Undertaken with good intentions, but ...

Todd Van Beck's picture

I ordered and just finished reading the publications “Undertaken With Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities,” written by a seemingly nice group of people – Donna Belk, Margalo Eden, Gere B. Fulton, Wendy Lynons, Joyce Mitchell, Holly Stevens. This manual was accidentally brought to my attention several weeks ago when I stumbled upon an article by self-appointed “funeral expert” Holly Stevens. (I had never heard of her in my life.)

Once again I am stumped at what these self-appointed funeral reformers are trying to accomplish. This do-it-yourself funeral manual, like all the rest, starts out with the funeral horror story, and usually it is one distressing incident that the funeral reformers band together around and create a mutual exaggerated mission that funeral directors need to be muzzled and funeral homes need to be—well, they ought not to make too much money, that’s for sure!

For over one half century the anti funeral reformers battle cries have always been the same, money, funeral directors are crooks and in reality you really don’t need a funeral director/embalmer.

The high expectations that their beloved Federal Trade Commission Rule would finally accomplish the moral self-appointed task of muzzling undertakers, and making sure the undertaker and his/her family did not make a living did not work, in fact the Funeral Rule accomplished just the opposite by driving the costs of a funeral higher and hence neutralizing the funeral reformers main goal.

Now what should we do, the anti-funeral people, licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves asked? If a federal rule backfired on us in a major way what should we do? So once again they regrouped (remember Nietzsche – a mutual object of hate is a powerful motivator for people to band together) and came up with a highly original idea: “Let’s teach people how to do their own funerals—the do-it-yourself funeral program.

Yes, the do-it yourself funeral program—it is fun and easy, and costs hardly anything and you don’t need that pesky undertaker running around.

To this end, the ever present Lisa Carlson (who is a terribly bright person) wrote the blockbuster book “Caring for Your Own Dead” in I believe 1987, published by Upper Access Publishers, in Hinesburg, Vermont.  Even the goddess of death Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proclaimed in her quote on the cover of the book, “I love the idea.” What an endorsement!

Of course even with her endorsement we all knew even in the late 1980s that Dr. Kubler-Ross was not herself, and even my mentor, professor and friend Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson, who knew and worked with Kubler-Ross told me straight out in a conversation during this period, “I worry about Elisabeth.” However an endorsement is an endorsement and it is still high risk behavior to say anything remotely uncomplimentary to Dr. Kubler-Ross, so I will leave that one alone.

I have all the editions of Carlson’s book in my library and I have to confess that the work she did of ferreting out all the myriad state laws concerning disposition of the dead is extremely impressive and I use her book as a quick reference tool constantly. Thank you, Lisa, job well done—better you waded through the swamp of state laws than I.

So there we are. For a little over twenty years the doing-it-yourself funeral idea has been roaming around looking for a home.

Now another attempt by the self-appointed funeral reformers has been made.

The manual I just finished reading is simply paper with the same old information that Ms. Carlson put together years ago with some nice additional art work, which I thought were excellent examples of modern art.

The table of contents is predictable. Titles like “At Life’s End,” “Then and Now,” “Finding the Law,” “With Our Own Hands,” “Setting Out Together,” and finally “Down This Path.” The manual ends with online resources. The titles basically reflect the contents of the chapters. For instance the one called “At Life’s End” covers the dos and don’ts when someone dies at home. The chapter “Finding the Law” is self-explanatory—in  other words the writers warn that the do-it-yourselfers should find out the law so no one gets in trouble with the sheriff and/or the state.

Peppered throughout the chapters are readings, verses, group and individual assignments which really reminded me of the lovely Quaker Meetings that I have attended in my life. Beautiful sentiments, kindness, love and gentleness abounding with open arms and open hands. I love that kind of sentimental prose and poetry and want to thank the writers for including such beautiful thoughts—Good Stuff.

Naturally a few of the contributors appear innocently to be self-proclaimed funeral historians and attempt to cover the segment of funeral service history, embalming, undertaking during the time period of the American Civil War. Trust me folks, these obviously really nice people have not got a clue concerning that particular period in funeral service history, not a clue.

The writers also strongly suggest that the do-it-yourself funeral disciples read the Funeral Rule of the Federal Trade Commission and understand it. Yeh, sure, my 85 year old mother in Iowa is going to study and understand the General Price List? Yeh, sure! Also these writers say the FTC rule does not apply to home funerals. Possibly they are right, possibly not—this issue has not really been tested, but I suspect if the do-it-yourself funeral movements gets a real foothold, the FTC will have something to say as they have something to say about everything, and they probably will not be saying “no regulations for you, do-it-yourself funeral people.”

Now to be fair, we all know that in only a few states is the involvement of the funeral home required. Of course the liberating fact of all this is that funeral homes and undertakers were involved with community deaths long before any laws were enacted, let alone enforced. Funeral service IS NOT dependent on laws, funeral service is dependent on relationship-building in communities.

Clearly the writers are people of convictions, and for the layperson reading this manual, the unfortunate danger lurks in the distinct possibility that these funeral reformist might just be mistakenly perceived by, say my 85 year old mother, as knowing what they are talking about. However, I have seen convictions, firmly held life-long convictions, simply evaporate in the face of a life crisis, such as the death of a significant person. If funeral directors deal with anything, it is crisis after crisis.

Here is an example of firmly held convictions vanishing in the midst of trauma which involved the services and presence of funeral directors. There was a time when funeral homes operated the emergency ambulance service, and here is the case study.

A man in Omaha was cutting a limb off a tree and he was sitting on the end of the limb that he was trying to cut off. In short order the branch broke and down he went and when he hit the ground he suffered a compound fracture to his left femur. A neighbor saw him fall and called the Omaha Police Department and called our funeral home for the ambulance. When we arrived this man was howling with pain.

A crowd had gathered and in the midst of this drama a woman came running out of the next house screaming that we should not touch him, nor help him, they did not need us, in fact she told us to go home. She explained that the man was a member of a religion that denied medical treatments under all conditions, and that all we needed to do was to assist this gentleman into his house—they would take it from there. She was clear that the funeral home ambulance was not needed.

Folks, this man’s femur was sticking out of his leg and the police and we were trying to move this man up his front steps, through his front door and lay him on his sofa.  He screamed bloody murder throughout the entire ordeal, and I was psychologically frazzled and started thinking that I ought to have become a fireman instead of a funeral home ambulance man.

My boss and I got back in the ambulance, and as we drove down the street my boss looked over at me and smiled and said, “You know Todd, don’t feel too bad, I will bet you by the time we get back to the funeral home this poor chap will have had a significant religious conversion.” I had no idea what he was talking about.

However when we pulled into the funeral home parking lot the secretary came running out saying that we were needed to return to this man’s house immediately and take him ASAP to the university hospital. The man with his femur sticking out of his body had converted from his firmly held conviction and decided he did need the services of the ambulance. So much for firm convictions in the light of drama and trauma. I never knew if the man lost his leg, but if the poor chap had held rock solid on his convictions, losing his leg would have been a real possibility.

Next: Good intentions aren’t enough when faced with a dead body



Apparently you've missed the point that a family or church group being involved at a time of death can be a meaningful and therapeutic experience. By the way, Holly Stevens is a very nice Quaker lady who did extensive research before engineering that manual. In fact, all the people on that committee are diligent researchers, and I was glad to help. The artwork came from another home funeral experience. Check out www.nogreysuits.org

Best regards,

Lisa Carlson