To bid them farewell.
June 30, 2015 6:36 AM   Subscribe

For most of US history, our relationship with death was more intimate than it is today. Americans often died at home and remained there until burial, where they were washed, wrapped in shrouds, and laid out on boards while the family made preparations for a funeral feast and an at-home funeral. In addition to family, women known as “Layers Out of the Dead,” helped take care of the immediate tasks following a death. This homespun approach to death largely persisted until the Civil War, when embalming, hospitals and eventually funeral directors changed the way we dealt with our deceased. But now, with home funerals and even green burials slowly regaining acceptance, a new generation of “Layers Out of the Dead,” are emerging.
posted by zarq (15 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
CBC recently had a three-part series about new ways of looking at death, funerals and burial. They talked about the history of the American funeral business and how it affects our view of what makes a "proper" funeral. 1 2 3
posted by sneebler at 7:16 AM on June 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thanks for that, sneebler!
posted by zarq at 7:28 AM on June 30, 2015

In the 1970's, one of America's early home-grown Tibetan Buddhist teachers was asked to give a lecture to a group of some Tibetan lamas new to the country: America 101. One perplexing thing to them was the idea that Americans are not intimate with death…or even birth. (This was long before Eloise Woods and the return of shroud burial. And Tibetans do "sky burials," that is, hacking up the bodies on mountain ledges for the vultures to take care of. Their ground is too hard for earth burial; there are not enough trees for cremation. Plus, in the 70's, in America, fathers were just starting to be present at births.)

So this white Tibetan Buddhist tells them that for Americans, there is a big white building "over there," and that is where babies come from, and it is where people go to die, and that many Americans have never seen a person die.

You can understand how "The American Way of Death," as Jessica Mitford put it in her groundbreaking (sorry) book on the funeral industry published fifty years ago, is exceedingly odd to those peoples for whom death is an integral part of daily life.

A Presbyterian minister friend of mine explained this Western attitude towards death to me in a more sympathetic framework: we prefer to face death in private, with only our intimates around. Again, back in the days I grew up in, fifty years ago, doctors often avoided telling people they were going to die. They did not habitually use the word "cancer." This is all hard to believe now; there have been so many changes in the years since. Changes like our attitude towards gender issues have been much in the news. Changes in our relationship towards death: not so much.

Jessica Mitford, in her 1963 book, challenged the assumptions that legally mandated people to be buried in very expensive boxes to stave off--for a while--our return to the elements. (Even cremation was rare then.) Now, being wrapped in a shroud and buried in the woods seems to us not only commonsensical but beautiful. Some things are changing for the better, as I always remind myself to soften my reflexively cynical world view.
posted by kozad at 7:30 AM on June 30, 2015 [10 favorites]

I really like this idea quite a lot; though I'm hesitant to ask my friends or family to put tampons up my dead anus.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:48 AM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I live just up the road from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, who offer a green burial service on their property: Honey Creek Woodlands. When my time comes I don't think I'd mind ending up there.

My father passed in November of 2014, and the process just seemed so... mechanical. We left the hospital with his body still in the bed, tubes and wires attached but the machines turned off. Then, a few days later, we had a box full of ashes. I know my mom had to meet people and sign papers, but all of that was fairly business-like. No part of the process seemed to be very personal. Maybe this will help to change that, for those that want it.
posted by ralan at 7:55 AM on June 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

I read things like this, and like to think I can become more accepting of the quiet beauty and inevitability of death, my loved ones and my own. But I still inside say 'not yet'.
posted by bystander at 8:03 AM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty happy about how us Jews have handled death for thousands of years - simple biodegradable garment, generally no coffin, put in the ground as soon as possible: a community effort.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was skeptical of this, because "back to the old days" fads (homemade food, clothing, crafts, etc.) always seem to ignore that women in the old days did all the work, saw it as drudgery. and generally were happy to turn it over to someone else.

But the article reflects something a little more complex. I particularly loved this:

Some death midwives—or death doulas, transition guides, or psychopomps (a Greek word that means “conductor of souls to the afterworld”)—work with the dying to help them achieve what they call a “conscious death.”

Psychopomp! That is a good title to have.
posted by emjaybee at 8:56 AM on June 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

By coincidence, I was talking to one of my cousins the other day, and he was saying that he remembers going to a home funeral as a kid.

I've been following the return of the home care funeral for a while, and a year or so ago I even purchased a book on how to do it, should a relative or friend want such a thing (can't think of the title off the top of my head; I'll have to check when I get home). Anyway, if anyone's interested, the Nat'l Home Funeral Alliance has a ton of resources, and their PDF Home Funerals 101 is a good starting point.

Also: because my dad loves wood and woodworking, his brother my uncle is planning on making this, for when my father eventually passes away. I emailed Mr. Warren and requested the specs for a man of my dad's size, and he was very gracious and sent them to me at no charge.
posted by magstheaxe at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Psychopomp - sounds like a juggalo.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:15 AM on June 30, 2015

My father and I held my mother while she died. I felt her breathing stop, and then I felt her heart slow. I felt her skin go cold. I saw the blood pooling on the underside of her body as circulation ceased.

It seems wrong to say "I recommend it," but I am completely, fiercely grateful that she was given the option to die at home, and that I was with her during her final months and on her final day. I'm also grateful to the people (like Elizabeth Knox in the linked article) who have been working and continue to work to make sure that more people are offered the option to experience death as an intimate reality.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:18 AM on June 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

I just updated my living will to request that I be burned in the United States' only legal outdoor funeral pyre.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:53 AM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I want this - I want to do this - but like others, I'm not sure I'm ready. I worry that I would be overwhelmed with my grief and be unable to do it, and with the ticking of time, there's a lot of pressure. But I could see this - wanting to sit next to them, talk to them, see what's happening to them.
posted by corb at 11:11 AM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

In upstate South Carolina near the small town of Westmister, Ramsey Creek Preserve is "the first conservation burial ground in the United States." A beautiful place to end up buried with no additives or preservatives, and a place whose natural beauty won't be spoiled since part of the fee for a burial plot goes towards preserving the site in a "wild" state in perpetuity.

Read about this in a great book American Afterlife related to this thread by Kate Sweeney.
posted by perfect tommy at 12:22 PM on July 2, 2015

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