How Do We Return Funerals Back Into The Home? The answer may be simple.

homeThis is the question I have been working on for the last six years. I was eight months pregnant when I left the funeral industry forever. That baby I was carrying is now six years old. Motherhood added a new perspective to everything I do, including giving me the drive to make social changes in America and making sure I raise children that do not fear death or life. Motherhood can also be isolating. With my background as a funeral director I knew I had a decent chance at getting people to not only let me tell my story, but to actually LISTEN and reflect on their own lives and one day deaths. But where to begin?

I cannot lie and say I woke up one day and said, “Today I am going to start a non-profit to educate on home funerals and green burials.” It took many years of telling myself “This is crazy” to “How can I NOT do this?” This internal bickering went back and forth until I met a wonderful group of woman who forever changed my life. At one of our monthly meetings I shared my work, my “heart song”. I did a mock workshop and “death cafe” and everything changed.  My dreams bloomed into reality in front of sisters. I received an unanimous “YES, DO this. NOW!”  One sister led me to a local non-profit that solely gets non-profits started, another volunteered her work as a graphic designer, three more volunteered to be board members and support this vision. This passion, my purpose that had been lurking in my heart and mind, was revealed and overnight was a reality.

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Community. That one word is the first thing I tell anyone interested in a home funeral. You must have community. Is that family? Is that close friends? Is that church members? Is it a sisterhood? It can be anyone, but you cannot have a successful home funeral without it. We all need support and that is where our traditional funerals are currently failing us (But more on that another day) If I did not find my community I would not be here today. Community is the golden answer.

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So how do we start the process of returning funerals back into the home? The first step is finding our communities again. We have become a society of “Do-It-Yourselfers” I guess even a Home Funeral can fit into that DIY box but we are so much more than that. Let’s begin with Step One : Meet your neighbors. This is a HUGE one and an easy place to start. I don’t know when or why people thought it was ok to move into a neighborhood and never meet their neighbors, but unfortunately this is becoming the norm. Our neighbors are our closest allies and when you show kindness, kindness is returned.

One of the saddest statistics with funerals these days is the amount of robberies that take place during a traditional funeral. Robbers search obituaries and wait until they know the families will be away at the funerals to rob them. What heartache for that family to go through. If you take the first step of meeting your neighbors you just instantly added a safe guard to your home and possibly a new friend. *Also, I will add, when you do have that Home Funeral in the future it is a good thing to have the neighbors know what is going on in your home not only for the support, but so we don’t get “nosey neighbor” syndrome where they find it in necessary to investigate, or worse, call the police. “Nothing illegal going on here officer, but thank you for causing some un-needed emotional distress during this sensitive time”


 I will continue writing on community because it is crucial to the work I do, but today please call a friend, visit a neighbor, join a weekly hiking group, or just say hello to a stranger. Our society needs to shift, we need to embrace love and support again. We can do many things by ourselves but death and dying should never be one of them. Let’s regain community!

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Why I Was a Sad Funeral Director

Being a funeral director is not easy,in fact, it is extremely stressful. I always referred to it as being a wedding planner with only 3-5 days to plan the whole wedding. I ordered flowers, made church arrangements, hired a pastor, ordered the casket or urn, made sure all the legal paperwork was filed, printed and folded service cards, it was enough to make your head spin, but that’s not why I was a sad funeral director.

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Almost everyday was a new family, a new story, a new tragedy. I understood that. What I didn’t understand was “How do I help them?” That may sound silly when the obvious answer is “Plan a memorial service that will help the family honor their memory.”  But during my 3 years as a funeral director working for a mega-corporation (Yes, you read that correctly, CORPORATION not a family business like you thought. There are still family run funeral homes but they are becoming more and more scarce.) I felt like I should do more, there SHOULD be more. When tragedy hits a family your truly get to see what makes a family, how their stories are weaved together. As a funeral director my duty was pretty basic, ask cremation or burial, get all the vital information for a death certificate and burial permit, plan a service (if the family even wanted one). Some days this was simple work : “Mom wanted to keep it simple, direct cremation, no service.”  Other days…”I don’t know we want, my seventeen year old son  shouldn’t be dead, I shouldn’t be sitting here. We have no money, how will we get through this?!” As different as the scenarios where both people felt pain, both wanted help, and both made me realize that something was amiss in our dealings with the dead.

