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

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)
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"There's always a funeral home," said the clerk.

Sarah drove to the town office, and after a lot of searching, the clerk turned up an outdated form. The clerk at the next town over eventually found the proper one. Then Sarah had to track down her family doctor to sign it. We had a firm appointment at the crematorium (burning takes up to five hours, we learned), and time was running out. But finally we managed to satisfy the bureaucracy and load Bob's coffin into the back of my pickup truck for an on-time delivery. His ashes, in an urn made by an artist friend, were still warm as Sarah wrote the check. We planned to scatter them over the Atlantic later.

Then my dad died—suddenly, a thousand miles away, in Michigan. He lived alone, far from his three sons, who are spread from coast to coast. Home after-death care was out of the question; even if logistics had allowed it, my father had planned his funeral down to the clothes he would wear in his coffin and the music to be played at the service (Frank Sinatra's "I'll Be Seeing You"). We sat down with the funeral-home director (a nice man, also chosen by my dad) in a conference room where Kleenex boxes were strategically positioned every few feet, and went over the list of services ($4,295 in Dad's case) and merchandise. We picked a powder-coated metal coffin that we thought Dad would have liked; happily, it was also priced at the lower end of the range ($2,595). He had already received a plot free from the town. The total cost was $11,287.83, including cemetery charges and various church fees.

I was sad that I hadn't arrived in Michigan to see him before he died; we never said goodbye. "I'd like to see my father," I told the funeral director.

"Oh, you don't want to see him now," he replied. "He hasn't been embalmed."

"Actually, that's precisely why I'd like to see him."

He cleared his throat. "You know there was an autopsy." My father's death, technically due to cardiac arrest, had happened so quickly that the hospital wanted to understand why. "A full cranial autopsy," he added.

Well, he had me there. I relented. Then I told him the story of Sarah's father—the homemade coffin, the bandanna around the jaw—and his own jaw dropped lower and lower.

"That would be illegal in Michigan," he said.

In fact, do-it-yourself burials without embalming are possible in Michigan as long as a licensed funeral director supervises the process. I don't think he was lying, just misinformed.


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