kitchen. But the health department would have no jurisdiction over the same woman’s own kitchen at home. “They cannot come in and tell her that her refrigerator is subpar, and they have no authority to tell her she is not allowed to cook dinner for her kids. They can’t compel her to order dinner from a commercial, licensed restaurant,” Slocum says. “The same holds with state funeral regulatory boards. Their job is to ensure public welfare and protect paying consumers. Bizarrely, however, many think their jurisdiction extends to telling families they must pay an unwanted third party funeral home to do something the family could do for themselves.”

Kyle Gamboa, 1995-2013 (Courtesy Kymberlyrenee Gamboa)

Kyle Gamboa, 1995-2013 (Courtesy Kymberlyrenee Gamboa)

What characterizes the DIY death experience is that it’s so very personal.  Consider these vastly different snapshots:

• In northern California, Kimberlyrenee Gamboa’s son Kyle committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in September, three weeks into his senior year in high school. A seemingly happy 18-year-old with lots of friends and into competitive lasertag, Kyle’s death was such a shock, his mother said, she doesn’t know how she’d have managed it through a typical funeral. Instead, with help from her church and and home death guide, Heidi Boucher, Kyle’s body was returned to the family home one day after his death. Boucher washed Kyle and helped arrange the body on dry ice changed every 24 hours; she gathered information to fill out Kyle’s death certificate and managed all coordination with the mortuary. For three full days, Kyle’s body lay in the family living room in an open casket, not embalmed. During that time, day and night, surrounded by pictures and candles and flowers, all of his friends and family could say good-bye and remember his short life. For Kyle’s mother, that time was critical to her healing. Continue reading