Monday night was my next-to-last Hospice Volunteer class. After solemnly filing into the small room in the funeral parlor and silently gulping back the sticker shock at the price of caskets and funeral arrangements, we nervously sifted through the brochures littering the coffee table. It was a strangely uncomfortable class for eight women who had sat through weeks of lectures on how to deal with infectious diseases and spiritual issues.
Not so long ago, aging and death were part of every day life and were dealt with compassionately and sensibly. Generations of family lived together and when death occurred, the deceased was laid out in the parlor or dining room, for several days, allowing visitors to pay their respects. Burial was most often in a simple family plot on the property.
The funeral director, a fourth generation owner, reminisced about the days his great-grandfather opened the funeral home. His house was the largest in town and could accommodate big gatherings. As the trend turned away from home funerals grew, the state imposed licensing of the facilities and required a two-week course in proper handling of the bodies. Today the funeral industry is becoming dominated by large corporations and the small town funeral homes are being squeezed out.
With so much to consider during at a time of emotional turmoil, planning and understanding the options can smooth the process, regardless of the timeliness of death. The class slowly relaxed as we asked the most intimate questions about the process after demise. Can I bury Aunt Bertha in the backyard? Yes with some caveats. Do I have to be embalmed? No. What is a “green” burial? What if I want to donate my body or organs to a medical school?
The reality is you can have many choices and a lot of latitude within state laws. A recent Gallup poll shows a rise in cremation over traditional burial. Americans are seeking environmentally sensitive alternatives that include Alkaline Hydrolysis over fire. This process produces the same results with a lower carbon footprint; reduced greenhouse gases and is closest to natural decomposition.
OK? Enough of the gory facts? We took a tour of the preparation and embalming room. In 1915 when the house became a funeral home, a corner of the cool, fieldstone basement was refurbished into the preparation room. Today, the gray stone foundation is still visible in places and though the room has the modern austerity of an operating theater, the feel is still gothic and unsettling. Later, we moved upstairs to the first floor, which has been converted in several rooms for gatherings and a small chapel.
Taking a tour of a funeral home may not be up there with visiting Disney Land but recognizing the inevitable and giving thought to how you would like to leave this world is enlightening.