Home funerals

Todd Van Beck's picture

The final requiem for the old traditional home funeral appears historically to have come to a temporary conclusion right around the time I started working in funeral service – the 1960s.

I worked on many home funerals, and I need to say this right away that I never worked so hard in my life as when I was working on a home, a residential funeral.

It is one thing to do a funeral in a funeral home, mortuary, undertaking parlor, church, lodge hall, but honestly it is a totally different animal to do a funeral out of a private residence.  Work, work, work, work, work, work ... And surprise after surprise.

It seemed to me that everything including the kitchen sink had to be taken to the home.  You name the funeral equipment and we set it up, and then we tore it down.  We often times had to engage the services of a carpenter to take out a window so we could push the casket through the opening when the door was not wide enough.  Then we would have the carpenter put the window back in, and then have the carpenter come back to once again take the window out so we could remove the remains, and then put the window back in.  It was a ton of work.

I can totally understand why the “old timers” who had spent years lugging funeral equipment all over the place were so supportive, and nay overjoyed when the public embraced the notion of funerals being done out of the funeral home.  However it appears that history might be repeating itself once again.

I just finished reading a horribly boring article published in “The Christian Century Magazine” by Ms.  Holly Stevens (a self-proclaimed funeral consumer advocate, where does one study that subject?) entitled “A Family Undertaking, Caring for Our Dead.”

The article just rehashed the old negative hash concerning our profession like Lisa Carlson has done for years and Ms. Carlson seemingly made a living doing so.  However one new twist with Ms. Steven’s work was that she refers to us undertakers as “commercial morticians.”  I had not heard that one before.  “What do you do for a living, Todd?”  “Why I am a commercial mortician I make commerce from death, and do mortician commercials on TV, or something.”  Snappy title – “Commercial Mortician.”  The only one I have run into that was snappier was the funeral director in Omaha who used to refer to embalmers as “Preservative Surgeons.”  That one was a little much, I thought but his families seemed to like the title.

Looking back today and after reading Ms. Steven’s boring article I have to say that I think home funerals are a good thing.  They were certainly a back breaker, but I always thought they had tremendous value, and I think that we should seriously consider a return to the good old days, and offer them again.  I think this is a true possibility and with all the other services, accessories, bells and whistles we are offering, why not a home funeral package?

Ms. Steven’s article is really not worth reading for those of us insiders who are active as “commercial morticians.”  Same old stuff, but the idea of the home funeral I really do believe is worth a revisit and further consideration.

Here are some of the advantages that I gleaned from working on home funerals.

  • Everybody from the funeral home was highly visible in sight of the families we were serving.  Have you ever considered just how much of our work is actually invisible to the family?  Poof here is the dead body, poof here is a register book, poof here are folding chairs, and say where did that funeral coach come from?  Home funerals we worked and people saw us in action.
  • It was comfortable.  Even if it was crowded, it was comfortable.  Not that the funeral home is not comfortable, but this environment was like the “Walton’s.”
  • People knew where things were.
  • People could cook, eat, take a nap, just be themselves.
  • It gave us an invaluable opportunity to bond with our clients, much different than the more formal funeral home environment.
  • The family was surrounded by their memories.
  • People visiting the family actually visited, it was so much more informal.
  • The funeral home was able to provide extra little things which the families seemed to appreciate so much.  I remember one home funeral during the winter and my boss made me scoop the snow from the sidewalks around the family home. The family was so thankful.
  • There were no hours at a home funeral.  People could easily sit up all night with the deceased, which offered many more opportunities for private thought and meditation than when the more formal mortuary closes at 9:00 p.m.
  • In a very real sense everybody from the funeral home was much more intertwined with the neighborhood and community than at the formal mortuary.  I remember being sent out to an outstanding Italian restaurant to get carry out while working on a home funeral.  My, oh my, was that good food, and had we not been working at the family home I would never ever have found out about that culinary secret.  
  • Every home funeral we conducted was a full service funeral.  However I can well imagine that many families who choose alternative options might well be interested in having the urn or whatever memorialization accoutrements on display at their residence.

I have even thought that funeral homes could well in the future offer a “Do It Yourself Funeral Kit” for families that do not want the funeral home represented at the memorial service.  The kit would include everything needed for a memorial service, a register book, folders, flower card envelope, pens, etc. and even a instruction sheet and check off sheet to make sure they have gotten all the bases covered, and this kit could easily sell for $500, which could easily make up the profits on a lost never ever going to happen casket sale.  It is just an idea.

Certainly the movement back to the home funeral will probably not become a national fad, however there are rumblings about it, and these days any rumblings concerning funerals ought to capture everyone’s attention. How about offering an additional type of unique service – the old fashioned home funeral package - that could be put on the GPL and offered to the community?  Crazy, right?  Too far out of the box right? You gotta be kidding right?  No I am serious; I think we ought to explore the possibilities.

I think I would rather see and I believe it would benefit the future of this great profession if the funeral home came up with the “Home Funeral” package and offered it to the public instead of before say the Ms. Stevens of the world, who clearly dislike “Commercial Morticians” but advocate home funerals.  We ought to beat people like that to the punch.

Oh, by the way Ms. Stevens has published a book entitled “Undertaken with Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities,” published by the Home Funeral Committee Manual Publishing Group.  You can look at her stuff at homefuneralmanual.org.

For some unknown reason am thinking at this moment that I never ever thought Wal Mart would be selling caskets. 

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.  TVB