Home funerals, until a generation or two ago, were commonplace in the United States and still are elsewhere in the world.
Interest is rekindling these days. And this weekend, a Helena workshop on the topic by Merilynne Rush, of Ann Arbor, Mich., drew about 20 participants, from students to retirees.
For some, it’s the economics that’s a deciding factor, Rush said. It costs $2,000 or less for a home funeral, compared to the $8,000 or more cost of a conventional funeral.
For others, a home funeral is the most meaningful way to care for their dying loved one.
“I want families to know they can care for their own dead and it can be a healthy and healing thing to do,” Rush said. “I want to work against the fear — the sense that it’s morbid, or gross to sit with your loved one after they died.
“We’ve lost the art for caring for our own dead — so we’re afraid of it.”
Rush began learning about home funerals five years ago. She got training in 2009 and has assisted with a dozen so far. Sharing stories and pictures of the families she worked with, she said, because “They want to share the message it’s been healing for them.”
Helena artist Suzy Holt, who was one of the workshop organizers, held a home funeral for her husband, Martin Holt, in September 2011. She wants others to know a home funeral is an option in Montana.
“We did it (the home funeral) because Martin wanted it done that way and I was able to find out how to do it and get help from friends,” said Holt.
She followed the steps outlined in the film, “A Family Undertaking.”
“(The home funeral) turned out to be a very intense, profound and enriching experience, which allowed for loving participation by friends and relatives over the three days he was at home,” Holt said. “And I think, in retrospect, it has really assisted my own grieving process because I had enough time to say goodbye and to experience his leaving.”
Among the friends attending Martin’s funeral were Richard and Penny Swanson, who participated in this weekend’s workshop.
“Being friends with Martin and Suzy, it just seemed like something I’d like to do for myself or someone I loved,” said Richard. “Just learning to say goodbye to someone without the intervention of an institution.
“I’d never been to anything like it until Martin and Suzy’s. It just felt it had so much more closure. Instead of putting on a suit and going to a strange place that was so unlike the person.”
While he figures he has another 20 or more years in his own life, Swanson thought, “I’d better just go and be better prepared.”
Planning ahead is key, Rush said.
Some of the things to address are knowing your rights and whom to call at the time of death.
Family members need to discuss what’s involved in home funerals and have the tasks spelled out.
The correct legal paperwork needs to be filled out at the time of death by a doctor, a coroner or funeral home director.
Rush also talked about natural burial, sometimes called green burial. Primarily it refers to burial without a cement vault, no use of embalming chemicals and no use of nonbiodegradable materials.
Green burials are already an option in Montana through Dahl Funeral Home in Bozeman and Natural Cemeteries in Swan Lake, Rush said.
Young people, who grew up doing recycling and composting, get the idea of green burial immediately, Rush said. She predicts that this burial option will be commonplace in the future.
Holt hopes the workshop proves a catalyst. “My hope is that … a small group of people who have learned through this workshop what is possible and its value will continue to work together in the future to educate others to the intrinsic value of taking care of our own after death.”