"Honest to God, a dead body is not an emergency.”
July 8, 2015 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Amber Carvaly and Caitlin Doughty on distrupting the funeral-home business:
"Although Undertaking L.A. will offer a conventional service like cremation, it will also work with families to facilitate what the two call a “more natural” death — no formaldehyde cocktail, no pods that fill hollow eyes, no mouth former, no satin-lined casket, no metal vault. The goal is to promote home funerals. If family members care to, they can undress, bathe, and cool the body with ice themselves or they can watch Carvaly and Doughty do so. “What I believe to be the problem is the lack of the dead body, the lack of reality, the lack of the ritual around the death,” Doughty says. “The solution is a return to all that.”
Caitlin Doughty, previously
posted by Room 641-A (58 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
This kind of death ritual was a major factor in the spread of Ebola in Africa.
posted by humanfont at 5:31 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


And if there is a major outbreak of ebola in southern California, I'm sure that washing the body will be suspended, as they tried to do in West Africa.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 5:36 PM on July 8, 2015 [36 favorites]


The goal is to promote home funerals. If family members care to, they can undress, bathe, and cool the body with ice themselves or they can watch Carvaly and Doughty do so. “What I believe to be the problem is the lack of the dead body, the lack of reality, the lack of the ritual around the death,” Doughty says. “The solution is a return to all that.”

Home funerals were traumatic in their own way for the generations that conducted them. In her fascinating (and, sadly, paywalled) article "Better for Haunts: Victorian Houses in the Modern Imagination", which follows high Victorian domestic design from fashionable to haunted house fodder, Sarah Burns writes:

The Victorian house was haunted because—with its dark crannies and cob-webbed attic—it harbored the shadows of past lives, memories that refused to die. In Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 best seller, Main Street, the protagonist, Carol Kennicott, surveys the bedroom of her new husband’s “mid-Victorian” house in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and succumbs to panic and despair . . .

Once homey and comfortable, the Kennicott house has become uncanny in the Freudian sense: it now harbors something strange and ominous, something, once alive, that intrudes itself as a disturbing presence. Nowhere did such dreadful strangeness manifest itself more acutely than in the parlor, that “old-fashioned chamber of horrors,” as one contemporary described it. It was the perfect embodiment of the “wax flower” era, with its “exquisite and exclusive taste for the dead.” So unsettling were its connotations even at the dawn of the twentieth century that the influential editor Edward Bok launched a campaign against it in the Ladies’ Home Journal. The decor and the very atmosphere were deathly, he wrote: “we hang a wreath of wax flowers in a glass case on the walls, adding, perhaps, a coffin-plate to add a cheerful tone to the room; a carpet riotous with the most gorgeous roses is put on the floor, and then, after having carefully pulled down every shade in the room, so as to . . . get a nice, musty and cemeterial smell in the room, we have what we call, in America, a parlor.” The idea of the parlor’s “cemeterial” ambience was no metaphor. Before professionalized undertaking had taken over the funeral business, the parlor was the room where the dead were laid out for viewing. In one late nineteenth-century photograph, for example, we see a parlor in which an open coffin, smothered in flowers, stands on a “riotous[ly]” flowered carpet amid a profusion of fringed velvet upholstery, fancy cushions, busatterned wallpaper, and pictures in heavy frames. Its “cemeterial” atmosphere is almost palpable.

Inside and out, memories saturated the Victorian house, memories of the men and women who had been born in the Brown Decades and wished only to forget them.


Burns makes a strong case that childhood trauma related to home death and home funerals is one of the forces that caused Victorian homes to widely evoke fear and revulsion by the 1920s, and that led to the rise of modernism. The Victorians lived in close contact with death because they had no choice, and held it at arm's length as soon as they could - while Carvaly and Doughty seem to mean well, I'm not sure the average American family is going to want to go back.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:37 PM on July 8, 2015 [56 favorites]


This kind of death ritual was a major factor in the spread of Ebola in Africa.

