Final Rights

Reclaiming the American Way of Death

Help with home funerals: when it crosses the line

Posted By on November 13, 2011

As a grandmother to the home funeral movement since 1987, I have been thrilled to see the interest in home funerals taking hold around the country. And how wonderful that there are significant learning opportunities to help spread this movement.

However, I am growing alarmed at one of the trends I see: women (typically) calling themselves death midwives (not just home funeral guides) and asking to be paid for being present with the body, to help prepare the body, get the paperwork, and transport the body. Why am I alarmed? For two reasons. One, it is “acting as a funeral director” without a license. When the industry gets riled enough (as they have been in Pennsylvania and in Oregon), there are likely to be measures taken to limit the possibilities for home funerals, to take away that right that we have in all but eight states. That would be tragic! 

Secondly, the very activities that some of these death midwives are doing or offering to do thwart the therapeutic involvement for friends and relatives. Having something to do takes away the sense of helplessness. Those in the helping professions often have an enormous need to feel needed, and this can lead to overbearing behavior. In at least one situation I know of, the personality of the helper was so aggressive that she offended others.

Of his wife Ann’s death, Jack Manning wrote “No Grey Suits: End of Life as a Team Sport.” Because I get “high” on empowering others, I’ve put together a checklist of the kinds of activities Jack assigned to those around him when he needed help. He didn’t pay them. They all felt privileged to be asked, to be included in such an intimate way. Your friends and relatives will surely feel the same. I am hoping that this checklist will be helpful to the home funeral educators, too. It’s fine to charge a fee for a workshop or written materials, but any hands-on activities at a time of death should be given away for free in order to stay within the law. That’s also consistent with the practices of religious groups that bury their own dead without charge or the Colonial women of the community who were the layers out of the dead.

When a death occurs, many people don’t know what to say or how to act. They might add to their condolences, “Please call if I can do something.,” not being at all sure what they could really do. Will you be smart enough to ask for help, especially ahead of time when the death is expected? Not all of these will apply to every home funeral, of course. Leave your suggestions as a comment!

Who will–

  •  Help with notifying family and friends, by phone or e-mail, Facebook or Twitter? Website?
  •  Be in charge of obtaining the required paperwork (death certificate, burial transit or disposition permit, permit to cremate)?
  •  Contact the cemetery, crematory, or med school to schedule delivery of the body?
  •  Bathe and dress the body?
  •  Make or purchase a casket, shroud, or cardboard container?
  •  Obtain dry ice or frozen gel packs if needed?
  •  Arrange for music?
  •  Contact any clergy desired?
  •  Arrange for flowers?
  •  Arrange for cleaning or housekeeping or pet-sitting?
  •  Arrange for meals or other refreshments?
  •  Meet out-of-town guests at the airport?
  •  Provide overnight accommodations for those?
  •  Collect and display photos or other memorabilia?
  • Plan any service to be held, with or without the body present?
  •  Help if there will be more than one event or more than one location?
  •  Write the obituary?
  •  Write a eulogy?
  •  Video any events for the benefit of out-of-town family?
  •  Serve as pall bearers?
  •  Transport the body?
  •  Send thank you notes?
  •  Apply for veterans benefits such as a marker and flag?
  •  Notify Social Security if not already a part of EDR (electronic death registration)?
  •  Extend support to the bereaved after everyone has gone?



18 Responses to “Help with home funerals: when it crosses the line”

  1. Mary Metcalf says:

    Appreciated reading your perspective about this Lisa, thanks much for all you do/have done for the movement – I’ve had your Caring for the Dead since I attended Beth Knox’s workshop at the Waldorf School a few years back, is Final Rights an updated version of that?? Just trying to get a sense of how useful it may be to me…


  2. Melody Brooks says:

    Lisa, thank you for putting this into words and posting it. Home funeral guides need to stay within the law, or families will lose their rights to home funerals. No one wants that. Being enthusiastic and serving families are wonderful things; however, it doesn’t take much to tip over to being overzealous and ruining it for everyone.

