Alternatives to a Traditional American Burial

Conrad Richter, in the book, The Trees, describes the burial of Sayward’s pioneer mother. Sayward was just a teen, but she took charge of preparing her mother’s body for burial – instructing her sisters to help her wash the body, clean the clothing to bury her in and sew a pillow to put under her head. All the while the two smallest siblings were watching their father make a wood casket and dig the burial hole. Richter writes “ When he was done, they all lent a hand carrying it over to the white oak. Even little Sulie and Wyitt helped, for this was the last thing they could do for their mam.”

In recent decades, many Americans have relinquished control of the burial customs to funeral homes and directors.

Most don’t realize that you don’t have to use a coffin (in most states), or have a concrete vault around that coffin to protect it (in most states). Did you know that people you can lay a person out yourself, in your own home, for family and friends to visit one last time? Most people don’t know that, in most states, you can bury your family member on your own land, even transporting the body yourself to the burial spot.

Proponents of home funerals claim that they allow family members to heal following the death by letting them care for the body of their deceased, doing one last thing for them – just as Sayward and her siblings did back in the days when Indiana was America’s frontier.

What is a traditional American burial?

For those who don’t know, burial customs in most American cities involve a person dying in a hospital, being transported to a morgue to await being sent to the mortician for burial preparation. Burial preparation typically includes injecting the body with embalming fluid, which contains high levels of carcinogens.

Note: According to a Smithsonian magazine article, The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral  human remains do not normally represent a public health risk, nor do they degenerate rapidly within a few days of death,

The mortician dresses the deceased’s body, applies cosmetics and fixes the hair – typically from a picture supplied of the deceased by the family. Next the body is put in the coffin, placed on a gurney and put into a room in the funeral home. Flowers arrive from grievers and are placed around the casket. One or more days of visitation are held at the funeral home – so that people who knew the deceased or want to express sympathy to the survivors can come together.

The funeral home may transport the body to a church for a service or a service may be held in the funeral parlor. Finally the pall bearers carry the body to a funeral home limousine which then drives it to the cemetery, where the pastor usually says a final blessing.

Alternately, the body may be cremated and a memorial visitation and/or service held.

A typical funeral home burial, not including the cemetery costs of the plot, the gravestone and the opening and closing of the grave can be upwards of $8000.

Alternative funeral and burial possibilities.

Home funeral.

A home funeral is one in which the family takes charge of preparing your body for visitation, burial or cremation. Funeral care is the time period between death and burial or cremation. A home funeral can be assisted by a funeral director (for a fee) if the family so desires.

You can keep (or bring) your loved one’s body at home for up to three days, perhaps standing constant vigil over it, washing it and otherwise preparing the remains, the casket, the clothing and etc that will be used in the burial. You can hold a visitation for grievers in your home. You can transport your loved one’s body from their death bed to your home and from your home to the cemetery or crematorium.

It is not easy, family members have to learn how to care for their dead. They have to understand the laws of their state regarding death and may have to deal with bureaucratic details (such as getting a permit to transport a body or getting a death certificate) typically handled by the funeral home; but there are now resources, such as Crossings, to help families who wish to have home funerals.

A home funeral can be less expensive than the typical American funeral. You can get a coffin from somewhere other than a funeral home (actually you can do this even if you do use a funeral director) or make the coffin yourself. You can have a visitation without embalming the body (unless you need to transport the body across state lines). You can avoid the expenses of the body preparation and the costs related to the visitation, service and transportation by the funeral director.

Home Burial.

Home burial refers to actual interment of the body on your own property. Most states allow this, but may require a declaration that you are burying human remains. Certain practical concerns will need to be addressed, such as how to get a deep enough hole, how to get the body to the hole and how to lower it in.

According to the NY Times article Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative  a home burial can cost as little as the material for a pine box or a few hundred dollars for a cemetery plot.Home funerals and home burials may be more environment friendly.

A simpler casket (or none at all) without the cement vault will allow the body to decompose naturally. You can even buy a plot in a ‘green’ cemetery – a place which adheres to certain green standards.

Avoidance of the carcinogenic embalming fluids, either by using dry ice under the bodies or essential oils on the surface or injected into the body, avoids health issues for the living that deal with the dead and allows the body to decompose faster.

The Green Burial Council   is setting standards and qualifying funeral homes and cemeterys which meet them. Their goal in part is

“to see eco-friendly end-of-life rituals become a viable option for honoring the dead, healing the living, and inviting in the divine.”

The college town of Lawrence, KS has a cemetery with a dedicated green section. Green’ burials: Biodegradable caskets, no artificial flowers,  an article on USA Today describes their services. Although this cemetery has not been qualified by the Green Burial Council, you can search on that site to find one.

If you would like to suggest your survivors put you to rest with a green funeral and burial, check out this green funeral planning guide from the Council.

Have you ever attended or held an alternative funeral or burial? What was it like?


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