Film Update

Keith Carr

 Keith CarrHaving a home funeral for our parents, according to their wishes, meant much more to the family than shipping them off to an undertaker to be bled, mutilated and pickled.

They got to spend their last night in the bunk house on the home ranch that they loved, and where they had raised their family. The family felt it was a better closure to their lives than a conventional funeral.

The poem that was read at Bernard Carr's funeral was "A Cowboy's Prayer" by Badger Clark, the first Poet Laureate of South Dakota:

Oh, Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day you finished it so long ago.
And looked upon your work and called it good.
I know that others might find You in the light
That's sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight...

Read the full poem at the website of the Badger Clark Memorial Society.

Dwight Caswell

Dwight CaswellIt has been over a year and a half since my wife, Anne Stuart, passed away. Anne was certainly prepared for her death, and, as far as I could see, never showed any fear of death. I was probably as prepared as I could be, which is to say, I didn't completely fall apart. I did, however, become depressed, put on weight, and generally let my business and life go to hell for the better part of a year. I have a strong support system, friends and my church family, who have helped me back. Not back to where I was, but to a much better place. Remembering Anne,
and integrating the lessons of her dying into my life, have made me a better person.

Anne had hoped to turn her participation in "A Family Undertaking" into a testimony to her strong Christian faith, which was the reason for her absolute fearlessness in the face of death. I didn't think that would happen, but I think the film shows her strength, and perhaps viewers will wonder at the source of that strength. I also wonder how many viewers will notice that she was handicapped; Anne had a way of surmounting difficulties.

The filming itself was quite an experience. The portion when Anne was alive was filmed just after her medication had been adjusted, and was one of the rare times that she was not very coherent (though often hilarious); a lot of editing was required. The filming picked up on the day of her death and continued for the funeral the next day. Anne died in the wee hours of the night, and by that evening Beth Westrate and her crew were there — to interview me. Somehow I hadn't expected that. By then I was pretty strung out, and there were a number of retakes. "I don't know if you want that much emotion," the sound man would say, and we'd reshoot, me trying to hold it together. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

That day had been crazy before the film crew arrived. For a variety of reasons doctors didn't want to sign the death certificate (one thought that home funerals were illegal). Her hospice volunteer arrived, to find that Anne had left. By the funeral I had slept very little for several days, and was getting a little giddy. I did not realize until a screening at a film festival that I had cracked the only joke in a film about death. At least the joke was true.

The film, in fact, is true, although there is much more that could be said. Blessings on Beth Westrate and her people for opening the discussion of a worthy subject — one that few of us think about — to a wider audience.

Joshua Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance provides this update on the legal status of home funerals:

While caring for one's own dead was already legal in Mississippi, the legislature made a pro-consumer move in 2002 by adding the following paragraph to the existing statute:

MS CODE 73-11-63
"In addition, nothing in this chapter shall be construed to prevent or interfere with the ceremonies, customs, religious rites or religion of any people, denomination or sect, or to prevent or interfere with any religious denomination, sect, or any body composed of persons of a denomination, or to prevent or interfere with any church or synagogue from having its committee or committees prepare human bodies for burial or the families, friends or neighbors of the deceased persons who prepare and bury their dead without charge."

This is similar to a provision in Tennessee.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) has fielded several complaints in the past two years from families in Missouri who claim that funeral directors are preventing them from caring for their own dead. The families have said that funeral directors are citing a regulation (not a statute) that compels a funeral director to be present at every burial, cremation, or other interment.

Although this regulation does exist, it was promulgated by the Missouri State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. In most cases, such boards are empowered to regulate only their licensees, not private citizens. I questioned Missouri Assistant Attorney General Sharon Euler, who is counsel to the Missouri board, about the legality of the Board's regulation, and whether it could be applied to private families.

According to Ms. Euler, the Board could not likely enforce such a regulation. What's more, and she couldn't provide any statute that empowered the Board to govern private citizens in such a fashion. Ms. Euler said the only recourse the Board would have would be to go to court to seek an injunction against a family. To prevail, the Board would have to prove the family's actions endangered the public welfare, something that would be difficult to do.

The FCA's advice to Missourians? Go right ahead and care for your own dead. We stand ready to aid any family who may be challenged by a funeral director.