The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral- page 4 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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All in the family (Bob Baldwin (left: c. 1965) and Jim Alexander (right: c. 1960) led different lives-with very different endings. (Max Alexander Collection)

The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral

When his father and father-in-law died within days of each other, author Max Alexander learned much about the funeral industry

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(Continued from page 3)

The next day I got to see my dad, embalmed and made up, with rosy cheeks and bright red lips. Clearly an attempt had been made to replicate his appearance in life, but he looked more like a wax museum figure. I touched his face, and it was as hard as a candle. Sarah and I exchanged knowing glances. Later she said to me, "Why do we try to make dead people look alive?"

On a frigid December day, we lowered Dad's coffin into the ground—or, more accurately, into a concrete vault ($895) set in the ground. It is not easy for me to say this, but here I must report with embarrassment that in life my father had his own personal logo—a stylized line drawing of his face and his trademark oversize spectacles. It appeared on his stationery, his monogrammed windbreakers, even a flag. In accord with his wishes, the logo was engraved on his tombstone. Beneath were the words "I'll Be Seeing You."

It was different, the funeral director acknowledged, yet not as different as my father-in-law's passage. Home after-death care is not for everyone or every situation, but there is a middle ground. Before my dad's church service, the funeral director confided to me that he was exhausted: "I got a call at midnight to pick up a body in Holland," a town 30 miles away. That night had brought a major snowstorm.

"You drove through that storm in the middle of the night to get a body?" I asked.

He shrugged, explaining that more people these days are dying at home, and when they die, the family wants the body removed immediately. "Usually they call 911," he said.

It occurred to me that if more Americans spent more time with their dead—at least until the next morning—they would come away with a new respect for life, and possibly a larger view of the world. After Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I saw a clip of her funeral. They had put her in a simple wooden coffin. "Hey," I said to my son, "we could have built that."

Max Alexander used to edit for Variety and People. He is writing a book about Africa.

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