The movement toward at-home births has been gaining momentum for years, but what about at-home funerals? There’s a small but growing movement to educate people that they can take care of a loved one at home after death, instead of using a funeral home.
The dining room table where Denali Delmar and her two sons just celebrated Thanksgiving is also where they waked her husband, Bruce, after he died two years ago.
“He died in the living room on the bed that we got from hospice and we carried his body here and we put towels on top of the dining room table and we turned it and put it against the wall and washed him and got him all dressed nice," Delmar said. "It was the next day that we had calling hours.”
The couple had been married for 30 years. After he died of pancreatic cancer, Delmar said she couldn’t bear to part with her husband’s body.
“He was mine. I was not letting anyone who didn’t love him, touch him. We wanted to do it all,” she said.
And “do it all” they did, including driving his body from their home in Westford to the crematorium. It’s legal – in fact, no states require embalming. And after obtaining a death certificate, a family can keep a body at home for as long as it chooses. Most choose one to three days. At-home after-death care is a personal and emotional decision, and for some, it’s a financial one.
"We know what the conventional burial and embalming and funeral home costs are. That’s out there. It’s $8,000, $10,000, $20,000 not unheard of," Lorenz said. “So, if people want to really look at that they don’t have the money or they just want to spend their money in other ways, this process is so personal and unique.”
A few weeks ago Lorenz held a workshop at a Unitarian Church in Groton, demonstrating on live volunteers. She explained that after washing, it’s important to keep a body in a cold room. Most bodies simply need to be covered with ice packs -- and a diaper. She instructed the workshop attendees to be careful about moving bodies around.
One workshop participant, Corinne Renauld, recently attended an at-home funeral for her uncle and wanted to learn more.
“It’s nice to be able to spend time with the body even though the spirit is already gone," she said. "It’s just the shell. But you can still grieve for yourself.”
And grieving is at the center of this movement, which is really a return to past traditions. In fact, embalming came about during the Civil War, only when soldier’s bodies had to be transported from the South back to the North. And that’s when the funeral industry was born.
Present day funeral directors don’t seem threatened by the at-home movement. Stoneham funeral home director John Anderson said he believes the small percentage of people opting to do at-home funerals aren't competing with the funeral industry.
His biggest concern?
“Public health problems. Like disposing of materials with body fluids. We dispose of them through a medical biowaste firm. So, a family had some problems. They asked us to intervene and help with some of the leakage that was going on at that time.”
Home funeral guides, who help with the process but cannot by law profit from it, emphasize minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally friendly care of the body. Most families do not put makeup on the body, and often place it in a homemade casket. For Denali Delmar, it was a relatively easy and healing experience, especially for her son Tim.
“He said he would have been really upset if Bruce’s body had been whisked away,” Delmar said.
Laws on after-death care vary from state to state. But in Massachusetts, most of the state agencies I called for this story had never heard of the practice. That could change if the movement grows, but it’s proponents say what really matters is letting families know they have a choice.
To learn more about the at-home funeral movement, check out this PBS documentary: A Family Undertaking
Watch Anne Mostue discuss this story on Greater Boston: