A Movement to Bring Grief Back Home

Martha Bannerman hugs her daughter, Eliza Rudd, 13, as they listen to stories about Ruth Bannerman, whose funeral was to be held at her  home.
Martha Bannerman hugs her daughter, Eliza Rudd, 13, as they listen to stories about Ruth Bannerman, whose funeral was to be held at her home. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Rachel S. Cox
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 5, 2005

After Richard Saul died of Lou Gehrig's disease just before Christmas last year at age 77, neighbors and friends gathered at his Cleveland Park home to extend sympathies to his widow, Judy, and their sons and grandson. Many were surprised to learn that they could also pay their respects to Richard.

His body, washed and dressed in his favorite clothes, lay in the master bedroom, cooled by dry ice and open windows, and surrounded by fresh flowers, burning candles, family photographs and mementos of his many years as a lawyer, civil servant and father of four. Like a small number of other bereaved in the Washington area and nationally, Judy Saul chose to care for her husband's body for several days at home.

Once the hospice nurse who came to certify the death had convinced the D.C. coroner's office that keeping the deceased at home was legal -- as it is in the District and all but five states (Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska and New York) -- Saul and a friend, Sally Craig, had prepared her husband's body with the assistance of Beth Knox, a "funeral rites" educator whom Saul had met two months before.

"I got to know people on a really personal basis because we had time and we were home," Saul said. After three days of grieving, she felt ready to part with her husband's body. "To have him home, you really know the person isn't there anymore. That is the whole point, so that you get used to the idea. By the third night, I'm ready to see him go."

This kind of after-death care, its advocates say, offers a more humane and healing alternative to the standard American practice of handing the body over to a mortician for embalming and display before cremation or burial.

Knox said that in her seven years as director of Crossings, a Silver Spring nonprofit she founded to help others carry out home funerals, she has assisted about 150 families. Others active in the movement report an increased interest in the practice, but the number of home funerals is minuscule considering the roughly 2.4 million annual deaths in the United States.

Like the hospice movement, which since the 1960s has helped the terminally ill die peacefully at home, the home funeral movement aims to protect what it calls individuals' "right" to care for their own at death. At its most abstract, promoters say, it hopes to dispel the fear and denial that accompany an institutionalized approach to death, and return life's final act to its historical position as a natural, profound and private event.

Despite the violent deaths that crowd movie and TV screens and newspapers, in our culture "we never see actual death," said Joshua Slocum, the director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national group that advocates for consumer protection in funeral affairs. "The institutionalization of illness and death has made us inordinately terrified."

Supporters of home funerals say they pose no health risk under normal circumstances.

Lisa Carlson, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Ethics Organization, which works with the funeral industry to protect and expand consumer options, attributes the growth of interest in home funerals to the aging of the baby-boom generation, a phenomenon expected to keep the death rate rising for decades.

"It's the other end of the spectrum from natural childbirth," she said. "The baby-boom generation took control of critical life events, wrote their own wedding vows, had home births. . . . They're fueling the interest in taking control."

The funeral industry acknowledges a growing public interest in more-individualized funeral rites. "I think a home funeral is a wonderful way to go," said Robert J. Biggins, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association. "What could be more personal? It signifies a family's desire to be actively involved in celebrating the life of the family member. Anything that we can do to help them do that is our mission."

Yet home funeral advocates said that at the state level, where laws governing funerals are made, the industry often has opposed the right of individuals to care for their dead. "Right after my first book came out, the state of Rhode Island changed the statutory language to make it more difficult," Carlson said. Her book came out in 1987. Recently, the Texas legislature debated an amendment supported by the Texas Funeral Directors Association that would have made it illegal for families to contract directly with crematories, meaning they would have to go through funeral homes. The amendment was withdrawn last month.

One benefit of a home funeral, advocates say, is price: A home funeral can cost only a fraction of a mortuary funeral, which typically runs about $5,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The prices can go much higher.

But the most important benefits, advocates agree, are psychological. "There's a tremendous increase in healing and acceptance of death for the family to touch and see and be with the departed," Knox said. "It's very empowering at a time when you feel like everything's out of control."

Knox speaks from hard experience. In 1995 her 7-year-old daughter, Alison Sanders, died from the impact of an airbag that deployed during a low-speed auto accident. Knox found herself unwilling to leave after-death care to funeral home staff, despite the hospital's insistence that it would release the body to no one else -- still an all-too-common occurrence, Knox said.

"We're required by law to care for our children," she said. "But at the last hour, we're told that their body doesn't belong to us anymore. That makes no sense."

Knox found a funeral director willing to bring Alison's body home, where family members, friends and neighbors joined in a three-day vigil. By the time the funeral director returned to take Alison's body to her funeral and then to the crematory, Knox was, she said, ready to let her go.

Having imagined, as most parents do, that she could never endure the catastrophe of a child's death, Knox found that "when it actually happened, my senses were so highly attuned to the sense of love, I had a very precise presence of mind, very clear sense of direction." There is, she said, "a lot of comfort in being able to perform acts of love in these unbearable situations."

In contrast, Washington psychotherapist Riki Alexander, a board member of Crossings said: "I've had so many clients who grieved for so many years and are so not over it. I wonder if it's because they didn't get to have the time and see that the person wasn't there. It becomes this unresolved thing."

But American norms and expectations about death, other observers say, practically ensure home funerals a limited following.

"For families that have difficulty addressing the topic of death, [a home funeral] is much more difficult," said Stephanie Handel, a grief therapist at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in the District. Facing not only the many reminders of a loved one but also the body itself "might be too much to cope with," said Handel, who also directs a program at the Washington morgue that helps next-of-kin cope with the legalities of an unexpected death, which include identifying a Polaroid photograph of the body.

Knox agreed, and said she can think of many reasons why people might not want a home funeral, such as if they're exhausted or have no supportive community. But, she added, with an expected death "there is no law that states that the body needs to be removed in the first 24 hours. There is much healing and acceptance to be gained by being with the death at this time."

It was regret over not seeing her mother's body at all that led American University Park resident Leah Johnson to plan a home funeral for her father, James Anastos, who died in January at 91.

When her mother was fatally injured in an auto accident in 1985, Johnson rushed to the hospital, only to be told that it would be too traumatic to see her. Because her mother's cremation was handled by a funeral home, as her mother had wished, Johnson never saw her again.

She said having her mother die alone was "too traumatic for the rest of my life." She determined that her father's death would be different. "I would do the absolute best for him at the end."

Although her husband and children initially voiced reservations about the idea of a home funeral, Johnson recalled, when she explained how much it mattered to her, "they rose to the occasion." They had cared at home for Anastos, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and one Friday night he died in his sleep.

Washing and dressing her father's body with Knox and a close female cousin "felt very biblical," Johnson said. As he lay in their guest room, "friends started coming."

"Some didn't want to go up, which was fine. Some friends came and just sat there with him. We kept a candle burning. It was so good. It was just quiet. We were kind of seeing him out. It felt like we were really caring for him."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company