Home Funerals

A Return to At-Home Burial: Funeral Home Start-Ups Embrace a Past Burial Tradition

For the past six or seven decades, funeral homes have been the standard location for conducting funeral rites for loved ones passed. However, this standard practice sometimes prevents the family of the deceased from being involved in the funeral preparations and ritual. Start-ups are trying to change that, mainly by re-introducing and assisting with an age-old type of funeral rites: at-home funerals.

Undertaking LA, a start-up based in Los Angeles, California, is a funeral business that primarily assists clients with at-home funeral and burial preparations. The company was founded by Amber Carvaly and Caitlin Doughty in the summer of 2015, and since then has been an important source information for persons who seek to conduct at-home funerals or burial preparations. The two women have helped answer questions ranging from how to wash and dress a body to how to fill out death certificates and transportation paperwork.

Undertaking LA is just one entity of a group that is trying to make people more aware of the option for home funerals. All but ten states allow for people to conduct their own funerals in the home (in the ten exception states, hiring a funeral director is required). According to Kateyanne Unullsi, a board member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, the positives of a home funeral is that “’[i]t’s more natural. It’s also about reducing cost, but more than anything it’s the need to be more hands-on.’”

Unlike the high standard funeral home price of a funeral (the median cost of a funeral and burial arranged by a funeral home in 2014 was $8,508), the cost of an at-home, self-conducted funeral can be $100 for less. Undertaking LA offers assistance with this do-it-yourself method, but for a small price as compared to funeral homes. For a home funeral service, which includes a three-hour visit, a service fee, and assistance with body preparations, the company charges $996. For a three-hour in-office consultation on how to prepare a body and fill out necessary paperwork, the company charges $30. For a witness cremation, where the family provides the coffin and helps initiate the cremation process at the company’s location, Undertaking LA charges $1,470. The company also provides a small selection of simple coffins for retail, if a family does not provide their own.

Undertaking LA, while unusual as compared to standard funeral homes, operates within the bounds of California funeral law. Besides not requiring persons to hire a funeral director to prepare a body for burial, California law does not require that funeral homes be outfitted with either an embalming room or a coffin display room. In addition, Ms. Carvaly and Ms. Doughty are licensed California funeral directors under the California’s Business and Professions Code, which outlines the scope of what actions a funeral director engages in. While technically funeral directors, Ms. Carvaly and Ms. Doughty merely aid persons with conducting their own independent home funerals by giving advice to families and sometimes providing hands-on assistance with body preparation services.

Undertaking LA seems to have embraced a possible future for the funeral home industry, as many become more frustrated with standard funeral and burial costs. Hopefully, more start-ups across the U.S. (such as this one in Brooklyn) will begin to embrace this cost-friendly, environmentally-friendly, and family-oriented form of funeral rites.

Nina Banfield

Sending Joe the Plumber to Pick Up Grandma's Body

Even when the dead bodies Zachary Smeltz lifts for a living are hefty, he makes sure to handle even the burliest corpse in a gentle manner, masking any exertion. “Treat every case like that’s your mom that you’re transferring,” is the motto Mr. Smeltz imparts on the staff of the mortuary transport business he owns that sends him all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania and to other locales, picking up bodies.

via www.nytimes.com

This is how protectionist occupational licensing regimes emerge and are strengthened. Well-meaning outside observers write about something they don't really understand, in this case the "shadowy and sometimes controversial industry" of body transport companies, and then suggest that the answer to the hypothetical problems is more regulation.

"Others in the funeral industry contend the body transport business should be more strictly regulated," The New York Times reports.

“There are some states you don’t even have to be a funeral director,” said Scott M. Schmidt, the president of the New York State Association of County Coroners and Medical Examiners. “You just hang a shingle on a wall and you’re an undertaker all of a sudden.”

First of all, it is absurdly untrue to suggest that anyone can "hang a shingle" and become an undertaker anywhere in the United States. Second, yes, of course people within the industry want more regulation to restrict these activities to those within their industry. It is called economic protectionism.

"The purpose of New York’s stringent regulation, Mr. Schmidt said, is 'so you’re not sending out Joe the Plumber to pick up Grandma at the nursing home.'"

Because we all know what a problem THAT is...

Tanya Marsh

Home Funerals, Rent-Seeking, and Religious Liberty

The death of a family member triggers a flurry of decisions, all of which must be made in a time of great emotional stress. At the center of the decisions is a single question—how should the dead be mourned and memorialized? The “right” answer can vary significantly based on religious beliefs, family politics, social norms, and the economic capacity of the family.

