Normalizing death through home funerals in Colorado


USA – It always seems to take us by surprise when a human body throws off its mortal coil. And in the wake of death, families more often than not leave all the funeral arrangements to the professionals. Lauren Carroll, a former funeral director, wants people to know there’s another option – keeping the death and funeral inside the home.

“It’s Earth-friendly and it will save you thousands of dollars, but it’s the healing of it that is the true benefit,” said Carroll, a home funeral educator and founder of Returning Home, a local nonprofit organization through Pikes Peak Community Foundation that provides educational workshops and training for future home funeral advocates. She acts as a consultant for families who want to pursue a home funeral option.

“Of all the home funerals there has never been a single complaint of, ‘That was horrifying and not what I wanted.’ But that has happened with funeral homes. Death is a natural part of life. I tell people I honor death because I love life so much. You can’t live a full life without knowing that death is at the end.”

Going the traditional route

If a family goes the traditional route, the funeral home arrives on scene and the body is immediately whisked away. It’s either drained of vital fluids and embalmed or cremated. The next time the family sees their loved one he’s cosmetized to perfection or inside an urn. The family has no part in the process.

“The family is just there in this emptiness that wasn’t there before,” Carroll said. “The benefit of a home funeral is that time they have to be with the body. They have time for the heart to catch up with what the mind knows.”

Marga Callender, chaplain at Namaste Alzheimer Center, attended one of Carroll’s workshops on home funerals. She’s no stranger to death and believes many people might be interested but not realize it’s an option.

“This isn’t for everybody, but for some people this will help them through their grieving process,” Callender said. “It’s like completing life. We welcome people in through birth, then we welcome them into whatever is next, whatever the next transition is going to lead to.”

Although a home funeral isn’t for everybody, said Paul Wood, funeral director and owner of The Springs Funeral Services, especially for those whose homes can’t accommodate a large funeral service, Wood can see its value.

“The more people can interact with the customs and rituals and participate in the process, the healthier it is, I think, for the grieving process,” Wood said. “Funerals can get to be more of a spectator event rather than a participatory event.”

The two big questions

Carroll always fields the same two questions: “Is it legal?” and “How gross is it?”

Home funerals are indeed legal – the family always has control of the body. However, there is one law that must be obeyed – 24 hours after death the body must be either embalmed, refrigerated or laid out on dry ice. This doesn’t pose as much of an issue as many might imagine.

“The human body is not that gross,” Carroll said.

A body decomposes at a very slow rate – most of it happens around the torso due to the bacteria that live in the stomach. And if a person dies at home, chances are he didn’t eat or drink much before death, thus reducing the amount of bodily fluids.

“Most of it is just caring for them,” she said, “like a sponge bath and putting essential oils on the body. You wrap dry ice in towels or pillow cases and lie it underneath the center or torso.”

During her tenure as a funeral director, she was told a body must be embalmed for a public viewing. That was false, she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a dead body poses no harm to the public. In fact, it’s the embalming process that can be risky.

“Embalming is an invasive thing where they’re taking out the blood and disturbing the body – you can spread communicable disease that way,” she said. “If you leave the body whole as is, it’s not posing any risk.”

A family tends to keep the body in the home about three days, though there is no legal time frame by which they must dispose of it.

This period of time allows them to both watch the gradual physical changes that occur after death and to say goodbye. A home funeral can be a more conducive way to find closure than at a typical funeral where the family can often find themselves on display, Caroll said.

“With a home funeral you get to wake up at 2 a.m. and go in the room and cry over their body and be with them,” Carroll said, “and that whatever you want to call it – their spirit, their essence – something has changed.”

From home to hospital

Over the past three generations, people have forgotten they could die in their own home.

Before the 1940s, most families cared for their dead themselves, but in the wake of World War II, America began to change the way it lived.

People began to move from farms and multigenerational homes to civilization, and in doing so, moved away from growing their own food to buying it at the increasing number of grocery stores. Doctors stopped making house calls and folks were encouraged to give birth in hospitals and to go there to die. The elderly population was ushered into nursing homes.

“We removed seeing death in the home as a natural part of life,” Carroll said. “People stopped farming so they didn’t see their animals die on the farm. People stopped dying at home and the funeral home industry saw it as an opportunity – you’re no longer caring for them as they’re dying so we should care for the body as well.”

Green burials

We want eco-friendly cars, furniture and personal products, so why not funerals?

“I want to make less of an impact on this Earth,” said Callender. “Home funerals and understanding the process of living and dying and not having such a huge impact on the Earth in my final disposition is important. As we move ahead in this world, we’re going to have make more decisions about that.”

By holding a home funeral a family is also doing a green burial. The body isn’t embalmed – a nongreen process where chemicals are pumped into the body – and it’s buried in a cardboard casket, cotton shroud or other container.

Though private cemeteries require the purchase of a casket and oftentimes a vault, both Evergreen Cemetery and Fairview Cemetery, the two city-owned cemeteries, allow families to place the body in its Earth-friendly container and into the ground.

Another option is home burial on privately owned land. That doesn’t mean once a person dies, the family can immediately go out in the backyard and dig a hole. They still need to take the death certificate to the health department for a burial permit.

There does tend to be one problem with a home burial, though.

“People don’t stay in the same place forever,” Carroll said. “If 50 years down the line you want to sell the property, the state knows there are three bodies there. You have to move them or the buyer has to accept the house with grandpa in the backyard. We’re a very mobile society.”

Dispelling the fear of death

Death is a tricky subject – considered both fascinating and morbid to many. We don’t like to talk much about it here, Carroll said, and it’s that reluctance for conversation that propels her.

“I would like to see death become more normalized so people aren’t afraid of it and live every day to their fullest,” she said. “So when they do get their home funeral someday, people will celebrate around them instead of all dressed in black and speaking silently around the body.”

If nothing else, she encourages people to spend some time considering what they want their own deaths to look like. She’s well aware the planning aspect of it can be frightening, but the more light shined on the topic, the better.

“If you’re too scared to talk about it, that doesn’t benefit anybody. It makes the death that much more stressful,” she said. “That’s why people go to funeral homes and spend $10,000. Because they’re stressed out, overwhelmed with emotion and have no idea what they’re doing. A few weeks later they’re trying to pay that bill off with their credit cards. They have the grief and the bill and they’re alone.”