Changes in myself and my funeral home started after I saw the documentary “A Family Undertaking”.  The film  introduces  families who are caring for their own dead and working through death. I saw families and communities come together and grieve and celebrate.  And that’s when fireworks went OFF IN MY BRAIN! That’s what I was missing. Community, tradition, celebration. Families came to me because they didn’t KNOW anything else. The “traditional funeral” had only been a tradition for the last 50 or so years. Before that it was the families, the neighbors, the church members who rallied around a family and helped care for those families and the deceased. It was beautiful, sacred and meaningful.  Something needed to change I knew this  with all my heart. And then something did change. I got pregnant with my first child.

 

Life is amazing and unexpected and then it ends. That’s the way it is and always will be. I left the funeral industry when I was 7 months  pregnant and never looked back. A seed had been planted in my heart, and a baby in my belly. As I began a life as a mother I also began my life as an advocate.  I knew the funeral industry was shifting. We had all seen rises in cremation, no services, the most inexpensive option. I knew that money was only a portion of the issue here. We as a society had forgotten our roots, our community was spread thin and fraying, and the heart and sacredness of caring for our dead loved ones had been passed onto complete strangers.

I had been that stranger, and even though my heart was there for those families, like most funeral directors, I was just a blip in their radar. A stranger who was chosen to help in this huge transition and then never to be heard from again. Just as birth is a momentous occasion that takes months of planning and months of recovery, so is death. But somewhere in the folds of time our society forgot. We decided death was unsanitary, it needed to be hidden and unseen, and when the time comes have a stranger take care of it and then try to move on as quickly as possible.

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Well, my beautiful friends, I am here to tell you this hasn’t been working. You may think it has but you don’t know what you have been missing.  There is a healing that comes from sitting with a dead body. There is a healing that comes with bathing and blessing that body. There is a healing that comes from celebrating a life lost with friends and community. And you don’t need a funeral home, a stranger, to do any of it. I am here, no longer as a stranger, but as an educator. To shift the American views on  death and caring for our dead. It can be a beautiful thing.

 

How I Overcame My Fear of Death with Love

 

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Before my first job, at Stout Family Funeral Home, I had a phobia of death and dying like many Americans. I would hold my breath when I drove past a cemetery or  quickly avert my eyes if I saw a hearse driving down the road. If I had to actually enter a cemetery I refused to get out of the car. At the age of 18  I was in tears shaking with utter fright sitting in a parked car while my friends explored an old cemetery. If me from the future told that 18 year old girl she would one day work with the dead I think she would have fainted on the spot! So how did I get here?

I was 20 years old and living in a small town in Southern California. The only funeral home was family owned and my boyfriend at the time was the apprentice embalmer.  One day he asked if I could “help out”. My chest clenched up and my palms began to sweat. Hesitantly I said yes, to what I thought would be a one time errand, little did I know my life would be forever changed.

My first job was simple enough: Drive this casketed body to the airport cargo area. I never saw the body or even the casket. The body had already been loaded in the back of the van. They gave me the authorized paper work and just like a UPS delivery man I was on my way. At the airport the cargo men unloaded the deceased for me and I drove back. I think I was smiling the whole way saying out loud I did it!! I did it!! I faced my fears and survived! Little did I know my next job wouldn’t be so simple.

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A few days before my 21st birthday I was asked to go to the hospital to pick up a body. After my first “dead body experience” at the airport I was feeling good. I had continued to help out at the funeral home the last few months typing death certificates, getting death certificates signed by doctors, working memorial services, ect., but none of that prepared me for these words, “Lauren, we have a still born we need you to pick up.”

