Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Natural Burial at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

The following originally appeared in the Memphis (Missouri) Democrat:

This is Alline writing for Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

A team of five or so writers share authorship duties of this column, giving each of us the opportunity to “chat” with you every five weeks, and to share our perspective of life here on the prairie with its attendant joys, sorrows, challenges and triumphs. I usually find it so easy to write – I really enjoy this sort of communication, especially when I receive emails in return, or when I meet someone in town who says with a big smile “oh! I read your column in the paper!” So it is odd that I am having so much difficulty with today’s column.

Instead of the usual comings and goings I would like to write about what we’ve learned about natural burial and home funerals. It is not necessarily an easy topic, but the more I learn the more empowered I feel, and the more passionate I am about sharing it with others.

Before our friend and Dancing Rabbit member Tamar Friedner died while in hospice care in Massachusetts (where her immediate family lives) she requested to be buried here in Missouri. Her family agreed, and the Dancing Rabbit planning machine went to work. Nothing we did here was new. Instead, we found ourselves going back to the “old ways.” In doing so, we found catharsis, love, community bonding and a way of grieving that actually helped ease the pain.

This column is not a criticism of funeral homes or the work they do. We were helped tremendously by a funeral home in Massachusetts who prepared Tamar’s body for transport to Missouri, and our friends at Gerth and Baskett graciously answered many, many questions for us. Instead, it is an exploration of available choices of which the majority of Americans may be unaware.

Natural burial is a family or community-centered response to death and after-death care. Through many millennia, we cared for our dead within the context of the family or the community. Over the years we have gradually turned this care over to professionals, and by doing so, have lost many of the rituals and rites that help friends and loved ones say good-bye in ways that are deep and meaningful. We also often spend a lot more money than we need to.

Most state laws support the right of the family to care for their own departed. Depending on the specifics of each state’s law, families and communities may play a key role in:

• Planning and carrying out after-death rituals or ceremonies (such as laying out the deceased and home visitation of the body)
• Preparing the body for burial or cremation
• Filing of death-related paperwork such as the death certificate
• Transporting the deceased to the place of burial or cremation
• Facilitating the final disposition such as digging the grave in natural burial

Home funerals may occur within the family home or not. Some nursing homes, for example, may allow the family to care for the deceased after death. The emphasis is on minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally-friendly care of the body. This all blends well with the ethos here at Dancing Rabbit.

When friends heard that Tamar was to be buried here at DR we got some lovely, albeit inadvertently funny, phone calls. “Are you allowed to do that?” one friend whispered. “Won’t you all be arrested?” Others were certain that they would never be allowed to do as we were doing because “in Texas you have to be embalmed.” This is incorrect - one does not have to be embalmed in Texas, and we were not arrested. Contrary to popular belief, there is no law that states that a body must be embalmed. In most places in North America, the only reason you must embalm a body is if you are transporting it by plane. Traditional Jewish funerals do not involve embalming. Most people assume that undertakers somehow need to be involved in a funeral. But in all but eight states, that is not the case.

Because of space constraints I am not able to go into many details here; instead there will be several smaller, more manageable pieces. Included will be a bit more about our care of Tamar; learning more about burial on your own land; conservation burial, a more natural alternative for those who do not own land; shrouds, caskets and concrete vaults; and much more. We are also planning an article in The March Hare, Dancing Rabbit’s quarterly newsletter. If you are interested in receiving these articles, please email me at rabbitak at yahoo dot com and I’ll make sure you receive them. Additionally, if you have specific questions let me know and I'll try to cover them.

In the mean time, I leave you with some of the excellent resources in which we found guidance, reassurance and compassion. All of these resources will be discussed in greater depth in future articles.

Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson. An amazing compendium of everything you need to know about funerals, whether or not you plan to do it yourself. Includes state-by-state sections on laws regarding embalming, transport, etc.

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris. Harris discusses the ways in which Americans have shifted care of the dead out of the hands and homes of friends and family as he tours various burial options, from the most environmentally intrusive to the least.

Funeral Consumers Alliance A nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.

Final Passages Information on green and family-directed home funerals.

Home Funeral Directory