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Friday, January 30, 2009

Step 1 in Green Funeral Planning: Documenting the Right to DIY

They may wail and rent their garments. They might toast their good fortune with my best Scotch. No matter how my family marks my passing from the scene, however, this much is clear: they have every legal right to handle what's left of my mortal remains.

Lisa Carson documents those last rights in the Pennsylvania chapter of Caring for the Dead. The PA State Association of Township Supervisors does the same, in more detail, in this summary of state funeral laws (to wit: "Nothing in state law requires a family to use a funeral director.").

I'm adding copies of each of these documents to an end-of-life file I'm preparing for my family. I have a good idea of what I want to happen with my remains upon my final exit, and I want to make sure my family has all the information they need to follow through (after they've finished raiding my liquor cabinet, of course).

They may need it. Officials in charge of post-death affairs in this corner of the Keystone State have an uncertain grasp on the legalities of the DIY funeral and burial, I'm finding. When time comes, my family may have to educate the Powers that Be that, yes, it does have the right to essentially serve as my funeral director. The documentation I'm collecting now will go a long way to prove the point then, if need be.

Interestingly, no Pennsylvania law I've turned up explicitly states that right. The state has enacted all manner of laws for funeral directors; it does not, however, reserve post-death matters solely to the dismal trade. Who, then, has those rights?

According to the Vital Statistics Law of 1953 (P.L. 304) -- another document that's going into my family file -- that somebody would be a "person."

Section 501, which deals with death certificates, reads: "The person in charge of interment or of removal of the dead body . . . shall file the death certificate . . . ." Another section further on emphasizes the point, stating that the "local registrar shall issue the permit [to 'dispose' of remains] only after the person in charge of interment or removal has filed with the local registrar a certificate of death . . . ."

Legislators probably assumed that the unnamed "person" in their law would be a funeral director. A funeral director has so consistently been that person on my home turf that officials here may assume he's the required one by law to handle final affairs.

Yet by leaving that person unidentified, unnamed, Pennsylvania legislators are allowing non-funeral personnel to fill the role: like my wife, children and parents.

To find documentation on DIY rights in your state, start with Carlson's book. Then go online. Google "state legislature" and the name of your state. The results should bring you to your state laws. At the home page of my state legislature, for example, I clicked on "Session Information" and then entered "funeral" in the "Find By Legislation" search box. The search led to amendments that had been made to the Vital Statistic Law, which I then tracked down.

Alternatively, you can search for your state funeral board, whose web pages often link to state funeral laws. Also, consult the pages of your state affiliates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Many of them post information about state funeral laws.

Next time: Claiming a body from the hospital.

The video above offers more proof of the value of a home funeral and why it's becoming more popular. The video features Beth Knox, the founder of Crossings whom I profile in the home funeral chapter of Grave Matters.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 16, 2009

Emily Dickinson Speaks of Death from the Grave

In the coming weeks I'll return to the topic I started but flagged on early last year: a step-by-step plan for my own eventual green burial.

Planning in advance for a standard sendoff via the local funeral home can be an involved affair. The green goodbye can be ever harder to arrange, as I discovered when I went to do it myself.

I tell you why and then walk you through the process I'm charting to set my own affairs in order. My goal? To not just record my final wishes but to make it as easy as possible for my family to follow through on them. The steps will be specific to my Pennsylvania hometown, but I'll work to make them broad enough to apply elsewhere.

Back with step one next week: documenting the legal right my family has to care for its own dead.

And speaking of passings, here's Emily Dickinson giving us a gentle and seductive view of death's arrival in her famous poem, "Because I could not stop for Death." Death not so kindly stopped for Emily in 1886 (she died of Bright’s Disease). But the Cyberage has resurrected the Belle of Amherst in this eerie but oddly fascinating "recording" of the poem, in the video above.

Because I could not stop for Death
Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 09, 2009

Green Burial: The Visual Tour

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As the green burial movement gathers steam, organizations have approached me to ask if I speak to groups about natural return. If so, they've wanted to know just what I'd present and how I'd do it.

The answer is, yes, I do speak about green burial and general funeral issues. In the last year, I gave some dozen presentations around the country on "grave matters" to college students, pro-consumer funeral groups, church congregations, hospice workers, and funeral directors, among others. The events have generally been free and open to the public.

For me, these engagements have offered the opportunity to present an updated tour of the green burial movement using images I'd wanted, but was unable, to include in Grave Matters. It's one thing to write about a moving natural burial at Ramsey Creek Preserve; it's quite another to see photographs of families gathered in that lush pine woods, circled around a plain, wood coffin that's suspended above a cavity strewn with flowers and pine needles, the sun filtering through the tall canopy overhead.

That visual tour includes scores of photographs I took in the course of my research and travels, including those of natural burial grounds and backyard cemeteries, of burials at sea and via memorial reef ball, a honeycombed dome containing the deceased's ashes that serves as an aquatic nursery off the U.S. and Canadian coastline.

Archival photographs I've collected show early American funerals and their progression to the more involved sendoffs of today. By way of contrast, I address the environmental aftermath of the standard funeral and how funeral directors are coming to embrace more natural returns.

If you're interested in seeing one of these presentations, I’ll be speaking this spring in Rochester (NY), Princeton (NJ), and Greensboro (NC). You can find a full list of engagements, with specific locations, by clinking on this BookTour link.

If you'd like to bring me to speak to your group, you can reach me by e-mail: I'll tell you more about the presentation and arrangements. I can also send testimonials from organizers of past engagements.

More on Bibb’s Ban of Green Burial (the subject of my last blog post)

Beth Collins -- the CEO of the would-be Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon, Georgia -- attended a standing-room only board meeting of the Bibb County Commission earlier this week and asked members to repeal their anti-green cemetery ordinance. The chairman said he'd consult with fellow board members but, according to this story in the Macon newspaper, said he "didn't think they would change their minds." If they don't, Collins suggested she'd bring a lawsuit against the county.

In the meantime, neighboring Twiggs County has quietly been considering its own green cemetery legislation. (The Twiggs County line borders one side of the Summerland cemetery.) From the looks of this item in the April 1, 2008 agenda of the County Commission, any ordinance would seem less than friendly to natural burial:

"After discussion and input from several citizens in attendance, Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter to the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission expressing our concerns regarding the placement of this type of cemetery so near to this County, and the environmental impact of such a cemetery. Floyd seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried.

Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter stating these same concerns to Mr. Dave Blankenship, of the District Health Office in Macon. Floyd Seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried."

A Green Cemetery Ordinance for Twiggs County was passed on November 18. I'll post a copy of the ordinance when I get it.

To see how one county council -- this one in Wellington, New Zealand -- has embraced, not fought, green burial, click on the video at the head of this blog. It profiles the folks who worked to establish the first modern natural cemetery in the southern hemisphere, the Wellington Natural Cemetery.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.