Going Gently

Reclaiming the realites and rituals of death with hands-on home funerals, hands-in-the-dirt burials and cemeteries as nature preserves. (Mark Hanauer)

For centuries in America, we tended to our dead. People died at home, and relatives prepared the body, laid it out in the parlor and sat by as callers paid final respects. The body was buried in the family cemetery, if there was one, or on the back 40; pieties were spoken, and life went on until the next person died. Death, if not a welcome visitor, was a familiar one. This changed, incrementally, during the Civil War, when others were paid to undertake the job of transporting the bodies of soldiers killed far from home; this is when formaldehyde as an embalming agent was first used. But it was only 100 years ago that we began routinely to hand over our dead to the undertakers. Soon the gravely ill as well were deemed too taxing, and moved to hospitals to die. Within decades, what had for millennia been familial responsibilities were appropriated by professionals.

"People think we're not emotionally capable, let alone physically capable, of carrying this out," says Jerri Lyons. "Well, what were we doing before when we weren't supposedly able to take care of people?"

Lyons is making tea in the small cottage she shares with her husband in a leafy glade in Sebastopol. Bookshelves overspill, a computer is crammed into a nook and there is no room for a dining set, so Lyons sets the teacups on her massage table, which, in any case, is multipurpose.

"We use it to turn people during seminars," she says. "We use it for reiki, and we also lend it to families that want to have a showing at home."

What she means by "a showing" is a wake. But Lyons, a 57-year-old former Costco rep and café owner, is not an undertaker, or, in her euphemistic parlance, a "well-intended grief choreographer." In fact, there is as yet no title for what she does, which is to teach people about their right to a home funeral and how to prepare the body for it.

There's an alternative-death movement fomenting in Northern California, one that leaves the funeral industry out of the picture altogether. Proponents of home funerals and of green burials, wherein bodies are interred in natural environments and in ways that promote decomposition, insist that this country's "death-denying tradition," in Lyons' term, is not merely costly but corrosive to body and spirit, to land and communities. Fear and doubt, they say, crept into the space left when we handed death to others, and our attendant helplessness supports the multibillion-dollar death-care industry. And they know, even if we don't yet, just how badly we want to bury our own dead.

"We're always afraid of the unknown, until we've been exposed to it and seen that it isn't frightening," says Lyons, proffering several fat albums containing photographs of former clients: dark-haired Donna, who stenciled her own casket before dying of a brain tumor at 32; Bernd, who also died of cancer, lying in bed, wearing a prayer shawl, his mouth curled in an easy smile. There is nothing ghoulish or grotesque about the images; there is neither rictus nor putrefaction. Instead, there's a 3-year-old in foot-pajamas peering at Aunt Donna, lain out after death in her own bedroom.

There's also a picture of Carolyn Whiting, who died suddenly of respiratory failure in 1994 and whose friends, Lyons says, "were simply not ready to let her go."

It turned out that they did not have to. Convening at Whiting's home the night of her death, Lyons and others learned that she had left instructions as to how she wanted to be cared for. "She did not want to be turned over to a mortuary," Lyons says, "but rather wanted her friends to bring her body home if she was in the hospital, and prepare her body."

Lyons admits that they were caught off guard. "I don't think this would have occurred to us. At all," she says. "We, like everyone else I talk to about home funerals, would have asked, 'Is that legal?' "

Home preparation of the deceased, without an undertaker's involvement, is legal in every state but four. Today there are books (such as Lyons' "Creating Home Funerals" and Lisa Carlson's "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love") that give detailed instructions in after-death care. At the time, Whiting's friends winged it: They took her body home, bathed and perfumed her, picked out clothing, held a wake, and then loaded Whiting into a van and drove her to the crematory.

"It was so helpful to us, to deal with our shock and our grief, and in such a loving, beautiful way to celebrate her life," says Lyons, who went on to found Final Passages, a nonprofit educational program, and Home and Family Funerals, a service wherein Lyons is paid as a "death-midwife," helping the dying and their families with everything from preparing the body to filing paperwork. She works on a sliding scale, but says a full cremation with her facilitation could cost $750. She estimates that in the last 10 years she's helped more than 250 people "pass over."

"A person, their body doesn't immediately look white as a ghost, or change rapidly," Lyons says. "People think they're going to start decomposing instantly. And that's not so."

As she teaches in seminars around the country, the body can lie in state at home for up to three days, and perhaps longer, provided measures are taken within the first six to 12 hours. The body should be well washed, especially the genitals, with warm, soapy water; the abdomen should be pressed to expel any waste. After the body is dried and dressed, ice (preferably dry but regular will do), which has been wrapped in grocery bags and then cloth, should be placed beneath the torso to keep the organs cool, as these are the first parts of the body to break down. The body should be kept in a cool room. If the person dies with his mouth open, which can be disconcerting to visitors, a scarf may be looped beneath the chin and tied around the head until the mouth sets shut. Similarly, eyes may be closed by gently weighing them down with small bags filled with rice or sand. The casket can be decorated, and a memorial display set up, plain or fancy. One family Lyons helped watched a video with their departed father that he'd rented but had not had a chance to see; another put hiking boots on dad and wheeled him into the woods for a final "hiking trip to heaven."

These people were able to take a deep breath and do what needed to be done. Others need hand-holding. Lyons recently helped a family whose belief in anthroposophy (the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner) dictated that the father's body be kept at home for three days, surrounded by loved ones, read to and cared for. This frightened his teenage daughter.

"She did not come in the room as we were bathing him," Lyons says, "but eventually she came in and started asking questions, and started feeling really relaxed and comfortable." So comfortable that a while later she had her friends over. "They were in the other room, talking and being normal teenagers. It was all a part of family life."

Feeling the body lose its warmth, seeing the tension leave the face, being present for the transition from life to death, Lyons says, helps us to accept that the person is gone. "The actual doing does help, because you're moving through your grief with a process, a ritual," she says. "You're present to it not just with your mind but with your senses…. You're not escaping, or pretending it didn't happen, or getting busy doing something else."

Northern California was the site of an earlier revolt against the funeral industry, when Oakland resident Jessica Mitford wrote her scathing 1963 exposé, "The American Way of Death." In updating the book for a revised edition published posthumously in 1998, Mitford found that, though consumers had put the brakes on burials, they were still being taken for a ride. "Cremation, once the best hope for a low-cost simple getaway, has become increasingly expensive," she wrote in her new introduction. "[M]orticians are fast developing techniques for upgrading this procedure into a full-fig funeral."

The "full-fig" or fancy-dress funeral in America includes embalming, whether or not one chooses cremation, so the body will have a lifelike appearance in its coffin, which will be metal. After the viewing, those who choose cremation will be transferred to a burnable container and their ashes transferred to an urn, such as the gold-plated Olympus model that Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries sells for $5,000. Those being buried will have their coffin placed in a concrete vault to ensure that the ground cover does not buckle, thus maintaining the putting-green uniformity of most cemeteries. Or vaults and urns may be placed in a mausoleum, for which there is a perpetual-care fee. These final dispositions typically cost $8,000, though can easily run to $10,000, $20,000 or more.