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|April 2-8, 2009
Bringing death home
How House Bill 1202 could jeopardize consumer choice and alternatives to the expensive, corporate funeral industry
by Dana Logan
Taryn Taylor is a hospice worker. So it’s probably fair to say that she’s seen her share of death. But when she learned that her mother had breast cancer, and later, when it became clear that she would lose that battle, Taryn began to think about alternatives to the sterile and expensive funerals that she had witnessed throughout her life.
She discussed the options with her mother, Marji, who quickly connected with the idea of a home funeral. Some of the other family members took a bit more persuading, but in the end, a plan was made for how Marji’s husband, daughters, grandchildren and other close friends and family would care for her, not only in her last days of life, but also in death.
Nearly a year ago, on April 16, 2008, Marjorie “Marji” McGinty took her last breath in her home, with her family in the room, singing softly, sending her off. And the singing continued even after her breathing had stopped. There was no rush to call a coroner, nor did the family hurry to have her lifeless body taken away. Instead, Marji’s daughters did as women have done for thousands of years; they washed and dressed her themselves. The children were allowed to help choose the jewelry that she would be adorned with and her rosary was placed in her hands. The women even honored Marji’s love of gardening by gathering soil from her backyard garden and rubbing it on the bottoms of her feet. Then, they laid her out with dry ice beneath her. A sheet separated her body from the ice, used to keep her body temperature low, dramatically slowing the natural decomposition process.
In the following hours and days, Marji’s family and close friends gathered at the house, sitting by her bed, taking in their own grief.
They each had opportunities to join together to tell stories about Marji’s beautiful life as well as the chance to experience private moments of mourning in the room where Marji’s body laid lifeless. Taryn says that being there made it so clear to her that her mother was truly gone from this world.
“The body is just a shell,” she says. “We were so involved in the process of the natural part of death that we just understood it so much better.”
Taryn explains that having her mother’s body present for their grieving was neither scary nor gross, but rather, it served to heal the wounds of sorrow that she and her family were feeling. In fact, she recalls a moment when a close friend’s husband accompanied his wife to the house. He was uncomfortable with the idea of being near a dead body, so he stayed in the kitchen while his wife said her final goodbyes to Marji. But Taryn wanted to share with the man the beauty surrounding the situation, so she gently invited him to see for himself.
“It’s just my mom,” she told him. “She’s in her room. She kind of looks like she’s sleeping. It’s not that scary.”
And so, he allowed her to lead him towards her mother’s room.
“He stood in the doorway and said, ‘You’re right, it’s not that scary.’” Taryn recalls. “And I understood that he was healed by that process.”
When the time of the wake was drawing to an end, the family lifted Marji’s body into an inexpensive cardboard coffin. Around her body, they placed hundreds of origami paper cranes that friends and family had made as a way to honor Marji in the weeks that led up to her death. Paper cranes are a symbol of peace on Earth and so, as Marji lay in her bed, those who loved her spent the hours and days sitting around the kitchen table, folding paper into elegant birds, laughing over wonderful memories of their beloved, and hoping for peace — for her and for everyone. By the time they transferred the cranes into the coffin, they covered Marji’s entire body, with the exception of her face, and the beautiful colors surrounded her.
Marji’s family joined together to lift the coffin and carry her body from the house to the van they would use to take her to the crematorium. They paused once outside to let the sun shine on her face one last time.
Though Taryn’s father had been luke-warm about having a home funeral from the beginning, Taryn recalls that as they carried her mother’s body out of the house, her father just kept saying, “This is so right; this is how it’s supposed to be.”
Marji’s loved ones drove her to the crematorium where they watched as her coffin was pushed into the cremator, a button was pushed, and the shell that Marji inhabited for nearly 58 years turned to ash.
Taryn says that taking her mother to the crematorium was another act of love.
“We never let go of her. We had her through the whole thing, and we’re proud of that. It was an amazing experience,” she says. “There are no unanswered questions.”
Later, friends, family and all those who had been touched by Marji’s beautiful spirit attended her memorial service, which doubled as a birthday party for the late mother, wife and friend who died shortly before her 58th birthday.
And while Taryn and her family played a very active role in the funeral rites of her mother, they didn’t do it alone. Behind the scenes and before Marji’s death, Taryn sought the help of Karen van Vuuren, executive director of Natural Transitions, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder that educates, empowers and supports families to care for their own dead and conduct home funerals. It was van Vuuren’s guidance that gave Taryn the knowledge and resources necessary to fill out her mother’s death certificate, understand the natural processes associated with death, and prepare for how to proceed with each step of her mother’s funeral. Taryn even acquired the cardboard coffin from van Vuuren, who has been guiding people through their unique and individual home funeral experiences for more than five years.
