Monday, August 10, 2009

Dead and buried in a bookcase coffin

There was an interesting article in The NY Times a few weeks ago on the growing interest in home funeral-ing.

While I've never been to one, there's certainly nothing new under the full moon here.

My parents both told stories about home wakes held prior to the funeral Mass in the church.

Typically, my mother's featured story was grim.

As a very small child, she was brought by her parents to the wake of a woman who'd died in childbirth. Her baby died, as well. The woman was laid out on her bed, cradling the dead baby in her arms. Needless to say, my mother-the-child was quite upset about this, but in her immigrant family, kids got dragged to everything, and a home wake was no different than a house-warming party. Hard to fathom this occurrence in a day and age when grief counselors are brought into school when the first grade's gerbil dies, isn't it?

Typically, my father's stories were riotous tales of kids running around, of local characters - Shirty Connell is one name I recall - showing up for the midnight feast, and of the mayhem that would ensue when the boys ducked under the casket and pushed up the bottom so that the stiff appeared to be rising from the dead.

His one grim story - which I guess, in the grand scheme, trumps my mother's - was how he and his siblings sat at the kitchen table while the mortician who was preparing my grandfather's body kept walking by them to toss basins-full of my grandfather's blood down the toilet, which was just off the kitchen. My father was 11 at the time.

But these were "just" home wakes, and morticians took care of the details (like bleeding the corpse), and burial was in a cemetery.

According to The Times, some folks are going further back and doing things entirely on their own.

The article featured the funeral of Nathaniel Roe, 92, whose children washed their father's body, laid him out on his bed, then buried him on his New Hampshire farm in a coffin made by his son.

The article doesn't directly mention class here, but we do learn that the deceased was laid out "in his favorite Harrods tweed jacket and red Brooks Brothers tie."

So I think we can make the assumption that we're not talking po' folk here.

But old Ivy League Yankees can be frugal, and Mr. Roe was buried for $250, when the average cost of a funeral is $6K.

It actually sounds like it was a lovely sendoff, but I do have a couple of questions that weren't answered.

First, is "washing the body" a euphemism for other stuff you need to do to take care of precious body fluids - and I'm not just talking my grandfather's blood here. Now, I don't imagine I'll ever need to know this stuff, and I hate to be indelicate, but it did come to mind whether there's more to caring for the dead than meets the washcloth.

Second, what happens when the farm gets sold? Mr. Roe's burial spot doesn't sound like a marked off grave site. While I hope the Roes plan on keeping the 18th century farm in the family for a  good long while, I'd hate to think of someone buying the place without knowing about Nathaniel's absence/presence. Just think about someone doing a bit of excavating for the swimming pool and coming across a swatch of Harrod's tweed or Brooks Brothers tie.  (Of course, given the recent reporting on the Chicago cemetery fiasco - in which workers were exhuming old bodies and reselling the grave sites - there's no guarantee that there's anywhere you'll be able to call home for "eternity," at least not here on earth).

The home funeral has given rise to a new profession, by the way: death midwife. (No mention of death midhusband, but I assume you can be an M or F and do this.) Death midwives help care for the bodies and plan the funerals. One featured in the article, Jerri Lyons of Final Passages, also runs workshops. Her organization's tag line is:

"The Nature of Life includes the Eventual Miracle of Death, a rite of passage that deserves dignity and loving care."

I can get behind these sentiments, except for one single troubling word: miracle.

For the life (and death) of me, I can't think of anything miraculous about dying.

The article also introduced Chuck Lakin, of Waterville, Maine and Last Things, whose site is an excellent resource on home funerals, and who is a woodworker who makes multi-purpose coffins. These coffins, some of which are quite nice looking, can be used as bookcases, coffee tables, display cases or home entertainment centers. (This is before, we're talking here, not after.)

I have just gauged that our old Workbench bookcases are neither deep enough nor sturdy enough to act as coffins. If, when the time comes when Jim and I experience the miracle of death, I were planning on anything other than cremation and scatter, I would consider one of Chuck's creations. I'd probably go for the coffee table version. We can always use more storage.

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