Lying in Honor: Final Passages founder Jerrigrace Lyons attends to Jasmine in her death.
Life After Death
Final Passages shows the living how to care for their dead
By Joy Lanzendorfer
When Roberta Ryan's husband, Steve Rodin, died last December, she decided to prepare his body herself instead of handing him over to an undertaker.
Ryan had been considering her options throughout the months of Steve's struggle with head and neck cancer. The idea of caring for him herself without the distance and toxic chemicals of traditional funerals seemed in line with who Steve was.
"He was somebody who lived as natural a life as possible," she says. "He lived close to the earth, and this just seemed to fit his values."
Ryan enlisted the help of Final Passages, a nonprofit that specializes in assisting people with home funerals. When Steve finally passed, hospice brought his body to Ryan's home. Right afterward, Jerrigrace Lyons, the founder of Final Passages, arrived.
"They showed up the moment hospice was leaving," Ryan says. "I imagine if they hadn't come just then, I wouldn't have known where to start. But as it was, they created a very comfortable process."
Under Lyons' guidance, Ryan prepared Steve's body. Lyons showed her how to use dry ice to keep him preserved. Then Ryan bathed Steve, anointed him in fine oils and dressed him.
"There were practical things, like dry ice, and there were beautiful things, like candles and incense," Ryan says. "They managed to create a very sacred space."
Steve's body was then placed in a biodegradable pine casket. A hearse carried him to the cemetery. There, Ryan said her final goodbyes.
While the whole experience was painful, it was also poignant and meaningful. "It was a very natural process," she says. "I understand this is how they did it historically, by taking care of their loved ones themselves. It was very deep and amazing."
Without realizing it, Ryan had experienced the cutting edge of the funeral business. Ever since one of the main characters on HBO's critically acclaimed series Six Feet Under was buried unembalmed in only a canvas shroud, alternative funerals have gotten the attention of the mainstream. And when it comes to home funerals, Sonoma County is a leader of the new trend.
Sebastopol's Final Passages is one of the first organizations in California specializing in home funerals. Lyons, 57, has pioneered the field of "home funeral guidance." In the last 10 years, she estimates that she has assisted between 250 and 300 funerals.
Since Final Passages' inception, several other organizations have popped up in California specializing in home funerals. In fact, the movement has engendered a new breed of funeral directors: death midwives.
"Much like how the home-birth movement had families coming back to the homes for birth, families are now coming to their homes for death," Lyons says.
Home funerals are significantly cheaper than traditional funerals, ranging between $300 and $1,000. The price of an average traditional funeral ranges between $5,000 and $8,000. Lyons believes that home funerals offer something that traditional funerals do not: They give people hands-on experience with the reality of death. Handling the details of a loved one's passing allows for an intimacy that is not often found at regular funerals.
"It creates a connection where we have been disconnected from death in our culture," says Lyons. "It de-institutionalizes death."
Lying in Honor
Home funerals conjure disturbing images for many people. Some shiver at the thought of having a dead body in their home and wonder about decay and the appropriateness of the situation. Others imagine vulnerable, unqualified people being unprepared for the responsibilities of a funeral. Home funerals are really nothing new. In fact, before the emergence of the funeral industry, people regularly cared for and buried their own dead.
"They used to do it very simply," says Kate Broderson, owner of A Plain Pine Box in Sebastopol, which provides people with pine coffins. Broderson remembers once when several old ladies from Utah visited her. They told her how when they were young, their homes were transformed into "funeral homes" whenever someone died.
"Somebody built the coffin," she says. "When it was hot, they used canning jars of ice around his body. Part of home funerals is about going back to the simplicity of death that we had in the past."
In addition to assisting in home funerals, Lyons teaches classes on do-it-yourself funerals. They cover topics from how to prepare the body to how to fill out paperwork with the state. She also specializes in educational information. Can the body be buried in the backyard? Isn't embalming required? Is any of this legal?
