I was so excited to share our work with the community. Hopefully more and more families will know that home funerals are an option for them. Watch the video by clicking the link below!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.