DIY Funerals

Deacon Greg links the Times on home funerals. From Katie Zezima’s article:

When Nathaniel Roe, 92, died at his 18th-century farmhouse here the morning of June 6, his family did not call a funeral home to handle the arrangements.

Instead, Mr. Roe’s children, like a growing number of people nationwide, decided to care for their father in death as they had in the last months of his life. They washed Mr. Roe’s body, dressed him in his favorite Harrods tweed jacket and red Brooks Brothers tie and laid him on a bed so family members could privately say their last goodbyes.

The next day, Mr. Roe was placed in a pine coffin made by his son, along with a tuft of wool from the sheep he once kept. He was buried on his farm in a grove off a walking path he traversed each day.

“It just seemed like the natural, loving way to do things,” said Jennifer Roe-Ward, Mr. Roe’s granddaughter. “It let him have his dignity.”

I’ve worked with funeral homes for over twenty years. I do think funeral directors strive for dignity, a professional approach, and genuine care for the bereaved. They attend to every detail. Some practices I wince at, on aesthetic or even liturgical grounds. But they do a lot for people who are often in a state of shock. You can expect to pay $3,000 or often more for these services.

I was thinking of blogging on a recent encounter when I read Greg’s post this morning. I wonder how would this translate to Catholic practices associated with the funeral rites. We have an experience at our parish today, in fact. The deceased lived in Iowa for most of his life, but moved closer to family out-of-state years ago to be cared for. He died in March, and was cremated. The funeral is today.

Reading the story of Mr. Roe’s funeral, I can see how the participation of the family was quite meaningful. On the other hand, with the acceptance of cremation in religious traditions and in the culture, people can delay or neglect the final burial or internment of remains. Is this a good thing? We celebrated a funeral when my father died, but I believe my younger brother still has the urn of remains in his house … somewhere. The convenience of remains that can be simply carried also means that grieving may be postponed. Caring for and burying the dead used to be a task one could not put off. Family and friends, ready or not, were confronted with the reality of dealing with death.

Six states, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York require a funeral director’s involvement. Otherwise, surviving loved ones can deal, if they choose, with various procedures, permits, and permissions to do some or all of a funeral home’s work. Greg doesn’t mention how he or his parish would adapt to cutting the funeral home out of some of the work. Excluding the occasional memorial service, I’ve been in parishes where we’ve had to deal with the occasional funeral along these lines. What about your experiences?

The Trappists in my archdiocese do make caskets, including simple rectangular models in pine:

pine casket

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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7 Responses to DIY Funerals

  1. Liam says:

    Well, after my parents have adjusted to living in their new community (in NY state, between Stony Brook and Port Jefferson – there’s a 15%+ price premium for funeral services compared to where they used to live: if you live in a wealthier area, funeral homes baselines increase greater than proportionally), my father and I are working on revising plans made earlier in this decade. We’ve gotten price lists from the different funeral homes within a several mile radius, and I’ve put those into a spreadsheet for easy comparison. I strongly recommend people do this: it is an illuminating exercise. I was surprised that the homes associated with SCI (Service Corporation International – the Microsoft of American funeral homes) were markedly more expensive (I had thought they might be able to offer some economies of scale). Price is not everything: there are issues of accessibility, comfort and trust that are intangible and become dispositive once notably high-priced outliers get bumped off the list.

    My parents now live a lifecare community, so there’s no garden to bury them in. (That would have been impossible where they formerly lived for decades, too). And do understand that burial on family land can raise issues down the line if and when that land is sold outside the family.

    Green burials are not on our options list as such, because my father is a WW2 veteran entitled to free burial at the national military cemetary about a half hour away. Still, my parents’ new parish does not send clergy there, so we need to arrange with the selected funeral home for a parish nearer to the military cemetary for a cleric to preside at the committal (which is a bit of a revenue item for clerics residing nearby). My brother, living near Rochester, wants a shroud-only burial and could if he choose be accommodated at a green burial ground south of the Finger Lakes. As you know, western New York was (partly) crunchy granola before Berkeley….

    Trends: funeral homes are moving more of their profit into the “Arrangements” and facilities usage fee line-items and out of caskets as such – I can see this in comparisons between price lists now and prices lists earlier in this decade. Caskets are getting (if not quite fully) on the road towards being a commoditized product for them that want it that way.

    Bottom line: a single-session wake plus funeral with a $1500 casket and transportation to the free burial would have run $7500 where my parents used to live, about $8800 at the family run funeral homes in their new area, and $12000 at the SCI affiliate nearby.

  2. After my father died in 1998, I asked the funeral home if they divided cremains. “Do it all the time,” they said. “Please send me a 1/4 cup of Daddy,” I said.

    My father’s urn avec the rest of his cremains was interred by wife #4 in a totally inaccessible plot miles from where I ever intend to be.

    Meanwhile, my 1/4 cup of Daddy has been on my bookshelf ever since. This hasn’t impeded my grieving — I know he’s dead! It has, in fact, provided an odd bit of comfort, as does the laminated plaque from his office, now in mine, reading: “This Too Shall Pass.”

  3. crystal says:

    My mother would never talk about what would happen when she died, even after she got lung cancer. My sister and I had zero experience of what people do when someone dies, but we ended up having her cremated and her ashes scattered by plane over the San Francisco bay. No funeral. I realized I’ve never even been to a funeral.

  4. I am a funeral director and I think there is too much work for families to take care of it all on their own. They need the guidance of a funeral director. It would be best if the funeral director would offer house calls and show the family what to do and allow involvement. Mourners today want something different and the best and most personalized services come from people who say what they want when it comes to funeral planning.

  5. Liam says:

    I should add, as a treasurer of my parish’s St Vincent de Paul conference, that our biggest ticket expense is a funeral. It typically happens once every two or three years, invariably under horrible circumstances (most recently, last year, a car accident of stunning awfulness; before that, terminal illness that had rendered family destitute; before that, a murder – you get the picture) and we work with local funerals home that are willing to write off most what would have been its profit and instead work on a modest cost-plus basis. We are only hoping that we don’t face another event like this until our endowments have a had a chance to recover from the current depression.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    This being California, one can buy a casket at a reduced price from a storefront casket sales store (and Costco!), store it away until needed, and have that problem (and expense) out of the way.

    Maybe this is possible elsewhere as well.

  7. Liam says:

    Jimmy

    Yes, it’s not special to CA.

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