Instant fear took over my body.  A baby!? How do I even do this!? The lump in my throat grew as my eyes well up with tears. And just as quickly as the tears started to come and the fear took over a calming voice came into my head, “Do this unthinkable act with love.”  As I sit here typing this I still get chills. It has been over 9 years and I can feel that moment and hear that voice.  I sucked up my tears and said, “Ok, I am ready.” With a baby you don’t take the gurney like you would for an adult. Some people put the baby in a box, I decided to bring  a blanket. When I arrived at the hospital I gave the nurse all the paper work so she could release this tiny baby into the funeral homes care.  She asked if I had anything to carry the baby in and I handed her the blanket. She gave me a sweet smile and walked down a hall.

As I stood waiting for the nurse to return all those old fear came rushing back. I felt weak in the knees, light headed, and that heavy heart feeling took over. “Breathe, Lauren, Breath, do this with love, don’t start crying now” I repeated this in my head over and over trying not to cry for what felt like half an hour. And then I saw her walking towards me with a wrapped up bundle. I took in a huge breath and held out my trembling arms. The nurse gently handed me  the baby and I walked out of the hospital quickly so not to be seen by others and just in case I started bawling my eyes out.

I hadn’t driven the van we usually used for “removals” because I wasn’t in need of the gurney. Instead I had driven my VW Jetta. As I pushed the button with one hand to unlock the car while holding this tiny baby in my other  I thought , “Where do you put a dead newborn in the front or back?” My analytical mind had taken over by this point, most likely to save me from my exploding heart. I placed the baby in the passenger seat. Safe and sound. I walked to the drivers side and sat in my seat. I looked over at this wrapped up buddle of somebodies lost dreams. I thought of how much someone loved this baby and what an honor I had been given to care for him in this moment. I started my car and Frank Sinatra voice  came on singing to me and the baby…..”Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moon beams home in a jar…”

I will never forget that day or the love I felt, or the fear I overcame. That was the beginning of my journey.  And I am thankful.

 

 

 

Embalming : A Quick History and Why You Don’t Need it!

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Here is a  brief history lesson on embalming in America: During the Civil War soldiers of the North were dying far from home and the families couldn’t bare the thought of their loved ones being buried in Southern soil (or so the stories go). Field Doctors began to practice techniques to preserve the bodies so they could be shipped back to their families for burials.  The techniques were primitive removing the blood and then using a cocktail  of alcohols to “pickle” the organs. This would kill the enzymes and slow down the natural decay of the body. The technique was modernized by Dr. Thomas Holmes(the “Father of Modern Embalming“) and used through out the war.  President Lincoln was the first president to be embalmed so his body could travel by train across the states, but after the war many people thought this procedure was invasive and unnecessary and embalming faded into the back burners until the 1920’s.

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During the 1920’s embalming became a thing of prestige. It was expensive and still very new but the families with the most money would hold grand funeral parties to show off their embalmed loved one in their home. The embalmer was still coming into the home and preforming the procedure (which, as someone who has seen quite a few embalming’s, finds it crazy to think about)  then the body would be laid out in the family room or parlor….didn’t you ever wonder why funeral homes are called funeral “homes” and have a “parlor/viewing room”??  During the next few decades the funerals homes took over what the families had been doing for hundreds of years making it a booming industry for casket makers, car companies, florists, and of course the embalmer.  Embalming fluid companies traveled the USA “certifying” funeral employees and the term embalmer became readily known and even a licensed profession thanks to boards (usually made up by prestigious  funeral homes).  The use of  “Propaganda” that an embalmed body is safer for the public because an un-embalmed body is full of disease and will spread germs also boosted the use of embalming procedure on the middle class American. Not surprisingly this was also the time when woman were being told that childbirth was dangerous and your baby could die and get sick if you had them at home so off to the hospitals they went. Both FASLE! (But that’s for another post.)