Many families are relieved to be able to hire a funeral director to take care of all of the practical details, but there is a growing interest in “home funerals,” in which human remains are prepared for disposition in the home, rather than at the funeral parlor. As described in a recent New York Times article, remains may be washed and dressed by family, members of a religious community, or a funeral director. Surrendering control of the corpse to a funeral director immediately after death, allowing it to be embalmed, and displaying it in an open casket is often referred to as the “traditional” American funeral, but in fact that has only been the “tradition” for a little over a century. Until the end of the 19th century, most American funerals were home funerals.

Families may choose home funerals for many reasons. For some, ritually preparing human remains for burial has significant religious implications. For others, it is a last meaningful act of love.  For too many, the “traditional” American funeral, which averages $8,500 plus the cost of the burial plot, is simply beyond their means.

Throughout the world, home funerals are routine and accepted. In the United States, a country that prides itself on religious liberty and the freedom of self-expression, the growing interest in home funerals represents a challenge to the commercial funeral industry. That industry has responded as economics expect, by engaging in classic “rent seeking” behavior and lobbying state legislatures to enact restrictive laws that insulate it from competition. In the case of home funerals, the competition comes from families themselves.

Sixteen states require that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within a particular time period after death (usually 24-48 hours). (Those states are: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.) Four of those states (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas) require that human remains be refrigerated below a particular temperature (typically 35-40 degrees). Virginia already requires that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within 48 hours after death. Virginia State Senator Kenneth Alexander, a funeral director, has proposed Senate Bill 595 to specify that the remains must be refrigerated at a temperature of no more than 40 degrees. This bill has been received with appropriate outrage by funeral consumer advocates and some funeral directors.

Legal requirements that human remains must be embalmed or refrigerated after death are classic examples of industry rent-seeking.  By requiring “refrigeration,” particularly at a specific temperature, rather than simply permitting cooling via dry ice or other means, these states place heavy burdens on families and religious communities that want to care for remains at home.

On the surface, these requirements seem reasonable. Aren’t human remains a health hazard? Don’t these laws prevent public health nightmares? Actually, it turns out, unembalmed and unrefrigerated human remains don’t pose significant public health risks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that “[t]here is no direct risk of contagion or infectious disease from being near human remains for people who are not directly involved … handling dead bodies.”  The CDC further advises that those directly handling human remains can protect themselves from potential bacteria and viruses by wearing gloves and washing their hands. “The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant,” the CDC advises, “but they do not create a public health hazard.” The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. “The widespread belief that corpses pose a major health risk is inaccurate. Especially if death resulted from trauma, bodies are very unlikely to cause outbreaks of diseases…”  The WHO also advises that “[d]ead or decayed human bodies do not generally create a serious health hazard, unless they are polluting sources of drinking-water…” The Association Française d'Information Funéraire advises that there are three methods for preserving human remains before final disposition: dry ice, refrigeration, and embalming. The use of dry ice is the “common traditional technique for preservation at home,” the Association reports, and “[i]t gives perfect results in 95% of the cases.”

In a 2009 article, author Max Alexander contrasted the home funeral of his father-in-law and the “traditional” funeral of his father. “Home after-death care is not for everyone or every situation,” Alexander acknowledged, “[but it] occurred to me that if more Americans spent more time with their dead … they would come away with a new respect for life.” In the United States, of all places on earth, families should be able to make the choice of how to care for their own dead without the interference of laws designed to protect no one but a for-profit industry.

Tanya D. Marsh

Home Funerals a Viable Option

In search of more affordable and authentic end of life arrangements, a growing number of families are shunning traditional funeral  services, and taking matters into their own hands by organizing home funerals. And for good reason. Home funerals provide loved ones with an opportunity to offer intimate goodbyes to the deceased and personalized attention to each other.  They’re informal, comfortable, and full of emotion. And don’t forget the price considerations. With the cost of traditional funerals ranging from $6,000—$8,000, home funerals represent a far more affordable option for price conscious families.  

Forty four (44) states, including the District of Colombia, permit families to care for the body of a deceased loved one in lieu of funeral home participation. The requirements for families to do so are not overly burdensome: families must secure the death certificate and burial transit permit—a certificate authorizing the transport of the body to a cemetery, crematory or a medical facility—before final disposition.  Contrary to common belief, absent special circumstances, no state requires the body be embalmed.  

While the precise steps families must take vary from state to state, typically, after a person is pronounced dead, the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics (or equivalent agency) must be informed. From there, the family will be prompted to contact the local register (or similar local official) who will issue the death and burial transit certificate(s). Families interested in a home burial should consult applicable state law. Local zoning laws will determine whether families are permitted to bury the deceased on their own property, or whether the remains may only be interred in a cemetery. State law will also dictate the range of options regarding the disposition of cremains.

Home funerals allow loved ones a chance to connect with the deceased in ways that traditional funeral services can’t match. As long as families are cognizant of local regulations and procedures, they can typically proceed without the involvement of a funeral director.

Further reading:

Calvin Johnson