Reclaiming death

DEATH ISSUE: Death midwives shepherd the dying and then help the living say an intimate, inexpensive, and eco-friendly goodbye
Jerrigrace Lyons trains new death midwives to assist in DIY funerals.

DEATH ISSUE Death is the Grim Reaper come to collect his dues, a silent, bewildered specter bound in black, this undeniable truth that we avoid at all costs. But it doesn't have to be.

Beginning in Northern California, a growing movement has mounted an attack against death as we know it. They call themselves "death midwives." Part ferry operator for the dying, part guardian of those left behind, these home funeral guides are committed to transforming our experience of death.

"Most people in this country have no exposure to death," Jerrigrace Lyons, a prominent death midwife based in Sebastopol, tells us. "The references they do have are negative; it's frightening, it's ghoulish, it's a failure. We need something realistic that shows death to be beautiful and graceful, with a lot of compassion and love and honoring involved."

The most expensive party you never wanted to have, funerals in America have become a multibillion-dollar industry. Between the fees for completing the necessary paperwork, transporting the body, embalming, flowers, headstone, and casket, funerals cost an average of $7,000. (This is excluding the price of a cemetery plot, an 8 by 4-foot piece of real estate that can cost $5,000.) The services only take a few hours.

"Everything happens so fast," Lyons says. "People need more time."

Nearly two decades and 350 corpses have taught her that there is nothing more important for a family than having time with the body to grieve. This is just one part of the death process that we have lost touch with.

"Death is such a sacred and holy thing, and we have commercialized it," Heidi Boucher, a veteran death midwife in Sacramento, tells us. "The funeral industry has made it really mysterious and creepy, so people are afraid of death."

Americans once took care of their dead in the privacy of their own homes. During the Civil War, embalming became popular as a way to preserve dead bodies. Meanwhile, more people were dying in hospitals, distancing the living from death.

painting a coffin

When funeral directors established a monopoly on the legal right to embalm, we were separated even further from death. Today, most people have no idea what to do with a dead body. Even if they did, there are enough laws and restrictions around death to daunt almost anyone grieving over the loss of a loved one.

Paying someone thousands of dollars to deal with it no longer seems unreasonable. But handing our dead over to funeral homes might come at an even greater cost than we realize.

"When a body's taken away, it's taken out of the hands of the family," Lyons explains. "There's no direct care of the deceased, no personal involvement. There's no way for the family to feel empowered by knowing that they've done everything they could to give their loved one a great send-off."


Though I like the idea of death midwives, and other more earth-friendly funeral practices here in the U.S., I have to comment on the tone and angle of this article. Before I start, let me say that I am the son of a funeral director and worked in the business for about 20 years. I do not agree with how this article portrays the funeral industry as one, big, greedy, impersonal, earth-killing machine. I also do not completely agree with how the article seems to think that everyone is afraid of death. These angles are partial truths.

Growing up around the business, I saw first hand how amazing my father and other funeral directors were as a supporter and compassionate representative for the surviving families. Too bad the person that wrote this article didn't talk to a funeral director who deeply cares about their profession. Over and over, I saw first hand how customer service meant doing what the family wanted.

This could be something banal like having the deceased wear their favorite dress, or something bizarre like a country burial in the deceased's favorite cow field (with the grave hand dug by his sons). Much like the death midwives, a good, decent funeral director is there for the family no matter what. Hand holding all night? No problem. Take the deceased back home for a few nights. Sure. I've seen this and more from professionals who care deeply about making this hard time a bit more smoother for the survivors.

Regarding the fear of death, I see people all the time who are afraid of all kinds of things (germs, public transportation, chemicals, dogs). We live in a tightly wound culture where anxieties are easy to come by. I applaud the death midwives's desire to educate. My father helped the local high school students better understand death and dying when their Psychology class toured his funeral home. Like many people I meet, they had a lot of questions.

More than anything, many people, even in their 40s, do not have much experience with someone close to them dying. So they're extremely curious. Not completely afraid like the article seems to imply. Grief, even in the post 911 era, is a difficult bundle of emotions to contemplate when you aren't experiencing it. Some people are more afraid to feel the feelings around death than death itself.

The more we talk about death, the better we are as a society. If the death midwives movement takes off, much like the well-loved hospice one, then this can only mean we have more choices and a more old-fashioned (as in basic caskets, no embalming, home funerals) sense of departing this reality.

Props to the Guardian for bringing the subject up during Day of the Dead / Samhain / Halloween season. Candy and costumes might be nice, but Fall is when things in nature die so that winter can come. This is the real reason for this season!

Posted by Guest on Oct. 30, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

Thank you for the thoughtful comment. As the editor of this article, I can tell you that I wish we'd given it more space in the paper because Janina had such great material that it could have run twice this long (even without getting into the funeral director perspective you recommend), and it was painful to cut it down to the allotted space on deadline. But I appreciate your perspective and I do think it's a worthy recommendation that we'll try to get into when we get the chance. Thanks again.

Posted by steven on Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:20 am

Curious what happens after the third day? The article didn't address this at all. I assume you can't just bury the body where you want, so it's back to the mortuary to arrange transport, a cemetery plot still has to be purchased, etc?

Posted by Guest on Nov. 24, 2013 @ 12:59 pm


Posted by Guest on Apr. 30, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

Yes, regulations kill innovation. "Progressives" only care when it affects a hippie's business model

Posted by Guest on Nov. 24, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

Hello Guest,

I am not sure what you mean about progressives and hippies. I work at a hospice both with patients and their families and let me tell you, the hippies are few and far between. It is common knowledge that embalming releases many harmful and expensive chemicals, despite the fact that a dead body is only a health risk if it had a handful of rare diseases such as flesh eating bacteria. Deadly illnesses like cancer and AIDS die a few hours after a person does. Cremation, which costs considerably less than a traditional funeral, still takes the amount of energy and resources it would use to drive a Hummer from the east to west coast.

It is also easy to dismiss this topic as having a political agenda as a means of avoiding talking about death, grief and the fear of the United States of both. It is true that most research through the 1990s suggested that more religious folks (who yes, are more likely to be conservative) coped better with death. However, new research in the 21st century suggests that feeling you have lived a meaningful life (as a dying person) and that you have provided what was best for the deceased (as a bereaved person) are important steps to relieving the anxiety around death. This idea applies for everyone researched thus far and should be dismissed as being "for hippies".If you feel that a corporate funeral is the best way to manage death then by all means continue with that route, it is certainly popular for a reason.

Posted by Gabrielle on Dec. 02, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

Fascinating article! Thank you for your interest in this issue. As the producer and co-director of the first feature documentary to be made on the green burial movement, A WILL FOR THE WOODS, I would like to let you know about our film. We follow one man Clark Wang as he prepares for his home funeral and natural burial, determined that his final resting place will benefit the earth.

Please see our trailer and learn more about the film here:

Posted by Amy Browne on Nov. 25, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

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