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This has not been published. It’s hard to get editors interested in this “unpleasant subject”–but the information here is so important!
A little before dawn on October 24th, my neighbor Sarah Hotchkiss faced the realization of her worst nightmare: her beloved husband Ted had just died. Although he was 75, he had not been in poor health, so she had no warning.
But Sarah didn’t sit in that candle-lit house (the Hotchkiss’ had no electricity) wondering what to do. I had taken a class on Death and Dying a couple of years earlier, and learned that in West Virginia it’s legal to bury your own dead, on your own land, without embalming or hiring a funeral director. This made a lot of sense to me, and I’d talked to Ted and Sarah about it. Eventually Sarah had insisted on discussing the details with Ted. He had not wanted to focus on the subject, she says.
“I said, ‘Teddy, let’s just pretend for a few minutes that you’re mortal,’” she says wryly, “‘so we can talk about this.’” They chose a burial spot and agreed that there would be no embalming, no cremation, no autopsy or funeral home for either of them.
These conversations were a great help to Sarah on October 24th. She didn’t know how she would get through the rest of her life without Ted, but at least she knew what she had to do to deal with his death.
Many of us have the same reluctance to talk (or think) about death that Ted exhibited. But it is not optional. Every one of us will have to die someday, and most of us will have to cope with the death of a loved one at least once first. While we can’t opt out of it, though, we have more options than most people realize when it comes to how we deal with it.
There is a common myth—indeed, it’s nearly universal—that the use of embalming and a funeral home are legally mandated. Actually, there are only a few states that have laws which could be construed as denying you the right to bury your loved ones on your own land without cremation—and in some of these the situation is ambiguous. If you live in Connecticut, Indiana, or Illinois, you should be able to argue successfully that you do have the right to take care of your own loved ones after death—but you might have to do some arguing, perhaps with the help of a lawyer. Only Louisiana, Nebraska and New York clearly deny you the right. Some states say burial must be in a “designated cemetery.” Local zoning ordinances must be checked anywhere.
Each state has its own laws on such details as how you must fill out the death certificate, and perhaps a permit to move the body; some require filing a map of the cemetery with a state or local official. There is too much variation to cover all this in one article. Fortunately there is an excellent book on the subject, Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson. There is a separate chapter covering the laws of each state, as well as stories of people who’ve made the choice to do it themselves, and of groups that have formed to provide cheaper and more meaningful funerals for their members (usually congregations). Carlson discusses the history and myths of embalming, gives advice on buying a casket, and explains organ donation and cremation. There is also plenty of advice for those who prefer to have a funeral director but don’t want to get ripped off. This book is available in most libraries.
You may be wondering why you should go to all this trouble. At a time of great emotional distress, why not just let an experienced professional “take care of everything”?
First of all, that route will cost you several thousand dollars. Embalming chemicals, furthermore, are not good for the environment. But more importantly, taking care of your loved one yourself, with the help of other family and friends and neighbors, is a satisfying experience that can speed your grief process. According to Chris Sonneman, a pediatric oncology and hospice nurse who has a chapter in Taking Care of the Dead, “those parents who handle all funeral arrangements themselves seem to heal more quickly. The hands-on experience brings an inner peace in spite of their loss.” Of course, this is just one person’s opinion, but after Ted’s death, I believe it.
Ted and Sarah had lived in this rural area for twenty years. They were part of the community. They’d been members of a meditation group for years, had recently joined a little dinner club, and Sarah had founded a garden club. She’d also joined a writers’ guild.
People from all these groups came by that day, most bearing food. This would have happened even had she hired a funeral home, of course. But when all of your neighbors come to dig a grave, including three who had to cancel work and two who took the day off school, there is a sense of community support that goes way beyond the usual “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” When a friend drops everything to build a coffin, you know you are not facing the future alone. Sarah said she felt she’d been “floated through the day on the caring of all those people.”
Because Ted had no history of heart trouble, the coroner said the sheriff would have to do an investigation, including examining the body. Unfortunately, the sheriff happened to be in court all that day. By the time the investigation was complete and Ted was in the box, it was dark, and a storm was threatening. But when we climbed the hill and came around the last curve before the Hotchkiss’ house, we found fifty people waiting, many bearing candles. I have never been able to put into words what I felt at that moment, but it still brings tears to my eyes, and I know the others felt it too. Sarah said later that she felt like the wife of a chieftain, being escorted to his state funeral.
We all walked to the grave we’d dug; someone had put up tiki lights, and someone had put a wreath on the mound of topsoil at the head of the grave. As the box was carried over and lowered on a stout rope, people began singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace.” Someone from the meditation group had printed copies of a Buddhist prayer, and we all read it aloud together. Sarah threw the first handful of dirt into the grave, and then others set to work with the shovels. There were many more people than needed, but I had a great urge to lay hands on a shovel myself. Somehow, participating in the physical act of burial tied me into the symbolic closure of the community around this hole that had suddenly opened in our midst. And burying Ted in the same way people have done it for thousands of years seemed to connect us with all those people, with our own ancestors, with the whole cycle of birth and death…a most comforting feeling.
Sure, Sarah could have hired someone to “take care of everything.” (I don’t know where she’d have gotten the money, but never mind that.) But why pay money, lots of it, to have a stranger right in the middle of a community trying to come together around its loss? A funeral director is an obstruction as artificial as the cherry tree “blooming” in the place where we waited for the investigation to be over. Further, the American way of death is predicated on an unhealthy denial of death. Most of us expect that the soul lives on in some fashion– but of what use is it to protect the body from the normal decomposition process, through use of a ridiculously solid, fantastically expensive coffin?
Most deaths are not as unexpected as Ted’s, but any of us could find ourselves in Sarah’s place at any time. It’s a great idea to be prepared, first by researching the laws of your own state (and possibly others…where your parents live, for example) and then by discussing with your loved ones what your wishes are…and theirs. Would you prefer burial, organ donation, cremation? What kind of funeral? If you have agreement on these matters now, the survivor will not have to make decisions on that difficult day.
Months passed. Trees were budding around Ted’s grave, as Sarah and I visited it in the spring.
“None of us had ever dug a grave before, or built a casket or created a funeral,” she commented. “But we did it together, and it changed us. People saw the importance of community.”
That October day was a time of great pain, but it was also a time of great beauty. Death is a great dark gateway, an opportunity for transformation. It can be such an opportunity for the survivors as well as the one who walks through it, if you dare to touch it directly… if you demand the right to do it your own way.