Home funerals are completely legal. Embalming is not required, and according to some, it's not even necessary to preserve the body. A family member can act as a funeral director by filling out all end-of-life documentation and transporting the body personally. You don't have to buy a casket from a mortuary. You can even build one yourself.
It is, however, illegal in California to bury someone in your backyard (not to mention what it would do to your property values); bodies are typically buried in a cemetery or cremated.
Like anything else, home funerals vary, but there are some common factors. After someone dies, family and friends wash and prepare the body themselves. As in Ryan's case, this means cleaning the body and often anointing it with oils to help preserve it.
Then, if the family chooses to have an at-home wake, the body can "lie-in-honor" in the home for up to three days. Dry ice is hidden underneath the corpse to keep it cold. Contrary to popular belief, this is enough to preserve it for several days.
"The body generally looks good," says Lyons. "It is cold, but the changes are subtle. Deterioration doesn't happen quickly. People panic about that. They worry the body is going to smell or look bad, but it remains pretty much the same."
Home funerals give people more time with the dead. Family members can sit with the deceased in the middle of the night if they want. Friends can just drop by. People can host their own rituals, formal or informal, however they choose.
They can also decorate the coffin. Final Passages offers a biodegradable cardboard coffin that families commonly prepare together. People write notes, children draw pictures, friends decoupage photographs. In the end, the coffin often reflects the deceased's personality and his or her involvement in the community.
"One lady was very involved in a quilting organization," says Lyons. "When her friends chose to paint her coffin, they each took a square of it and made it into a kind of quilt. In another case, a lady found material with Volkswagens on it for the lining of the coffin. Her husband loved Volkswagens."
During this time, Lyons also helps the family fill out the end-of-life paperwork required by the state. At the end of the wake, the family loads the body into a van or SUV and transports it to the place it will be buried.
Final Passages would never have happened if it weren't for Lyons' friend, Carolyn Whiting. In 1994, Carolyn passed away suddenly from respiratory failure. That's when Lyons learned that Carolyn had left behind specific instructions for her funeral, ranging from where she wanted the service to be to the kind of flowers, altar and music she wanted.
She had also listed what she didn't want: no embalming or funeral directors. Rather, she wanted her friends to care for her.
Although Lyons was willing to do the important thing Carolyn had asked her and two other friends to do, when the body was brought from the hospital to Carolyn's house, she felt a bit overwhelmed. She had lost people before, but never someone so close. And she certainly had never handled a dead person before.
Her friends, she found, were feeling similar emotions. "We had not been a part of caring for a body, and we didn't know what to expect," she says. "There was some anxiety around opening the body bag."
But when they finally did open the bag, they were pleasantly surprised. Carolyn looked peaceful, even beautiful. There was a sweet smile on her face. To Lyons, she looked like an angel.
Once they saw Carolyn, their fear fell away and they were able to relax. Together, the friends began to bathe Carolyn's body and dress her. In a burst of whimsy, they even taped messages from Carolyn's fortune cookie collection to her body. Through the process, Lyons began to understand that her friend, who had died so unexpectedly, was really gone.
"Touching her body, we began to accept she was dead," says Lyons. "She looked like she was asleep, but we saw that she felt cold. By experiencing her body with our senses, we slowly began to realize she wasn't going to respond to us."
Though Lyons felt grief and anger at her friend's passing, being so intimately connected to the death profoundly affected her. She felt like Carolyn was guiding her through a lesson about death, and she wanted to get the word out.
"When we picked up her ashes from the crematorium, I said to a friend, 'You know, this has been such a deeply moving experience, I want to share it with everyone,'" she says. "And my friend looked into my eyes and said, 'And you will. Carolyn has big plans for you.'"
Not long after, Lyons founded Final Passages.
Coffin Home Fashion?
For those who want something other than a cardboard box, a pine coffin from A Plain Pine Box retails for around $500.
In the early 1990s, Pine Box owner Kate Broderson discovered it was permissible to build your own coffin. When hers was completed, she used it as her coffee table for several years. She found it oddly comforting.
"It made me think about death every day," she says. "It reminded me that we're pretty fragile and only here for a short time."