So what DOES embalming do? Quite simply it slows down the decomposition process. Yes, I said SLOWS, but you cannot stop decomposition it will happen eventually. Embalming fluid(formaldehyde)  is extremely hazardous. Embalmers where protective gear to not only protect themselves from blood borne pathogens but from the carcinogenic embalming fluid! This toxic fluid is pumped into a body for the purpose of a viewing (most funeral homes include embalming into service packages so even if there is no viewing embalming may be preformed) and then the body and all that toxic fluid is buried into the earth(along with a steel casket). That is roughly 827, 060 GALLONS of embalming fluid a year going into the earth!

Why don’t you need to embalm a body? Well to start it is not required by any state. There is no law anywhere that says you must be embalmed. Even for transportation on an airplane the body can be placed on dry ice in a special “traveling casket.” Many religions including Judaism and Muslim don’t allow embalming their dead as part of their religious traditions. The next reason? You can “preserve” a body for viewing using dry ice. It will slow down decomposition and give the body a more natural look because, hey, it is natural for a body to be un-embalmed anyway! And as a bonus you wont be adding to the pools of embalming fluid being added to the Earth.

I am just scratching the surface here. Planting seeds. Change is happening.  There is so much we don’t know because we have been so detached from death and dying in America. Each week I will do my best to enlighten you and hopefully you will take the information you learn and enlighten someone else, and so on and so on. Talk about it. Question your own beliefs on death and dying.  Thank you for being part of the change. And welcome to Returning Home.

 

You can do that!?!?

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This is the question I hear 9/10 times when I start sharing about Returning Home, “You can do that? I wish I knew this when my(fill in the blank) was dying.” Well that ladies and gentlemen is one of the reasons why I am here and why I have started this non-profit* To educate you and the community. So here I am today, giving a brief introduction to the sacred and traditional act of caring for our dead at home. What I do and what you can do too!

 Let me start by saying there are currently 8 states that require you MUST use a funeral director. Those 8 states are; Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York. This doesn’t mean you cannot have a home funeral it just means that the state requires you to make all your arrangements through a funeral home.  Here is a link to more information about your individual state and their rules and regulations. (CLICK HERE)

 In Colorado, where I am located, the family does have the right to care for their dead. Most states have a common requirement that the body of the deceased must be embalmed or refrigerated after 24 hours. For families at home the act of laying and packing dry ice around the body fulfills this requirement.

 The second thing that most people don’t know is that YOU, yes you, can fill out the information on death certificate to be signed by the doctor or coroner and file it yourself with the county health department. As a funeral director my first job would be asking families all the information required for a death certificate, full name, place of birth, parents names, date of death, ect. A funeral home is doing  this as a service (that you pay for) and is not required by law to preform. This is the same with the “Permit for Disposition” that is required for cremation or burial. You get the forms required from the county health department and you can fill them out yourself and file them for free! I will say that in all honesty it is a very simple thing to do but you can have some trouble tracking down a doctor to sign the death certificate and the health department LOVES to find mistakes and send it back. This can add extra headache if you don’t know exactly what information you need. But don’t worry that’s where I come in to help educate and guide your family through all the loop holes.

And finally, yes this is the end of my brief introduction, the cremation or burial. Currently in Colorado it is LEGAL to bury on property you own. When you file the Disposition Permit you must state whether the body is cremated or buried and the location that this will take place. Now remember that this is filed with your state so if you decided to sell your property in 15 years you are required to release to information to the buyer that “grandpa is buried in the backyard”  If you chose cremation there aren’t many states that legally let you “do it yourself” Colorado has a great community in Crestone that operates an outdoor funeral pyre (Find more information here) that is legal and unique in our state. Most funeral homes are happy to work with families to provide the cremation at a low cost as long as the families have the required paperwork.

 So at the beginning I said education was one of the reasons why I am doing what I am doing. There are two other reasons that I feel very strongly about and that is reconnecting with sacred traditions of caring for our dead and the care of our Mother Earth. But that is for another day.