  3. Lucy Basler says:

    Empowering families is what we home funeral guides are all about. I do a lot of teaching about home funerals/natural burials and it is gratifying when I find out that a family has gone ahead without my in-the-home guidance. I must admit, though, that I keep my fingers crossed that they have crossed all the “t’s” and dotted all the “i’s”. I’ve been receiving advice from Lisa since 2007 and she hasn’t failed me yet.

  4. Lisa Carlson says:


    “Final Rights” is indeed an update to the earlier books.

  5. Richard Ailes says:

    Lisa – Thank you for your heartfelt and thoughtful comments. I completely agree with your comments. I became involved with this wonderful movement in 1998 through Crossings and with their and my family’s help, conducted home funerals for both of my parents in 2001. Since then, I have participated in a few home after-death care situations in Maine, and am always impressed to see the pride and love that emanates from family members who have cared for a loved one during and after death. This movement is about reclaiming our rights and legal ability to care for our loved ones with the help of family and community. Hiring a “professional” is completely contrary to the core of this sacred activity and creates an opportunity to legally challenge what should be a very basic human right.

  6. Hi folks, I am from Canada (co-director of CINDEA and a Death Midwife. I see no problem in someone charging for being available 24-7 to a Death Journeyer and their family/friends over a likely period of 3-6 months throughout the whole of the pan-death process [Note: CINDEA only uses the term ‘death midwife’ for someone who is prepared to offer service before/during/after death, including funeral/memorial celebrant services.] Here, at least, the family has the right to care for their own dead: and if the DM makes it clear in the contract that they will only provide instructions and guidance to post-death care (and NOT hands-on care), then I don’t see what the issue is. Yes, you could say that DMs are alternative funeral DIRECTORS, as their role is to direct the family in taking care of all of the pan-death issues/needs — which is their right.

  7. Lisa Carlson says:

    Pashta MaryMoon,

    I am alarmed by the invasive nature promoted by CINDEA which usurps family control and involvement. You are promoting funeral director wannabes. Your “certifying” death midwives takes the cake for arrogance.

  8. cassandra says:

    Perhaps surprisingly – as someone who calls herself a “death midwife” and is certified as a Home Funeral Guide [Final Passages] I do agree with your comments above Lisa. I do think there is a role (and perhaps even a “professional” role) for guides and educators in contemporary North American culture, but we who claim to empower families must be VERY careful to make sure that we are not doing FOR families what they might otherwise do for themselves. All different kinds of families desire and require all different kinds of support and services and I think there is room for all sorts of practitioners, in fact I feel thankful for the diversity. In my own practice I’ve discovered that the “job” of guiding home funerals doesn’t fit well with a business model in that I feel obligated to provide the least service possible.

    I hope the following will help to explain why I feel connected to the term death midwifery and why I do not see it as an occupation:

    Thanks for this important discussion!
    Cassandra Yonder
    BEyond Yonder Death Midwifery

  9. Lisa Carlson says:

    Thanks for your comment, Cassandra. I learned a new word from your ehospice essay–psychopomp.

  10. Caskets says:

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  11. Public Policy Liberal says:

    So, I’m wondering what a home funeral family is to do when they take custody of Dad’s body at the Coroner, after a full autopsy, like my Grandfather Woody. With the advent of YouTube, everyone can watch an actual autopsy and see the result. Let’s also presume Dad is 300 lbs. Not inconceivable given the size of many Americans today.
    It seems a little problematic. We must presume that family members or, close friends volunteering for this task, are not prepared for what they are about to encounter. They have no clue how to move a body in this condition, and of this size. They will also be using sister’s new Mini Cooper…..the longer one with the double doors in the back. Alright, they rent a Ryder van, because spilling something from Dad or a leaky viscera bag, is a real possibility. But maybe they don’t because all are in agreement that the blood has been drained out by now. They know from watching Dr. G, Medical Examiner, on TV.
    There is the matter of getting 300 lb. dead-weight Dad from the van into the house and upstairs and, into the bathtub. The neighbor offers use of his old dolly…..hey, why not….who says the body has to be moved laying down? At some point, early in this process, the thin body bag Dad is zippered into tears from underneath. Blood is still in there, and spills all over the front of sister’s tee shirt, jeans and her new pink Vans.