IANAFD/E, but in cases of Ebola, the American CDC has guidelines and there is probably local, state, or federal legislation in place for handling bodies infected with it as well as other designated diseases such as anthrax, plague, typhus, CJD, etc.

Plus, Jewish people have been burying their dead in similar manner for millennia, so it'll probably be okay.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:47 PM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


We don't need artisanal funerals.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:57 PM on July 8, 2015 [23 favorites]


I've been thinking about this a lot lately and I think what I need is for my skin to sublimate into fiery ash the instant I die, and then the Dovakhiin can make a longbow from my bones. I don't have to pay for a funeral, somebody gets a god tier weapon, everyone wins!
posted by selfnoise at 5:58 PM on July 8, 2015 [18 favorites]


It's more than just Ebola, contact with dead bodies is a great way to spread all kinds of communicable diseases, even if the deceased didn't die from one. I hope that they do their work in head-to-toe waterproof barrier clothing.
posted by Punkey at 5:58 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


You know, I used to be cavalier about dead bodies, and I still don't care what happens to mine, but seeing my mom look like my mom after she died from pancreatic cancer gave me a bit more respect for mortuary science than I had previously. I can completely understand people's objections to open-casket funerals (and I share them as well), but if you're going to have one, making the deceased look like they did in life isn't always a bad thing.
posted by mollweide at 6:05 PM on July 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


Now you can well and truly die a hipster.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:06 PM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


contact with dead bodies is a great way to spread all kinds of communicable diseases,

So's contact with live people (90% of the DNA in you is non-human). Can we get back on topic?

The basic idea, if you actually read the article, is funerals without frills. Not "artisanal funerals," which is pretty much what we have now, thanks to an industry that has managed to persuade people that embalming is a necessity and that you need to spend thousands of dollars on a coffin that will be seen for one day only.
posted by beagle at 6:16 PM on July 8, 2015 [38 favorites]


We don't need artisanal funerals.

Even before this idea was put into my head, I've had the impression that this is exactly what standard funeral is. A whole lot of pomp and circumstance over an object that used to be alive. Why isn't a mortician that decorates a body to look as though it hadn't died an artist?
posted by phlyingpenguin at 6:22 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


paging ColdChef, ColdChef to the informed-opinion line
posted by lalochezia at 6:23 PM on July 8, 2015 [40 favorites]


I did read the article. And while I'm all for disruption of the massively corrupt, manipulative and incredibly unethical funeral industry, I'm also not a fan of incentivizing people to have skin-to-skin contact with corpses. Corpses are a very, very different thing than living people who have immune systems and homeostasis and aren't putrefying.
posted by Punkey at 6:29 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, you might not want to rub yourself all over one when the slightest pressure makes the rather impressive amount of decaying fecal matter in the average corpse spill out. Just sayin'.
posted by Punkey at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2015


Corpses are a very, very different thing than living people

Well, yes, they don't cough or sneeze, for one thing.
posted by mittens at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Health Risks From Dead Bodies
From the Order of the Good Death:
Washing Kathryn, Touching Death
posted by Evstar at 6:36 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


I'm not educated to know better myself, but I've read a few things to suggest that handling dead bodies poses very little risk to the living.
posted by Evstar at 6:37 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Calling this "hipster" or "artisan" is a great way of acting superior about something that has a lot of meaning to some people. This isn't homemade lavender syrup, this is how you deal with the death of a loved one. Calling that twee is a bit unkind.
posted by teponaztli at 6:38 PM on July 8, 2015 [57 favorites]


I'm all for this. The entire funeral industry is an environmental disaster, preying financially on people who have more or less no choice than to submit to its blandishments. To say nothing of the wasted space cemeteries take up in cities! At least if they were parks (I am in favour of more parks everywhere) people could go and have picnics and play frisbee. That gets frowned on in cemeteries.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:47 PM on July 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


Punkey, to be clear, Doughty is talking about working with people who have just died, not week-old rotting corpses.
posted by teponaztli at 6:56 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hi. I touch dead bodies all the time. They're no more apt to give you diseases than the people you come into contact with every day. Just, you know, try not to eat their feces.

