Mar 15, 2014
Are You Afraid to Plan for Your Own Death?
Posted on Mar 27, 2010
By Frankie Colmane
It’s not for everyone,” admits Lyons. “If your loved one died after a long illness, the family might be too exhausted.” Depending upon your culture and religious inclinations, you may need more or less time than the amount of days your state allows you to keep the body. According to Lyons, people on average keep the body in the home for three days, but a body can be safely preserved with dry ice for up to five or six days.
“Orthodox Jews and Muslims typically aim or try to bury by sundown the next day,” Barrett remarks, “and in the African American tradition, the participation of all significant family members is an honorable tradition. It’s often considered insensitive, impolite and an insult to have a funeral before a family member who is away is trying to get home. That’s one of the reasons why they need seven to ten days before burial.”
Another obstacle is space. The families featured in A Family Undertaking live in rural areas. “Since the 1950’s, people have evolved to smaller and smaller living accommodations,” notes Barrett. “In urban environments, apartments with stairs, hallways and corners make it impossible to negotiate a full casket for a full adult.” Barrett also raises another specter: “When the cause of death is violent or a protracted illness where there is a disease process, then the idea of trying to care for a body at home raises all kinds of health concerns depending upon the environment. The idea of moving back to a home death-care situation probably would have to be regulated to protect the health and welfare of the population at large.”
How Death Became a Stranger
Ironically, up until the late 1800s, American families cared for their dead at home without any government oversight and women were usually responsible for preparing and caring for the dead body. That all changed with the Civil War and its 600,000 casualties. Deceased soldiers were often hastily buried on the battlegrounds. Only families of significant financial means could afford to hire funeral directors to find the bodies and ship them home for burial. The rest of the country not only endured the unnatural loss of their sons but was robbed of the healing rite of caring and preparing the bodies of their loved ones for burial. Add to this traumatic shift the lower mortality rates that slowly made death a stranger in American homes, as well as an ever-expanding consumer society pushing to embellish funeral rites, and funeral directors slowly took over the familial duty.
Keeping home funerals more affordable than traditional ones is another challenge. “Even if the family does the funeral at home,” says Lyons, “even if they have their own ceremony, even if they do the paperwork, file it with the state and drive the body to the crematorium, the crematorium might give them a little discount but mostly they’re going to charge them the full amount of a direct cremation. They’re going to say that their basic fee is $1,000 and that they have their overhead fees. Luckily, in our area I know two funeral homes that are willing to only charge for the cremation. It’s $250. The families will have done everything else.”
In this country, the average cost of a mortuary-directed funeral with burial is $7,000; with cremation it’s $5,000. Lyons holds the vision that “eventually communities will come together and will cooperatively own their own green cemeteries and their own crematoriums, because as long as it’s controlled by the funeral industry in the way that it is, we will always be subject to paying whatever they’re going to charge.”
Ronald Barrett agrees, “In many cases the way packaging is done by most funeral homes, there is a disincentive for families to be personally involved. You are almost encouraged to purchase a package in order to save on the individual items.” This practice is in direct violation with one of the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rules, called “The Customer’s Right to Choose.” The rule was implemented in 1975 to curb the questionable practices of the funeral industry exposed by Jessica Mitford in her 1963 best-seller The American Way of Death.
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