Opal John was born at home, as were all her siblings. The family has a farm in rural Wisconsin, and they proudly live as self-sufficiently as possible. The children were all home-schooled. In her early twenties, reflecting on home births, Opal wondered if home funerals were also possible. She had never heard of it, but she knew how to start researching her question. At the library she found the book "Final Rites: Reclaiming the American Way of Death," by Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson, through which she learned that indeed home funerals were not just possible but legal in all 50 states. She learned that in Wisconsin, the involvement of a funeral director was not required at all.
Some time passed. Then came the day in late summer 2017 when her mother, who had avoided doctors as much as she could, was in so much pain she ended up at the hospital. The diagnosis was cancer, and she was given four weeks to live. Opal and the rest of her family were overwhelmed with shock and grief. Opal was the bee keeper on the farm, and it was harvest season, but she knew immediately that she was going to be the one to take care of her mother during her illness.
She also knew they were going to have a home funeral for her. It felt right to her. Through some searching on the internet, Opal found the National Home Funeral Alliance website. In one of the directories, she discovered that there was a death midwife/home funeral guide named Sharon Stewart who lived close to her. On the phone, Sharon said she had helped many families with home funerals, and that said she would help as much or as little as Opal needed.
As it turned out, Opal didn’t need much help. She and Sharon met exactly twice - both times in the parking lot of the gas station between their homes. The first time, Sharon brought blank copies of all the paperwork Opal would need. The second time, Sharon simply looked over the filled-out paperwork to make sure everything was correct, and made sure Opal knew where and how to turn the forms in.
Opal’s mother lived for nine more weeks. During that time Opal was at her bedside night and day, caring for her. When she told her siblings and her father about her plans for a home funeral, some of them were skeptical or fearful. But when the time came and her mother died, the power and the beauty of having the matriarch of the family there at home was undeniable. Each of the siblings who had expressed some doubt about having a home funeral eventually made their way back into the bedroom to say their goodbyes, then later said how incredibly grateful they were they had had that opportunity. Opal’s husband and brothers build a beautiful, simple pine coffin. After two days they carefully loaded their mother’s coffin onto the flatbed truck and drove to the cemetery. There was a beautiful family-led graveside ceremony.
The most daunting part of the process had most certainly been the paperwork, but the fact that Sharon had been there to provide it and walk her through it made the home funeral doable. Also, Opal had an unexpected ally in the hospice workers who had been coming out to her home. When her mother died, the hospice social worker was the one who chased down the doctor for his signature on the death certificate.
When Opal went to turn in copies of the paperwork to the County Vital Records office, the staff told her she wasn’t allowed to do it herself. It had to be a funeral director. But Opal knew her rights. She stood her ground and told them to check the rules again. It took half an hour but they eventually apologized and accepted the papers.
Opal and her family exemplify the best of the American spirit: hard-working, self-sufficient, and willing to figure things out. A return to the traditional way of caring for our own dead made sense to them. The goodbye that they said to their mother and wife was still excruciating, but there was so much comfort in providing the after-death care themselves. It also resulted in a funeral that cost less than $1,000 for everything - a far cry from the typical $10-$12,000 funerals we spend on average. About the experience, Opal said, “It taught me that I was stronger than I knew, and also that I was more fragile than I knew.”
There was a time. a long stretch of time - in American history, where the home funeral was the de facto choice for death care. Of course we would hold a wake and a funeral in our parlor - where else are we going to do it? But that changed. As it so often does in America, Capitalism won out and enterprising folks figured out how to turn a funeral into a profit-generating business. Tools and options that were originally created for the greater good turned into nickle-and-dime profiteering and misinformation. After all, before it was seen as a toxic and likely unnecessary add-on, embalming was created to give families a chance to see their loved one lost in war one last time, and that is certainly a noble goal for civil war scientists.
In either case, as time passed, home funerals were relegated to the fringe. The greater culture decided that death was a morbid thing better left to the professionals, and we began a slow march into a society that wants to lock us out of sight in nursing homes as soon as we show signs of serious age or visible illness, not addressing death at all outside of a few hours spent in a too-warm church while someone comments that "they did a good job, she looks like she's sleeping."
The home funeral movement has always felt a little punk rock - a little outside the mainstream. It has always felt small - one voice in the storm. And then the movement grew. And then it grew some more. And more. Other groups grew with us, adding their own voices and perspectives. The Funeral Consumer Alliance (which has always felt like our older sibling organization to me) has exploded as the voice for honesty, transparency, and law in the funeral industry. The Order of the Good Death helped birth the Death Positive movement - while the NHFA gives voice to the reclamation of lost tradition and a return to natural care, they give voice to a whole new generation more concerned with art and change and cultural acceptance. There are dozens more - The National End of Life Doula Alliance, the Green Burial Council, hundreds of individual advocates and protesters and legislators...
The "Traditional American Funeral Industry" writes about home funerals and understands the need to incorporate changing cultural norms if they want to keep customers coming back generation after generation. The idea of caring for your own dead has sprung up in Netflix series and in mainstream film. The histories of death care that felt so forgotten just a few years ago are now common knowledge.
That's an incredible thing, but it also presents new challenges to an organization like ours. There is a common Chinese saying that is typically attributed to Zen master Ryutan: "Empty your cup."
When people are already walking around full of knowledge, when their cup is full, it's hard to add more. The cup overflows, and some knowledge is lost. So the Zen teaching is to empty your cup - forget all of the knowledge and memory that is filling up your cup and prepare yourself to accept new knowledge as an empty vessel. I'm not a Zen master, but you get the idea.
What we're facing right now is a country of people walking around with full cups. People who have "learned" through TV and movies and stories that the dead are scary and gross and unhealthy. They've learned that home funerals exist, but also that they're weird and can upset your entire family. They "know" that talking about death is cool, but only if you wear black dresses and hang out in cemeteries and good folks that play football in high school just don't do that kind of thing. When you're part of a fringe movement, you're starting from zero - it's easy to educate people that are coming in with no expectations.
Now, in this more mainstream place, the home funeral movement needs to work to cut through the misconceptions and misrepresentations that our mainstream status has brought along. Getting people to talk about home funerals was step one - now all of us need to focus on making sure home funeral conversations are rooted in love and understanding. We need to show, through example, what home funerals are really about.
Blogs published on the NHFA Blog represent the views of their original authors, and not necessarily the view of the NHFA as an organization. Unless otherwise indicated, these blogs should be considered opinion pieces, and should not be considered legal, medical, or direct advice.