I'm hesitant to comment in threads like these. For one, they usually become places where everyone spouts their Viking Funeral Wishes (probably never going to happen) and I also don't like being referred to as "massively corrupt, manipulative and incredibly unethical." While it's true that there is an ugly corporate side to the funeral business, most funeral homes are family owned business and have been for generations. I'm a third generation undertaker myself.

I've read Caitlyn Doughty's book and I found it interesting, although it was less about funeral practices and more about body disposal. Which kind of contradicts what she wants to do here. For what it's worth, I'm a big believer in personalized funeral services, but they are traditions for a reason. It's hard to break the hardwired ways we handle death in America. Or anything for that matter. Oh, you're different? You're a special snowflake? You don't believe in standardized rituals? Think about the last wedding you went to. Think about how many things you and other rational adults did for "good luck."

We're creatures of habit. And that's not going to change overnight.
posted by ColdChef at 6:59 PM on July 8, 2015 [109 favorites]


And I absolutely support the idea of home funerals. IF you can do it. It's fine if grandma dies quietly in her bed, after a long nap, and not from anything catching. But advocates of home funerals rarely talk about the violent, traumatic deaths. Suicides. Motor vehicle accidents. Murders. You're not going to take those bodies home with you and put them back together yourself.

I'm on call ALWAYS. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If your mom dies at 3am, I don't screen your call and go pick her up the next morning. I put on my black suit and go to you immediately. And I'm not a casket salesman. I've never attempted to talk anyone into something more expensive. If anything, I counsel them to consider cheaper alternatives. I'd no sooner tell you what kind of casket to buy than I would tell you what kind of car to drive or what kind of clothes to wear or what kind of media to consume.
posted by ColdChef at 7:04 PM on July 8, 2015 [158 favorites]


One of the interesting things about the lack of danger from dead bodies is that at some point (this might have changed, but I don't think so), there was thinking that it is ideal to avoid mass graves and incinerations after natural disasters, because the physical danger from the bodies being left a little while is less than the psychological dangers of not letting the living go through their burial rituals.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:08 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


I apologize if I sound defensive. When people talk about undertakers, they talk of them as if they're snake oil salesmen or con artists. And while I'm sure my industry has it's share, we're much more akin to a combination of counselor, minister, and wedding planner.

I'm very interested in Caitlyn Doughty's new business. Most importantly, I'd like to see if she'll be able to provide around the clock funereal services without selling any merchandise. A natural funeral is all "service" based. So...unless she charges an astronomical fee for services (or if this is going to be more like a charity than a business), I'm eager to see how she'll be able to do this financially.
posted by ColdChef at 7:10 PM on July 8, 2015 [42 favorites]


One of the interesting things about the lack of danger from dead bodies is that at some point (this might have changed, but I don't think so), there was thinking that it is ideal to avoid mass graves and incinerations after natural disasters, because the physical danger from the bodies being left a little while is less than the psychological dangers of not letting the living go through their burial rituals.

This is entirely correct.
posted by ColdChef at 7:10 PM on July 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


I always appreciate your professional insight whenever this topic comes up, ColdChef. Thank you.

Metafilter: Just, you know, try not to eat their feces.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 7:14 PM on July 8, 2015 [19 favorites]


In ten days it'll be the one year anniversary of the death of my mother's twin sister. I wish I hadn't gone into the hospital room where her body lay. I wouldn't have, except my mother needed something from inside the room but wasn't in any condition to get up and walk at that moment.

Her face was yellow, her mouth and eyes were open wider than I'd ever seen them, her face was twisted in pain, and she seemed to stare in horror at something behind me. She look like Munch's painting "The Scream."

I still haven't been able to get back to where I can remember her the way she looked when she was alive, even though her face is so much like my mother's.