And van Vuuren says that, while not everyone may wish to take as active a role in a loved one’s funeral as Taryn and her family did, more and more people are seeking alternatives to the modern American funeral. Some seek to have a greener funeral that honors the environmental philosophy of their loved one in a more fitting way than the typical funeral, which pollutes the earth, water and air. Others, she says, simply want a cheaper alternative to the costly and often financially burdensome funeral put on by the modern mortician. (The average funeral in the United States costs between $7,000 and $10,000; Marji’s funeral, from start to finish, cost $300.) Still others, including Marji and her family, were interested in a more meaningful funeral experience — one in which they are present, rather than handing their loved one over to a stranger.
But regardless of the motivation behind the choice and the level of participation that a family wishes to have in the process, van Vuuren offers education and guidance tailored to a family’s needs and desires, as well as hands-on support when there are arrangements that the family is unable to handle. In some cases, this includes taking charge of the physical care of the body, i.e., washing, dressing and icing. But for many, the issue is simply one of needing to be guided through the process because, let’s face it, not too many of us know what to do with a death certificate, let alone a dead body.
But for those who are interested in pursuing the home funeral option, there may not be much time left, thanks to House Bill 1202, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Todd D-Aurora (There is no senate sponsorship on this bill).
HB 1202, which already passed unanimously in the House Committee on Business Affairs and Labor, and is awaiting a vote by the Appropriations Committee, seeks to regulate those who provide for the final disposition of dead bodies. If the bill passes through Appropriations, it will head to the House floor.
Rep. Todd claims that her main motivation for sponsoring this bill is to protect consumers.
“One of the things that has really driven me to be concerned is that we are the only state that has no regulations for mortuary science and for funerals,” she says.
But Josh Slocum, executive director for the national nonprofit funeral consumer advocacy association, Funeral Consumers Alliance,
is worried about the consequences of HB 1202.
“Given a choice between what exists in Colorado now and what this bill proposes, I’d sooner have no regulations. I know that sounds shocking coming from a consumer advocate,” he says.
And while he says he’s not anti-regulation, he sees so many problems with the bill as it’s written that he says he cannot support it.
Among those problems are confusing and contradictory language, extreme and unreasonable training requirements for embalmers, funeral directors and cremationists, and what he calls a case of the fox in the henhouse.
“The entire history of most business regulations — funerals and otherwise — is an attempt by trade associations in the field to write their own rules. This isn’t any different from what you see in other fields, but it’s particularly nasty for funeral consumers because funerals can be one of the most expensive and emotionally fraught purchases you’re ever going to make,” he says.
“A lot of these regulatory boards and the trade associations like the Colorado Funeral Directors Association (COFDA) function very well to eliminate competition that could lower prices, raise impossibly high standards for anybody who wants to get into the business. I mean, believe me, we’re pro-regulation. But not protectionist regulation,” says Slocum.
Indeed, Rep. Todd admits that she consulted COFDA for assistance in the drafting of this bill. She also received input from the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA), but did not seek advice from any consumer advocacy associations during the process of writing HB 1202.
“I think she doesn’t realize that she’s being used,” says Slocum. “I don’t impute any nefarious motive to her at all. I’m sure she believes that she’s bringing some more stringent consumer protection to Colorado, but she was naive to sit down only with the trade association and not come to the consumer groups.
“I’m one of a handful of people who are real experts in funeral law in the country. I’ve read the laws, and I’ve worked on bills like this for years, and I can tell you that lawmakers don’t know any more about the realities of the death and dying business than the average person on the street. So, when they’re asked to tackle this, naturally they assume, ‘Well, there’s a professional association of undertakers, they will know how to guide me through this.’ And that’s reasonable to a certain degree, but then they take off their skeptic’s hat and forget that this is a group that’s there to protect its members’ profits. And that’s what’s happened here. I read this language, and I know that no legislative aid drafted this language. This came directly from a funeral group,” Slocum says.
Among the provisions in the bill that would benefit those already in the business — that is, the modern American funeral business — are regulations that require 4,000 hours of interning on embalming bodies before you can actually open up shop.
“I did the math on that,” he says. “That means you’re pickling bodies, eight hours a day, five days a week, for almost two years. You do need training for embalming, but you don’t need that much,” he says.
Not only does the excessive intern-time required to become an embalmer, cremator or funeral director make it harder and more expensive to open up a new business, thus eliminating the big corporate players’ potential competition, but it provides those same corporations with cheap labor in the meantime, says Slocum.
“These sorts of things are exactly what the COFDA wants because it protects the profits of the entrenched funeral industry that’s already sunk all of its money into opening business in Colorado — with the effect that consumers are going to have fewer choices because it’s going to be more expensive to open up there. And this isn’t just a theoretical argument either; I’ve seen this happen in several states,” he says.
