Home Burial: Death of the American way of death


Via the often fascinating Obit Magazine comes hope that the last (literally) of the great licensing/regulation hoodwinks may be coming to an end. Do-it-yourself funerals are clawing their way up from the graveyard of history. The movement is said to be fueled by the Economic Singularity and, according to consumer activist and Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love author Lisa Carlson, the same trends away from institutional control that have fueled natural birthing and the hospice movement:

Although numbers of home burials are not tracked, [Carlson] and others in the movement say they are fielding increasing numbers of inquiries about the diverse state laws, procedures, costs and psychological benefits of taking on tasks that, for decades, Americans have customarily contracted out to professionals.

In effect, these new home burials are pioneering a return to the past, notes the Rev. Lynn Acquafondata, a Pittsburgh, Pa., Unitarian minister who recently began "Final Journey Home" to assist families in conducting low-cost, in-home funeral services.

Acquafondata's rates begin at $75 for connecting families with resources, helping with paperwork and coaching on the process of laying out a family member. (Most estimates of the average funeral-home-directed service come in at between $7,000 and $8,000.)

But opposition is always stiff in the funeral business. In a phone call, Carlson gave me a rundown of the cozy patchwork of state regulations that prop up this whopping funeral cost. (According to Carlson, the average funeral cost in the U.K. is $1,650; in France, $2,200; in Australia, $2,100.) Six states—Michigan, Louisiana, Indiana, New York, Nebraska, and Connecticut still require that death certificates only be filed by licensed funeral directors.

The Federal Trade Commission also allows funeral directors to charge a non-declinable basic service fee of more than $1,000—which Carlson claims is the only industry given this prerogative by the FTC. So you're on the hook for a grand, even if you don't actually buy the funeral home's other services. "The average funeral home in the U.S. does two funerals a week," said Carlson.

Even in states with looser regulation, DIYers have to watch out for presumed regulation that doesn't actually exist. "I've run into all kinds of problems with hospitals refusing to release a body to family members with no cause," says Carlson. "Why in God's name would they release a living person to his family, but not a dead body?" (Most state health departments require a permit to move remains, and in many cases hospital staffers are authorized to issue a permit in case you die on a weekend, which you should try to avoid doing.)

Acquafondata, in a phone interview, notes that there is also a range of transit permitting, with some areas allowing movement of a body from a hospital to a final resting place, but not to a home. (About half of Americans die in hospitals.) Acquafondata quotes a Pennsylvania Vital Records official who told her that funeral homes have "gotten out of the habit" of bothering with permits but are always assumed to be authorized for final-resting-place transport.

Services like Acquafondata's and organizations like the Funeral Consumers Alliance won't pry open that death grip of licensing and overlapping regulations, but they can expose the bogus rationales for overpricing. Filling out a death certificate is "no more complicated than filling out a 1040," Carlson said. "It really burns my gizzard."