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Friday, February 13, 2009

DIY in States that Require Use of a Funeral Director

Like the vast majority of green burial enthusiasts, I'm fortunate to live in a state where families may legally care for their own dead.

Pennsylvania, as I wrote in last week's blog, is one of forty-three states that grants its citizens the right to essentially act as their own funeral directors. By law, we Keystoners can lay out and wake our deceased at home, file death certificates, even transport remains to the cemetery or crematory -- among other last acts -- on our own.

Pennsylvania's family-friendly funeral regs make it easy for me to plan my green goodbye in advance (as I'm doing in recent and forthcoming blogs). But, as a number of you rightly note, that's cold comfort if you live in New York, Connecticut, Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan, Utah and Louisiana.

Families in these seven states must by law engage the services of a funeral director to handle certain end of life affairs, from signing death certificates to overseeing the burial. I'll leave it to Josh Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance to skewer to supposed logic behind those requirements and argue for full family rights at end of life, which he does in this blog. Slocum's post also links to groups that are working to overturn the restrictive funeral provisions.

Until legislators in those states see green, consider these tips when planning for the DIY natural return to the elements in the seven states above:

* Learn what your state requires when death comes calling.
The exact requirements vary by state. Indiana authorities will accept death certificates only if they're signed by funeral directors. Hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers and other state-licensed institutions in New York will release remains only to funeral directors.

If you know your state's specific requirement for end of life matters, you'll go into any funeral arrangement conference fully prepared to contract with a funeral director for only what you need her to do -- and not do.

You can find your state's regulations through the search I outlined in last week's blog. Also helpful is Lisa Carlson’s book, Caring for the Dead, and your local affiliate of the family-advocacy Funeral Consumers Alliance.

* Hire a green-leaning funeral director.
As the natural burial movement gains traction, a growing number of funeral directors are catering to the specific requests of its eco-friendly clientele. The handful of funeral directors I contacted in the restrictive states above not only proved knowledge about green funerals but were willing to help families conduct as much of them as they wanted.

Where do you find those directors? If your end-of-life plans call for burial in a natural cemetery, contact the cemetery and ask for a referral. When I called Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield, New York, for leads, burial coordinator Jennifer Johnson enthused about Lisa Auble.

Auble, a state licensed funeral director who owns and operates Lansing Funeral Home, has overseen a number of funerals and burials at Greensprings. "I believe in [green burial]," she told me. "And interest is really, really increasing." Per state law, Auble has assisted families who chose Greensprings by filing death certificates, overseeing burials, and, when necessary, removing remains from hospitals and like institutions.

Beyond that, she said she'll do as much or as little as a family requests. In most cases, her involvement has included transporting remains from their place of death and then, usually, placing them on dry ice (which, to her initial surprise, she found better preserves a body than refrigeration). Auble has also sewn fabric into shrouds for coffin-less burials.

The Green Burial Council is another useful source for leads. The Santa-Fe non-profit posts a state-by-state list of funeral directors who have gained the Council's eco certification. And, again, your local Funeral Consumers Alliance affiliate can steer you to area funeral homes they've found particularly helpful.

* Be clear about what you want your funeral director to do -- and nail down the cost.
Once you know the services a funeral director must by law undertake and, then, know the ones you and your family want to handle yourselves, you can check them off the General Price List the director will produce at an arrangement conference.

You'll also see in black and white the costs for each. The Nathan Butler Funeral Home in Bloomington, Indiana, for example, charges $600 to sign and deliver the death certificate. You'll pay Lansing Funeral Home almost $1,600 if you have Auble and her staff handle the only services you can't DIY by law in New York ($300 for her to be present at the burial, another $1,275 in non-declinable fees that cover arranging services, filing the death certificate, among others).

Note on the photograph above: The red flags indicate potential grave sites at Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve.

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.