The requirements help corporations to eliminate another kind of competition, too. According to van Vuuren, who has never and will never embalm or cremate a body, the bill would require that, if she wanted to register as a funeral director — not an embalmer or cremator, but simply a guide who oversees the funeral process for families — she would have to learn to do both embalming and cremation, and complete the necessary training. As she has no intention of doing either of these things, her nonprofit and the help that it gives to families seeking alternatives would be pushed off the playing field.
“By close reading,” says Slocum, “you can say, if Karen van Vuuren shows up to coach a family on home funerals, she’s practicing as a funeral director and is in violation because she’s not practicing at a registered funeral establishment.”
As an advocate for funeral consumers and for choice, he believes that Natural Transitions serves an important role in the funeral marketplace.
“They give people the confidence to understand that death is not rocket science. It is something that you can own and participate in as a family — and it’s not weird to do so,” says Slocum.
Not weird at all, says Taryn Taylor. In fact, she says that those who dismiss the idea are not experiencing something that can be truly amazing. And she thinks that the prospect of this bill jeopardizing the existence of Natural Transitions is nothing less than tragic.
“People are missing out,” she says. “They’re missing out on the opportunity to have closure and a gift of love that they can give their family — that healing process that I’m so grateful for.”
Common Funeral Myths
1. Embalming is required by law. Embalming is NEVER required for the first 24 hours. In many states, it’s not required at all under any circumstances. Refrigeration is almost always an alternative to embalming if there will be a delay before final disposition.
2. Embalming protects the public health. There is NO public health purpose served by embalming. In fact, the embalming process may create a health hazard by exposing embalmers to disease and toxic chemicals. In some cases, disease can still be found in an embalmed body. A dead body is less of a threat to public health than a live one that is still coughing and breathing.
3. An embalmed body will last like the “beautiful memory picture” forever. Mortuary-type embalming is meant to hold the body only for a week or so. Ultimately, the body will decompose, even if it has been embalmed. Temperature and climate are more influential factors affecting the rate of decomposition.
4. Viewing is necessary for “closure” after a death. When the death has been anticipated, family members have already started their “goodbyes.” There is relatively little need to see the body to accept the reality of death. In fact, according to a 1990 Wirthlin study commissioned by the funeral industry, 32 percent of those interviewed found the viewing experience an unpleasant one for various reasons.
5. “Protective” caskets help to preserve the body. While gasketed caskets may keep out air, water and other outside elements for a while, the body will decompose regardless. In fact, a gasketed or “sealer” casket interferes with the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur. Fluids are released from the body as it begins to decompose, and the casket is likely to rust out from the inside.
6. “Protective” or sealed vaults help to preserve the body. Nothing the traditional funeral industry sells will preserve the body forever. If there is a flood, however, such vaults have popped out of the ground and floated away. (Mass graves after the plague in England were ultimately found to be without health problems, according to the 1995 British health journal Communicable Disease Report. Burial in containers, however, often kept the disease “encapsulated.”)
7. Vaults are required by law. NO state has a law requiring burial vaults. Most cemeteries, however, do have such regulations because the vault keeps the grave from sinking in after decomposition of the body and casket, reducing maintenance for the cemetery workers. Grave liners are usually less expensive than vaults. New York state forbids cemeteries from requiring vaults or liners, in deference to religious traditions that require burial directly in the earth. Those who have started “green” burial grounds do not permit vaults or metal caskets.
8. Vaults are required for the interment of cremated remains. Alas, with the increasing cremation rate, many cemeteries are making this claim, no doubt to generate more income. There is no similar safety reason as claimed for using a casket vault. Any cemetery trying to force such a purchase should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission for unfair marketing practices: 877-FTC-HELP.
9. What is left after the cremation process are ashes. When people think of “ashes” they envision what you’d find in the fireplace or what’s left over after a campfire. However, what remains after the cremation process are bone fragments, like broken seashells. These are pulverized to a small dimension, not unlike aquarium gravel.
10. Cremated remains must be placed in an urn and interred in a cemetery lot or niche. There is no reason you can’t keep the
cremated remains in the cardboard or plastic box that comes from the crematory. In ALL states it is legal to scatter or bury cremated remains on private property (with the landowner’s permission). Cremation is considered “final disposition” because there is no longer any health hazard. There are no “cremains police” checking on what you do with cremated remains.
11. It is a good idea to prepay for a funeral, to lock in prices. Funeral directors selling pre-need funerals expect the interest on your money to pay for any increase in prices. They wouldn’t let you prepay unless there was some benefit for the funeral home, such as capturing more market share or being allowed to pocket some of your money now.
—Courtesy of the Funeral Consumers Alliance
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