Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics Grief + Mourning

Frontline Documentary: Facing Death

Frontline: Facing Death
Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor (November 23, 2010)


A Final Cocoon: Dying at Home
Joyce Wadler, New York Times (November 11, 2010)

Yet again, Frontline (the documentary film unit of America’s Public Broadcasting Service) delivers an unbelievably moving and intellectually engaged program. Frontline has won every major and minor documentary film award on the planet so it should come as no surprise that this new program Facing Death is so good.

Everyone needs to watch to this documentary. Everyone. Take the 55 minutes it requires and then watch it again.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

The documentary tackles one of the most pressing questions for any person with a terminal illness: when to stop heroic (potentially excessive) medical treatment and to then opt for palliative care in a hospice.

When Meg, Kim, and I started the Death Reference Desk we all agreed that End of Life issues would be fundamentally important to this entire project. I can honestly say that this Frontline documentary is one of the best programs that I have seen in a while on this very topic.

Critics of the American health care system (of which I am one) will lament the over medicalization of the patients in this film and I agree that the film really captures what aggressive, end of life medicalization becomes. The documentary also shows the medical staff and families involved in each case thinking through these bioethical quandaries.

What this film highlights, more than anything, is how impossibly difficult and heart wrenching all of these decisions become. None of this is ever simple or easy. My job is to think about death and dying all day, every day. I’m the son of a funeral director. I’ve watched my grandparents die.

These experiences are all valuable but they never fully prepare a person for that most difficult end of life decision: to die.

So watch this documentary and make your friends watch it. Then make sure that your end of life wishes are known to your next-of-kin and in writing.

The New York Times article at the top of the page is another side of the Frontline documentary, which is when people decide to stop the medical treatments and die at home. It’s a wonderful article about people choosing to die on their own terms in their own living spaces.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Backyards Aren’t Just for Dead Pets Anymore

Did I Mention the Graves Out Back?
Wendy Carlson, The New York Times (April 18, 2010)


Home Funerals Restore Intimacy to Grieving Rituals
Adriana Barton, The Globe and Mail (April 20, 2010)

April showers bring May flowers and, apparently, a deluge of articles on home burials and backyard cemeteries. The New York Times article on backyard cemeteries was spotted by my dad (the funeral director) who dutifully sent it along. And then this Globe and Mail article popped up a few days later. The Globe and Mail article is about home burials but it’s also about a screening of the PBS film A Family Undertaking. The film, which was released in 2004, is a good one and I recommend trying to see it when possible. I wrote about A Family Undertaking and other home burial issues last July. This weekend, the Vancouver Mountain View Cemetery is hosting a daylong seminar entitled The Final Disposition: De-Mystifying Death, Funerals, Cemeteries & Ceremonies and it kicks off with A Family Undertaking.

The seminar looks extremely interesting and I give Mountain View Cemetery credit for sponsoring the event. Public interest in home funerals, green burials, and backyard cemeteries is clearly growing and this interest isn’t going to subside anytime soon.

Interest in backyard cemeteries brings me to the New York Times article. As it reports, home burial was once common but has fallen in practice because, among other things, the effect on real estate resale value.

Now I, for one, would be totally cool with a cemetery in my backyard ESPECIALLY if it meant the house price was a little lower. I’m not bothered by the concept in the least. I have a hunch, too, that more and more people will pursue home funerals and burials as a joint venture. It makes sense.

Just make sure and get those permits signed!!!

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Home is Where the Dead Body Is

Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative
Katie Zezima, New York Times (July 21, 2009)

Tuesday’s New York Times featured a front page article — FRONT PAGE — on people who choose home burials for a deceased love one. Economic concerns are given as a key reason for any upsurge in home burials, because they do tend to be less expensive than traditional funeral services. The contemporary practice of home burial (where the body is kept in a private home so that family and friends can see it before burial or cremation) is not new and it most certainly predates the current economic recession. A strong case can be made that ‘home burials’ are actually a return to a more common 19th and early 20th century funereal practice. That said, I want to focus on the current trend reported by the Times.

In August 2004, for example, Public Television’s POV documentary film series aired a really fantastic home burial documentary entitled A Family Undertaking. The POV documentary follows different groups of families (each with a dying relative) and shows how the home burial is prepared. All of the families involved demonstrate time and time again how the home burial choice is a labor of love.

The fundamentally important part of any home burial is to understand what the local state law says about dead bodies. I say the following with complete sincerity (and as the son of a Funeral Director): most people are capable of handling their own funerals. Here is the most important information to know: 1.) what kinds of permits are required to transport dead bodies, 2.) who signs which pieces of paperwork, and 3.) what the local state law says about the final disposition of the body.

Final disposition is a fancy way of saying burial or cremation or any other legally sanctioned form of dead body disposal. Some states give more time than others for final disposition, it depends. Here is the key: ALL American states put their laws online and it is fairly easy to key word search ‘dead body’ or ‘corpse’ to see what the local law states.

The Times article also suggests that the renewed interest in home burials is another sign of economic stress. I’m not so sure. I agree that home burials do cost less than a full-on funeral home funeral, but I’m not convinced that economics really drives it. Economic concerns might function as a catalyst but it seems to me that many people choose home burial because it feels more meaningful.

I think that a better gauge of economic duress is this: the increase in unclaimed bodies in county morgues. These are situations where the next of kin cannot afford to pay the various burial costs so they leave the body in the morgue and local officials take care of the corpse.

All of this is to say, that as individuals begin to choose more and more varied forms of final disposition we will see increasing funereal variation, such as home burials. On the one hand, I totally understand this practice and support it. On the other hand, I really enjoy the classic 19th century cemeteries found across America and I would never turn away a chance to be buried in one. Quick aside: the New York Times ran a wonderful article a few days ago on the land surveyor at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The funniest part of the New York Times article is towards the end. It discusses how Maine carpenter Chuck Lakin makes handmade wooden coffins that can also double as bookshelves or display shelves… until death calls.

Chuck Lakin, coffin builder

Just by chance, a friend of mine sent me the following link this week on Coffin Shelves: Furniture for Life (and Death).

Coffin Shelves for Life

I am a total believer in multi-use coffins.