Everyone should have the opportunity to deal with grief in their own way, but I was very glad there were professionals to take care of things for us.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:16 PM on July 8, 2015 [19 favorites]


I plan to be buried in a seersucker suit and wingtip shoes (perhaps a herringbone tweed suit if it is winter), but not before my body is displayed propped up in a pine box outside of my favorite bar, holding a bouquet of daisies. My cortege will be led by a procession of cyclists riding classic steel-framed road bikes (Columbus or Reynolds tubing only), and fake handlebar mustaches will be issued to all the mourners at my visitation, where the complete works of Belle & Sebastian will be played. Tom Waits' "Time" and Morrissey's "I've Changed My Plea To Guilty" will be played at my graveside, and bourbon punch will be served to all in attendance.




That's a god-damn hipster funeral, you jerks. This is just a different way of saying good-bye to a loved one.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:20 PM on July 8, 2015 [23 favorites]


Also: it should be mentioned that it's pretty damn cool that we can live in an age where two like-minded ladies can find they have common interests over YouTube and they decide to start a revolutionary business practice based on their shared ideals. No matter how you look at it, that's pretty fucking awesome.
posted by ColdChef at 7:26 PM on July 8, 2015 [58 favorites]


I can see the awesomeness, but I also see a perfect example of Hunter S. Thompson's observation: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:31 PM on July 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


TheWhiteSkull, can I come to your funeral?
posted by aka burlap at 7:35 PM on July 8, 2015


Is there really a market for this that's being underserved by the funerary options now available?
posted by Selena777 at 7:50 PM on July 8, 2015


Just, you know, try not to eat their feces

I promise nothing.
posted by item at 7:55 PM on July 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


I totally read that as, "try not to eat their faces."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:14 PM on July 8, 2015 [17 favorites]


A better solution is for everyone to just stop dying.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:19 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


An interesting article, thanks for sharing it. I have my doubts about some parts of their business, but I wish them luck. If they can help families deal with the deaths of their loved ones, I'm all for it.

I've been around dying people a fair bit, as have my sisters. We tend to be called on when someone is dying, because we've been through it and we know what's happening, what needs to happen, and how to navigate through it. I'm very pragmatic, one sister of mine is religious and knows that aspect, the other sister is a nurse who knows hospice care. So bluntly, we're pretty useful at a time that can be really confusing and painful for family members that haven't been around it.

So I'm not concerned about touching dead bodies, or being around them shortly after they've died. When my dad died, there was a certain amount of tending to him needed as we waited for the funeral director to arrive. It wasn't an issue, he was my dad.

Our family tends to use a small, family owned funeral home. We've never experienced anything but caring people who provided a good, necessary service at an important time, and did so with all the respect and dignity we could expect. I have a huge amount of respect for funeral homes and funeral directors.

I also live pretty much in a cemetery, my house is surrounded on three sides by one. It's very much like being surrounded by a park, it's very quiet (except on some holidays and the ever present sound of a lawn mower). I don't see it as a waste of green space. I see it as a place of remembrance and a place where people can honor the memory of their family members.

So I wish this new business well. I hope they succeed, and I joe they help families deal with loss in whatever way works for them.
posted by disclaimer at 9:06 PM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Suicides. Motor vehicle accidents. Murders. You're not going to take those bodies home with you and put them back together yourself.

All I need is a roll of duct tape and a montage.
posted by dr_dank at 9:09 PM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


AdamCSnider: "A better solution is for everyone to just stop dying."

That might have some negative ramifications, as well.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:12 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


And I absolutely support the idea of home funerals. IF you can do it.

One of the best circumstances for a home funeral I've heard of was for a baby who had died after only a few hours of life, due to a condition that had been diagnosed prenatally. The parents had had a few months to come to terms with the death of their child, and the physical preparation of the body allowed them to care for their baby in death the way they were never able to in life. Those are the circumstances where I think a home funeral is most likely to be possible -- where a death is expected, accepted, and gentle.
posted by KathrynT at 9:18 PM on July 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


I like this idea. Current American funerary customs make me crazy. The Husband's much beloved Aunt passed in January, and her children had a huge Catholic hullaballoo. FIL, her baby brother, was incensed, because he and his sisters never rolled that way and it caused him and his remaining sister incredible pain to be put through all that.

