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Notes From a Home Funeral

It felt intensely natural to take matters into our own hands this way. American families had conducted their own funerals for hundreds of years. When had our loved ones been taken from us by the institutionalization of death?
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"What funeral plans have you made?"

I looked across at Peter. His face wrecked by grief. Eyes like bullet holes.

He shook his head heavily.

"We were going to beat this thing."

His wife, Vicky, lay a few feet away in the guest room, with windows open to the snow. The cancer in her lungs had ripped through her body with vengeance, while Peter had juggled the house, the mortgage, the increasingly-neglected dog, his work as a muralist, and a running tab of "alternative" treatments when the insurance-covered medical options had dried up. The cost of hope had run high.

I'd arrived at their bungalow home in Paradise, Butte County, California, one month earlier from my home in India, and saw my old friend through the last days of her life. Peter and I had been living on two hours sleep a night and enormous quantities of apple pie and ice cream supplemented by the offerings of gentle-faced strangers, who would turn up at the front door with legions of homemade vegetable pies and lasagna. The owner of a local grocery had knocked half off Peter's last shopping bill, which had left him sobbing with gratitude in the parking lot. We found out later that he'd lost his own wife to cancer just one year before.

Now we stood in the kitchen with his neighbor, Sandra. The house still warm from the embers of last night's fire glowing in the grate.

"Have you heard of home funerals?" Sandra asked.

Home birth, home schooling, yes. But home funeral? It had the ring of the frontier about it. Peter had lived with his wife at home, when she fell ill he had looked after her at home, and she had died at home. The idea of now passing her into the hands of strangers didn't sit right.

"Is it legal?" I asked.

It was. Minnesota and Utah tried to ban home funerals but local advocates for the cause won the day. Seven states require that a funeral director be involved at some point, but that's just to sign the death certificate. No state requires that the body be embalmed. And it's not necessary to be a licensed mortician to transport a body. A casket is not actually required by law. And it's not illegal to prepare the body of your own loved one for burial or cremation.

Sandra had just done a workshop on home funerals. This would be her first "real" one. Was he comfortable with that? Peter nodded. Looking back on it, I marvel at how trusting we were. We had spent the last few weeks holed up in the bungalow while blankets of snow arranged themselves around is in a protective cocoon. We had been operating from a potent mix of exhaustion and adrenaline -- focused like lasers on the care and comfort of his wife and my best friend. We were both deep into instinct by this time. Finding our way through all the projections about death that keeping us from the core state of what it means to stay in touch with the process.

Sandra began to explain what a home funeral entailed. I'd been looking into the cost of a funeral and all told it was going to rack up to over $6,000 -- money Peter didn't have. A home funeral would cost closer to $200. What did it involve? First, we needed to prepare the body ourselves -- do all the things that the morticians would normally take care of to ensure that the body remained as stable as possible. We were lucky it was the heart of winter. We needed to buy a coffin. The cheapest was made of cardboard and cost $40. Vicky loved the natural world, so a simple "green" coffin would have suited her fine. We began to make the arrangements.

It felt intensely natural to take matters into our own hands this way. American families had conducted their own funerals for hundreds of years. When had our loved ones been taken from us by the institutionalization of death? Sure it was scary. But if she could look stage four cancer in the face, we could keep our eyes on her and the shadow she cast, the spectre of our own inevitable demise.

Sandra called the county coroner and explained that we were going to take care of Vicky's body ourselves. She arranged for the funeral director to sign a form allowing for Vicky's body to remain in a private residence. We were constantly told, "Nothing like this has ever happened around here before," but Sandra was persistent. And when we carefully explained the reasons for why we why were doing it, every single person responded with respect. The police officer who came to check up after the death was reported had first seemed suspicious. He stood looking like a recruitment poster -- tall, buff and handsome -- in front of the wood fire that we had kept at a slow burn for the past 30 days and stiffly asked us to collect all of Vicky's medicines for disposal (including numerous vials of morphine). He questioned the legality of keeping a dead body in the house. When Peter insisted that we were not doing anything illegal, he asked.

"Why do you want to do it this way?"

Peter's answer was clarity itself. "Because it's no one else's business."

The officer stepped outside to call his supervisor. When he returned his demeanor had changed. Accepting my offer of a cup of tea, he admitted that he had never heard of such a thing, but that we could count on him to help us in any way he could. He then personally called the funeral director and told her, "Take care of these people."

We dressed Vicky in her favorite dress, placed her in the cardboard coffin and invited her friends to gather at the house. Vicky was an artist, and her coffin became a canvas upon which everyone painted their memories of her. Kids drew flowers and handprints, a pair of red shoes.

When it was over, five of us carried the now brightly-painted casket out the door, put it in Peter's van, drove to the crematorium and together with her dog stood next to the incinerator and witnessed her final passage. Back in India, two months earlier I had seen an old man who had died in the night being carried to the cremation ground by his two best friends. I remember at the time thinking how right this seemed, and how such intimate fellowship around death could never happen in modern-day America. But I was wrong.

A home funeral costs a fraction of the price of "normal" funerals. But it is also a life-changing experience. There is a strength and dignity that comes with taking back that noble responsibility within our own families and communities. And something that at first seems unlikely begins to occur. When we say "no" to outsourcing death, we have more courage to say "yes" to life.

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