    The scenario might be like this, or it may be getting Dad from the hospital, only to find all the intravenous needles and tubes still in him. It’s like the orderly just unplugged everything and zipped him up along with his bedding. This is exactly what they did and now it is the family’s responsibility to handle it…properly. What is properly? Can’t have people just throwing it out in the regular trash.

    While trying to move the body, brother and son each take a leg and get a grip just above the ankle. “Gosh, why is it so squishy? Feels like a bag full of water.” It is…..exactly like that because the edema in Dad’s legs got worse in the hospital from all the IV’s and drugs. His legs look like bags of water about to burst and, with the pressure of brother’s grip, the skin under his fingers does burst. “Oh, man… fingers went right in!!” Well, at least that leg will drain…..and drain…..and drain……..and…..drain. Elevating the legs briefly, coupled with the effect of gravity on Dad’s insides, was enough to part open a little orifice and the continence….I mean content….of Dad’s large colon is allowed to evacuate. “By the way…..what was that sticker on the sheets he was wrapped in…..Bio-hazard. Does that have something to do with that infection Dad got from being IN the hospital……what did they call it……starts with an M, I think. Oh, Mercia….dad got Mercia in the hospital….that’s gotta be it”, says son. Well, why do they have to be concerned with some infection that has to be dead since it’s inside Dad and he is dead. Right? What is Mercia anyway? Never heard of it? You will wish you hadn’t.

    Yes, either scene is problematic. Home “care” of their own dead sounds romantic and, is made out here to be no big deal for any family to carry-out if they are inclined. Most families are unprepared to handle the dead body of their loved one. Handling the body of my 99 year old grandmother required knowledge and skill. Her skin was like tissue paper. Rarely will a body be pristine, all clean and tidy, easily moved about and remain acceptable in appearance and condition while everyone completes these common tasks so easily, with all the help of volunteering friends. Also, I am very concerned about pathogens, like Mercia, which are highly contagious, virulent, and immune to all antibiotics. The general public has no knowledge about Bio-hazardous material and disposal, universal precautions, or anything related to handling a dead body whether infected, butchered, bloated blistered and rank, shot through or shot up, partially recognizable, or the countless results of someone suicidal.
    It’s a modern, complex world. People are more disconnected than they are connected and, more than likely, do not know their neighbors. Friends are busy, with kids, work, and caring for their own aged parent(s). Asking a mom friend to drop by the county registrar and file the death certificate on the way to little Tiwanda’s judo class seems quite an imposition and I think would be viewed as such. I also think you people lull some of the public into an unrealistic picture of what an undertaking this home funeral will become, and without any mention of all the risks. Wait until a home funeral with a body infected by Mercia spreads that pathogen throughout the home and sickens family and calling friends. There will be a few more opportunities to try out the home funeral.

  12. Lisa Carlson says:


    There will surely be times when the help of a funeral director is much needed or wanted. That said, with most deaths autopsied on an Indian reservation, the Native Americans at Fort Hall in Pocatello, ID have taught themselves how to repair autopsied bodies when families and tribal members are handling the death.

    BTW, the disease is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), not Mercia. In the case of any highly contagious disease, immediate disposition is what makes sense, regardless of who handles it.

    When my mother-in-law died of AIDS in 1986, we handled her death without a funeral director. We had cared for her during her illness, and there was no reason to stop after she had died. None of us got AIDS as a result.

  13. Josh Slocum says:

    And I’m wondering why all that dramatic verbiage was necessary, Donny, when the only thing we’re advocating here is *choice*. You don’t seem to understand that. You seem to believe we’re “asking a mother” to do All Manner of Unpleasant Things She Won’t Be Able to Cope With.

    You must be reading a very different article than the one you commented on.

  14. Josh Slocum says:

    Dead people do not “spread pathogens” all over the place infecting others. That’s *living* people. People you’re already in contact with.

    If a doctor didn’t quarantine the patient in life, it’s bizarre to act as though the body becomes a Superfund site at death.

