DIY funeral takes sting out of death for some

Mr George Barrett decorating his father's fibreboard casket. Mr Barrett and his wife Char are among a growing number of Americans who are choosing home funerals for their loved ones.
Mr George Barrett decorating his father's fibreboard casket. Mr Barrett and his wife Char are among a growing number of Americans who are choosing home funerals for their loved ones.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHAR BARRETT

More people in US find that preparing bodies of loved ones at home makes it more personal

These are two matters most people would not consider putting together: "do-it-yourself" and "funerals".

Yet, that is exactly what a growing number of Americans are setting out to do when their loved ones die.

And it is not just making the arrangements without employing a funeral director; some go to the extent of making the coffins.

The reasons for doing it are partly economic and partly cultural. A DIY funeral can cost nearly nothing and proponents say it makes the whole process more personal.

There is a desire among families for something more authentic, home-grown, "without outsourcing it all", said Ms Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA).

She added that a home funeral allows families "to take environmental responsibility by forgoing invasive and toxic procedures... and to make the funeral affordable".

The NHFA estimates that the average professionally directed funeral costs US$8,350 (S$11,670), without casket, vault, cremation or burial costs included, while a home funeral could cost under US$200.

While there are no statistics for just how big the DIY funeral movement is, there is anecdotal evidence that it is growing.

The non-profit NHFA, which educates the public on home funerals, has about 1,000 members, a number which has doubled in the last 18 months.

Ms Webster said her calendar is packed with local, state and even national speaking events as more people seek reliable information about their options.

Conducting a home funeral is legal in all states across the United States except for 10, where a funeral director may need to be involved in some parts of the process. This, however, does not prevent a family from caring for their deceased loved ones.

A home funeral involves bathing the deceased in soap and water, clothing the deceased and then laying the body on dried ice as a way to delay decomposition. Funeral directors say it might take three people to give the body a sponge bath and the messiness from excrement can vary greatly, sometimes with just small traces of urine.

There is no time limit in most states for burial or cremation unless cause of death requires it, and only a handful of states have mandatory waiting periods before cremation, said Ms Webster.

But generally, the body can be kept at home for up to three days in 18 deg C temperature.

According to Singapore law, "no corpse shall be retained in any premises, including a funeral parlour, for a period longer than 48 hours after death, unless the corpse is encoffined in a hermetically sealed coffin or is embalmed".

In a DIY funeral in the US, coffins can be made by the family out of wood, or simple fibreboard caskets can be bought and decorated by loved ones.

Families can also choose to transport the coffin themselves, either to a crematorium or graveyard, or even bury their loved ones in their own backyard. Most home burials occur in rural areas where there are no zoning rules that prohibit it.

Some families may dig the grave, lower the body into the ground and cover it with dirt, depending on what the cemetery's allows.

When Ms Char Barrett's father- in-law and mother-in-law passed away, their family held home funerals for both seniors. "My husband and I bathed and clothed my mother-in-law... It was an honour and privilege to take care of her in that way," said Ms Barrett, 55.

She worked in interior design and commercial office furniture before becoming a funeral director and founding A Sacred Moment, which specialises in home funerals.

Ms Barrett said they used a fibreboard casket and left it in the yard for visitors to decorate.

"They were very practical, pragmatic people and didn't desire anything fancy," she added.

As a hospice volunteer, Ms Barrett said she saw bodies being whisked away from the families at 2am numerous times. So when she found out about home funerals as she was getting her mortuary science degree, she had an "ah-hah moment". "It made sense to keep the body at home, and allow families to say goodbye - it just seemed so natural," she said.

Parents who lose young children are particularly attracted to these home rituals.

"They have cared for their child and the last thing they want to do is hand their child over to a funeral director," she added.


Correction note: An earlier version of this story said 'And it is not just making the arrangements without employing a funeral director; some go to the extent of doing the embalming and making the coffins'. However, the National Home Funeral Alliance says embalming in the industry should be done by a funeral director. The sentence has been removed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'DIY funeral takes sting out of death for some'. Print Edition | Subscribe