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Friday, March 28, 2008

Update on Home Funerals, to Come

I'm on the road to Washington, D.C., where I'll be speaking at the 10th anniversary celebration of Crossings: Caring for Your Own at Death. Readers of Grave Matters will remember its founder, Beth Knox, the mother who holds a home funeral for her seven-year-old daughter following an automobile accident. It's Beth's heartbreaking and affirming story that inspired me to include a chapter on home funerals in the book. I'll report on the celebration and on developments in the home funeral movement when I return.

In the meantime, those of you who have followed our discussion here on the merits of new eco caskets that are showing up in modern-day coffin shops might enjoy this short clip on the topic, from American Public Media's radio show, Marketplace.

The photo above was taken at one of Beth Knox's workshops, in which she teaches the basics of holding a home funeral.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, March 14, 2008

Better to Expire at Home

For my family's sake, I hope I don't expire in any of our local hospitals. If I do, there's no saying if my wife and daughters will be able to handle my final affairs themselves.

That's the gist of what I learned when I called around to hospitals in my area. My question to the spokespersons at each of them was straightforward: would my family be able to take control of my remains -- that is, remove and transport them home or to the crematory or cemetery directly -- were I to die on hospital premises?

The answer? I certainly wish I knew.

One representative said she'd never heard of any family making such a request; another said she'd look into the question and get back (but never did). None of them, in fact, knew what hospital policy was in this case or if one even existed. All, I'm sure, wrote me off as a crackpot (a designation that, as an environmental journalist, I'm all too familiar with).

I'd called the hospitals to help fill out a "final affairs" packet I've been assembling for my family (more on this in future blogs). Planning one's own eventual funeral is always a good idea, for obvious reasons. Doing that for any kind of natural return, particularly one that bypasses the funeral director, is even more important, because families must rely on their own, limited knowledge to pull it off. I figured any information I could provide while still vertical -- i.e., a copy of the hospital policy, the name of representatives I spoke with -- would educate my family about its rights when death came calling, embolden them, perhaps, and, in the process, make the simple funeral/burial of my choice more likely to happen. Starting with getting me out of the hospital.

I knew that policy addressing the release of remains, when it exists at all, differs from hospital to hospital. Some permit families to retrieve remains only if the deceased had expressed such a wish in writing. Others only release corpses to licensed funeral directors.

Certainly, funeral directors remove bodies from hospitals in an efficient manner and know how to navigate the bureaucratic channels of post-deathcare -- a big plus for hospitals and families. But are funeral directors the only entities who may undertake that responsibility -- by law? Following my less than fruitful interactions with area hospitals, I've begun to consider this broader question: do hospitals have the legal right to deny families the opportunity to retrieve their own dead from hospital grounds?

I'll investigate this question in the coming weeks and report back.

The photograph that heads this blog was taken at Honey Creek Woodlands, a conservation burial ground for all faiths on the grounds of the 2,100-acre Monastery of the Holy Spirit, outside Atlanta. Slated to open next month, it's being developed and operated by Billy and Kimberley Campbell of Memorial Ecosystems. More on this newest and intriguing -- a Monastery! -- addition to the growing list of green cemeteries shortly.

Note: I'm out of town to celebrate Easter with family next week. My next blog entry will be on March 28.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Cremation: The Tour

What impressed me most when I visited the crematory I profile in Grave Matters -- Philadelphia Crematories Incorporated (PCI) -- was the openness of owner Bill Sucharski and staff. Far from seeking to shield this reporter from the details of disposition by fire, Bill literally opened his doors to me, leading me on a tour of his spotless facility, answering my every question (multiple times and over repeated visits) and allowing me a look behind the scenes. It's the same tour he offers anyone who knocks on his door, because, as Bill told me, "We’re not doing anything we’re ashamed of."

You should demand a similar tour of any crematory you're considering engaging, says Bill. Until you do, here’s a limited preview, compliments of the History Channel, of what you can expect to see.

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.