I have made my wishes well known. Donate any organs that are suitable. If none are, send me to a medical school or a Body Farm. Then have a party, with lots of good food, good booze, and stories. Eat, drink, be merry, or there will be A Haunting.
posted by MissySedai at 9:20 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I also live pretty much in a cemetery, my house is surrounded on three sides by one.

Best. Neighbors. Ever.
posted by MissySedai at 9:26 PM on July 8, 2015 [14 favorites]


I am an epidemiologist, IANYE, this is not epidemiologic advice. Also I am in a cognitive fog right now so I am not giving advice anyway. But to echo what Cold Chef said as a funerary professional from the epi perspective, the risks posed by handling recently dead people's bodies are much the same as the risks of handling live people's bodies. Of all the dangers to the general public posed by mass-casualty disasters, the infection risks posed by handling bodies are amongst the least important. (The links in the Wikipedia article above are good, especially the American Journal of Public Health pdf)
Safely handling the body of your loved one is the same whether they are alive or not, except for volitional sphincter control. It isn't recommended that family members provide care for living people with Ebola without training and effective personal protective equipment, but that's true of most diseases - we just consider the admonition "wash your hands after diapering or baths, and before all food preparation" adequate training for a parent caring for an infant with a self-limiting viral diarrhea, living in an environment with abundant soap and clean water (the extent of adequate personal protective equipment for that illness in that circumstances.)
posted by gingerest at 9:39 PM on July 8, 2015 [17 favorites]


Also, "try not to eat their feces" is sound epidemiologic advice.
posted by gingerest at 9:41 PM on July 8, 2015 [39 favorites]


I totally read that as, "try not to eat their faces."

"Don't gnaw on our beaks!"
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:00 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thank you, MissySedai. I've been thinking lately that I'm probably getting to the point where a will and post-death-directives are a good idea, and I am totally threatening hauntings on notarized paper if my wishes aren't respected.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:08 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]



And I absolutely support the idea of home funerals. IF you can do it. It's fine if grandma dies quietly in her bed, after a long nap, and not from anything catching. But advocates of home funerals rarely talk about the violent, traumatic deaths. Suicides. Motor vehicle accidents. Murders. You're not going to take those bodies home with you and put them back together yourself.


This. I once attended the funeral of an acquaintance who had been murdered. At the time I thought mainly that the body looked like a bloated, distorted version of the person I knew. But then thinking about it for a minute I realized that her trauma was intense and it was a lot of effort by the mortuary just to get her body in some semblance of order to have the funeral.
posted by weathergal at 12:24 AM on July 9, 2015


What's next? Home funeral kits at Whole Foods? Seriously, fuck this ... when i die, just burn me up and sprinkle what's left in an herb garden.
posted by despues at 1:32 AM on July 9, 2015


We have a (nominally) secular, capitalist culture, and we've got rituals that go along with it. Those of us who are irreligious, or who don't belong to a subculture, don't have a shared belief system that can provide a framework of meaning or a way to process grief, we're left with silence on that. But yeah, at the funerals I've been to, people have been grateful for the structure and guidance provided by funeral homes (and really any suggestions about how to behave, at least. It's good to know what to do). I think the issue is the making sense of things part, and not having a common language for grief.

I thought initially that turning to the body itself to provide meaning was a kind of romantic idea, so maybe deserving of an accusation of hipsterism - also because it's kind of, I don't know, a little artful, and idiosyncratic, obviously. Like they're just making stuff up, really, appropriating bits from the past and other cultures to provide an air of authenticity to what seems to be a kind of literal approach to death. (I feel like you can't really just invent a ritual like that. Back in the old country my family's from, in the villages, bodies stay in homes for a bit, but people know who should do what to them, and why. It's syncretic with a worldview people mostly share, etc etc.) But then, death is pretty literal. I guess that's their point.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:47 AM on July 9, 2015


the risks posed by handling recently dead people's bodies are much the same as the risks of handling live people's bodies

Yeah, I don't think many people dying of deadly communicable diseases in the US get the option to die at home and start potential outbreaks. Most people given the option to die at home are not dying of something catching. All this talk of "but ebola!!" is completely irrelevant to what is being discussed here.