  15. Public Policy Liberal says:

    Case and point. The comment from Josh is exactly what I’m concerned with….the ignorance of the general public specifically related to pathogens, like MSRA. Yes, Josh, if you were not very very careful and dressed for the occasion, YOU will contract MSRA from a dead body. Once Josh has it he can now carry it about the house and spread it to others. This is why once MSRA is in a hospital environment, that hospital becomes a giant petri dish and incredibly difficult to eradicate.
    I used the vivid descriptive details hoping to paint a picture in the mind of the reader. I’m not trying to scare anyone or gross out mom. These are very real situations and and issues one could encounter in caring for the body of their family member without the education, practice, equipment and, lets admit, stomach, for such a task.
    Let me apologize for the error regarding the pathogen, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Thank you, Lisa, for that correction. I should have checked for myself first.
    Finally, there is an excellent Frontline documentary that re-aired in 2013 called “The Undertaking”. It is the portrait of a family in the funeral profession in small town Michigan. Frontline is the best at going after the cover-ups and screw-ups but the producers are also artists at revealing parts of our culture and lives as they are, getting to the core of ……well….being human. Go to Frontline online and search that title. I hope that episode is still up for online viewing. It is quite a testament and mirrors the experience I have had with funeral directors and their businesses when my family has needed their help. They are businesses and, as such, I don’t think would be in business very long without conducting affairs honorably, honestly and fairly. In our “do it yourself” culture, with Legal Zoom and Web MD, there are still many things we are all better off to engage the professionals. Grieve your loved one and celebrate the life. Let others who know what they are doing handle the details. 99.9 percent of the time, you will not be taken advantage of or ripped off. You, with the checkbook and a voice, are still the one in charge.

  16. Lisa Carlson says:


    You’ve gone off half-cocked again. MRSA is usually diagnosed before death and would be quarantined, making a home funeral impossible. We’re not suggesting otherwise. Furthermore, MRSA happens in a tiny minority of cases so for the many other deaths home funerals can be considered IF that’s their choice. As Josh said, we’re all about giving consumers choice. We don’t tell people what to do, but most don’t know the laws or procedures or what their rights are. We are all about empowerment and education.

    Home funerals, by the way, the Lynches don’t believe in. They think funeral directors should be required to handle all deaths. In “The Undertaiking,” they appear to have broken the FTC Funeral Rule repeatedly. The Rule requires the FD to hand a General Price List to the family BEFORE beginning any discussion of funeral arrangements. Not done in the nursing home visit. Not apparent on the desk when the family that lost a child was making arrangements. The Rule also requires that the FD hand the casket price list to the consumer BEFORE showing any caskets. No piece of paper in the woman’s hand; apparently still in Sean Lynch’s hand as he steers her to a stainless steel casket $1,000 more expensive than the national average.

    You say let others who know what they are doing handle things? If I know what I’m doing, why should I? Those of us who have had a home funeral find it hard to imagine any other way. It’s the most loving way to say good-bye. Look for the video “Family Undertaking.” Quite moving.

  17. Lisa Carlson says:

    BTW, Donny, Tom Lynch sued me, the Funeral Ethics Organization, and Funeral Consumers Alliance. The judge threw out the case because everything we said about Tom Lynch was true–primarily not supporting home funerals. This guy is so biased that he says we “bury the treasure and burn the trash.” Want to guess what kind of funeral he’s pushing? He wrote in his book that he told one person planning on body donation that people didn’t need to donate bodies to med schools because homeless meet the supply. NOT. But the poor guy ended up in an expensive Batesville casket instead, no doubt to Mr. Lynch’s delight.

  18. Tim says:

    What a load of contradictory hypocrisy. Sounds like funeral industry agenda poppycock. To each his own, and help should be as diverse as available. Talking rubbish it should be free. …hypocrisy! Widely used car salesman method of praying upon grieving families to get more money for bigger funeral expenses…funeral industry is embodiment of exploitation and fleecing of people during the most vulnerable and difficult times is the lowest of scum. Death midwifery is not about guilting family into buying big.

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