When Lyons started Final Passages, Broderson sold her first coffin and has been making them ever since. She also made coffins for her mother, father and aunt. "These coffins break down," she says. "They are for people who want to go back to the earth when they die."
Although Broderson's coffins are not meant to be used as furniture, increasing numbers of companies are offering furniture that can easily be converted into coffins when needed. Coffin furniture can be sofas, bars, entertainment centers--even gun cabinets--and range from under $500 to over $50,000.
CasketFurniture.com, which sells a $60,000 coffin-shaped pool table, says its mission is to "reduce the burden of high priced funerals with unique alternatives."
For many, part of the appeal of home funerals is that they are environmentally friendly. A lot of this is because the body has not been embalmed.
To embalm someone, all fluids are removed from a person's body and replaced with embalming fluid, a combination of chemicals that kill bacteria in the system and stop cellular proteins in the body from becoming the nutrients for new bacteria. Organs are punctured, eyes and mouths are sometimes sewn shut and blood is washed down the drain. When an embalmed person is buried, the toxic chemicals often flow down to the water table. Many believe that embalming is just not worth the damage it does to the body.
"Embalming doesn't have anything to do with sanitation or health reasons," says Karen Leonard, president of the Redwood Funeral Society, a nonprofit designed to protect people's rights from unscrupulous funeral directors. "Embalming is how the industry began. Almost everything they sell revolves around pickling the body and putting it on display."
During the Civil War, the Union army began embalming the corpses of dead soldiers to be sent home to their families. When President Lincoln was assassinated, his body was embalmed and displayed in an open tomb, which helped the public accept this new way of dealing with the dead.
By the early 20th century, funeral homes were becoming the norm. As they did, it became procedure to hand the dead over to someone else. Many believe this distancing has led to the discomfort many Americans have with death.
But Ron Henderson, staff funeral director at Eggen & Lance Mortuary in Santa Rosa, believes funerals have simply grown to fit the shape of the modern age.
"Over time, funerals have graduated from home to funeral home because it was more suitable," he says. "Funeral homes are bigger and more centrally located. It's the natural progression."
Funerals are typically the most expensive things people purchase after a house and a car. Because of this, many groups criticize the $20 billion a year mortuary industry, claiming they take advantage of people's grief.
In addition to charging for services, caskets and burial, some funeral homes add in extra fees that can vary from charging for bathing and handling the deceased to refrigeration (which can be at a per-day rate) to distance fees for people who live more than a few miles away from the mortuary. Many of these charges can be waived or disputed, but that can be difficult in times of grief.
And while the traditional funeral works for many people, others find it strange and off-putting. "It feels compartmentalized," says Lyons. "You go from the person's death to later showing up in a building where the body is lying in a casket to later going to the graveyard. It has strange interruptions. There is no continuity, no flow to the experience."
But after 28 years in the industry, Henderson believes funeral directors have the experience necessary for dealing with people's fragile emotional states. "It can be wonderful to help someone through the most difficult day of his or her life," he says. "We do the best we can to help people start grieving. At the funeral, they are not necessarily grieving yet. It's too soon and they are too stressed."
As the baby boomers approach retirement, funerals may continue to change. In Sonoma County, they already look different than they do in the rest of the country. Between 60 and 70 percent of local funerals are of cremated remains compared to only 20 percent in other parts of the country.
This openness for change is one of the reasons the Redwood Funeral Society believes that home funerals are gaining in popularity. In the future, home funerals may become as normal as at-home births.
"In the beginning, people protested and said, 'Why do you want to pay any attention to home funerals, so few people do this,'" says Leonard. "And I reminded them that that's what they used to say about cremation. Jerrigrace is doing a wonderful thing."
A concert benefiting Final Passages with singer Jennifer Berezan and electric cellist Jami Sieber is slated for Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Unitarian Universalist Church Theatre. 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $20–$30, sliding scale. 707.824.0268. For more information about Final Passages, go to www.finalpassages.org.
From the October 26-November 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.