My mom starved to death because a tumor wrapped itself around her esophagus and made it impossible for her to eat (or drink, at the end). Pretty sure me holding her hand as she died didn't leave me likely to "catch" what she had. (I mean, the fact that half my DNA comes from her might, but kissing her cheek in her final hours, not so much.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:32 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is the very definition of a solution in want of a problem.
posted by FakeFreyja at 7:10 AM on July 9, 2015


This is the very definition of a solution in want of a problem.
posted by FakeFreyja at 9:10 AM on July 9 [+] [!]


I really disagree with everyone here who is pooh-pooing this because it's icky or whatever. The point is not that they want to make this mandatory for all funerals. The point, as stated eloquently in articles such as the ones in this post, is that some people are really comforted by things that are different from what comforts other people. We need to make space for that.

ColdChef is absolutely right that it's hard to break the hardwired ways we think about death in America. The issue is that a green burial isn't as simple as just getting cremated or placing a body into a hole on property that you own (which isn't legal in many places). In this article, for example, there's a a whole lot of yak shaving to get something done that's already been agreed upon.
Although Maine allows backyard burials (subject to local zoning), Bob had requested cremation. A crematorium two hours away was sympathetic to home after-death care. The director offered to do the job for just $350, provided we delivered the body.

That entailed a daylong paper chase. The state of Maine frowns on citizens driving dead bodies around willy-nilly, so a Permit for Disposition of Human Remains is required. To get that, you need a death certificate signed by the medical examiner or, in Bob's case in a small town, the last doctor to treat him. Death certificates, in theory at least, are issued by the government and available at any town office. But when Sarah called the clerk she was told, "You get that from the funeral home."

"There is no funeral home," she replied.

"There's always a funeral home," said the clerk.
And there are valid reasons for a lot of that bureaucracy, too.

So I hope that by questioning what we think of as the funeral system, we can get to a place where it's at least easier to navigate something a little further from the mainstream, because it would be a great option for a lot of people out there.

Mainly, it would be a great option for people to KNOW ABOUT, so that even if it's not something they want for themselves, they could understand what others go through a little better.
posted by St. Hubbins at 7:46 AM on July 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


Here is a link to a PDF version of Sarah Burns' article reference up above
posted by jkosmicki at 9:45 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is the very definition of a solution in want of a problem.

Only if you have some absurd notion that everyone must adhere to "normal" American funerary customs, with (in some locales REQUIRED) embalming and concrete vaults in the ground, expensive caskets, torturing those left behind with the "traditional" three days of viewing/"visitation", some religious nonsense, then procession to a cemetery, with more religious nonsense, followed by being dropped into a hole while the family sobs.

Jesus fuck, no. What a horrible thing to put people through.

People not being able to tend to their dead in a low-key and personal fashion actually IS a problem, and I'm glad that someone is helping people who want to be able to do that. People grieve differently. If you need to make a big production out of death to feel better about it, fine, but some of us do have a much more practical view of things, and would prefer to be left out of "traditional" mourning.
posted by MissySedai at 10:19 AM on July 9, 2015


Oh yeah, I think people should absolutely do whatever is right for them, whether that's using a funeral home or going with a green funeral or whatever. (I just think calling it a new "ritual" is a bit of a reach.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:52 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Only if you have some absurd notion that everyone must adhere to "normal" American funerary customs, with (in some locales REQUIRED) embalming and concrete vaults in the ground, expensive caskets, torturing those left behind with the "traditional" three days of viewing/"visitation", some religious nonsense, then procession to a cemetery, with more religious nonsense, followed by being dropped into a hole while the family sobs.

Embalming is never required by law if immediate burial is preferred. Concrete vaults are only required in some cemeteries. There are plenty that have no such requirements. Expensive caskets are not required. And neither is viewing, anything religious, or a procession. None of that is required. It's a custom, but none of that is mandatory. You can absolutely tend to your own dead anywhere in America. There is paperwork that requires some professional filing, but the idea that you can't take care of your own dead is completely inaccurate.
posted by ColdChef at 4:41 PM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Embalming is never required by law if immediate burial is preferred.

My uncle the gravedigger used to have to do a certain amount of night work - I believe it was mostly for Jewish people, if I remember correctly - whose families wanted them buried the day after they died because they didn't want embalming. I'm not completely clear on the traditions involved.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:08 PM on July 9, 2015


When my mom died in February, I had this weird sense of urgency.

In those first hours and days, along with the thought-loop of shock ("Wait—what? No!"), I had the intense sense that there was something very important that I needed to be doing. But I couldn't figure out what it was. I was in Portland, she died in Santa Rosa, her wife was taking care of things, in a few weeks there would be a memorial. What was there for me to do? What was so urgent?

Then I imagined her body going into the crematory in a hospital gown, and I had a powerful visceral feeling of Oh HELL No. And I realized that what I needed was to wash her body and get her ready.

With some trepidation, I called my mother's wife to ask her permission, as we were not on good terms. She was taken aback at first but eventually gave her blessing, saying that it's what my mom would have wanted.

When I started calling funeral homes, I found that this is apparently an unusual request. The low-cost cremation service and the big fancy funeral home flat-out wouldn't do it, citing internal policies and safety concerns. Finally I found a small family-owned funeral home that could accommodate my request.

Two days later, I flew down to the Bay Area and drove to the funeral home. There I met the dear friend I had asked to come help me. My mom's wife was there as well, though she couldn't bear to help with what we were there to do.

She asked if I was scared, and tenderly kissed my hand when I showed her how it was shaking. I was frightened of the shock of seeing my mom's body, especially the changes that had taken place in the five days since she had died.

But when we opened the door to the white tiled room in the back of the mortuary, the reality was not as I feared. It was oddly comforting rather than horrible to see her, though I burst into tears when I put my hands on her face and felt how cold and hard she was.

Still, seeing and touching her helped some deep pre-rational part of my mind understand what had happened: She was gone. She was not in her body any longer. What was left was precious to me, but it wasn't her anymore.

My friend and I washed and blessed my mother's body from foot to head. We washed off the EKG adhesive and cut the hospital bracelet off her wrist, combed her hair and put her makeup on, and covered her with yellow roses, a family quilt, and a light misting of Chanel No. 5.

We sang together as we worked: circle songs from our spiritual community (the Radical Faeries of Portland and Wolf Creek), and the first song my mother taught me when I was a little girl:

"I see the moon and the moon sees me
Under the shade of the old oak tree
O let the light that shines on me
Shine on the ones I love"

After we finished, her wife came in to say goodbye. I think she wouldn't have been able to do that otherwise, and instead their last moment together would have been in the chaos and trauma of the ER.

When I walked into the mortuary, the sense of my mother's presence was very strong, as though she were beside me. And when I opened that door and saw her body, I felt the shock and recognition that went through her. I think she must have been surprised and confused by her death, which happened suddenly. Maybe seeing her body through my eyes helped her spirit understand and accept the reality of her body's death, just as it did for me.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:22 PM on July 9, 2015 [28 favorites]


ColdChef: "I'm on call ALWAYS. 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Well, if you weren't the first choice for EVERY MEFITE to bury them, you might not have these sorts of problems.

I'm just saying, maybe you're too good at your job and you should stop being so generally awesome if you have such a PROBLEM with EVERYONE wanting you to BURY THEM AND GODDAMNIT WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE I SWEAR TO GOD I SENT YOU MEMAIL LIKE IN 2007 SAYING I WANTED TO RESERVE A SPOT AND YOU'VE BEEN FULL UP FOR EIGHT YEARS AND I CAN'T EVEN DIE YET BECAUSE, NOOOO, "NO OPENINGS".
posted by scrump at 4:07 PM on July 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


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