Death in the family


When Jerrigrace Lyons goes out on a case, she carries a basic set of tools: makeup kit, cardboard caskets and a handbook with practical instructions for icing and transporting bodies.

Lyons is a “death midwife,” a specialist in the little-known field of helping people manage the passing of a loved one -- outside the traditional funeral industry. As the nation reels through its worst economic crisis in decades, her business is booming.

In the past, Lyons’ clients have been drawn by the alternative nature of her service. Now many simply cannot afford traditional funerals and burials, often more than $10,000.


“People want something that is in line with what their loved ones would have wanted,” Lyons said by telephone from Hawaii, where she was teaching a sold-out workshop. “But they also want something that they can afford.”

An ordained minister from Sebastopol, Calif., Lyons started a nonprofit organization called Final Passages. She teaches workshops about such topics as how to care for a body while it’s in the family home and about burials outside traditional cemeteries.

Lyons also guides families through the legalities and paperwork of at-home funerals -- death certificates and body transport permits -- while providing emotional support and counseling. Her services can run from $500 to $1,500.

“As a death midwife, I’m helping to usher a person out of this world and into the next,” said Lyons. “It is really the same threshold as birth. I think of it as the comings and goings of our spirit. We come in and we go out. But it is the same doorway.”

She’s not the only death midwife to report increased interest in the service.

“In good times and bad, funerals have consistently been an incredible expense,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance. “This economic situation is forcing us to reassess the value of the dollar -- and not just the value of money, but the value of what we buy.”

When Howard Kopecky, 66, of northwestern Wisconsin was diagnosed with terminal cancer this year, he decided that he did not want his family to spend a lot of money on his funeral.


“We thought, ‘Why should we put all that money into the ground, when we could leave it to our children and grandchildren?’ ” said Howard’s wife, Phyllis, who had just lost her job at a nursing home when he was diagnosed.

The couple did not know exactly how to proceed, until Howard noticed a newspaper ad for death midwife Lucy Basler. “I think it made us feel like, OK, other people are doing this,” Phyllis said.

Basler, who had been trained at one of Lyons’ workshops, assisted the couple with the details of staging a home funeral.

When Howard died, Phyllis and their children held a memorial then buried him in a pine box on their property, in a spot they had legally designated as a cemetery. For a headstone, they used a large rock from a neighboring field.

The cost: under $1,000.

The economic crunch has pushed others toward money-saving options. Cremation was chosen last year in about 35% of deaths nationally, up from about 28% in 2002, the Cremation Assn. of North American reported.

And “green” burials -- which often skip embalming (about $600) and grave liners ($400 to $1200) -- are increasingly popular because they are thought to be better for the environment as well as potentially less expensive.

“The financial constraints that people are facing, and the realization that there are more ecological burial options, are the two forces that are really reshaping the death system,” said D. Brookes Cowan, a grief educator and professor at the University of Vermont.

Even those opting for traditional services are looking for ways to save. Slocum has recently advised families on cost-cutting measures such as making the casket, bringing flowers, and having a family viewing without embalming and then a closed casket during the official funeral.

“It is a social taboo, when talking about death, to talk about money,” Slocum said. “But for a society of people who consider themselves to be savvy consumers, we have been remarkably unsavvy when it comes to one of the most important things that we will have to deal with.”

Many people simply don’t know the laws, say Slocum and other funeral consumer advocates. Just seven states require that an undertaker be involved in a funeral. In almost all states, it is legal to keep an un-embalmed body at home for at least 24 hours.

When Joanne Grefsrud’s husband, Vern, died this year from Addison’s disease, she kept his body in their Wisconsin home for 3 1/2 days on a massage table packed with dry ice.

Grefsrud and her family washed, dressed and anointed Vern’s body and held a memorial service at the house for his friends.

“When the neighbors started coming, it was quite a surprise to everyone that we hadn’t sent him to a mortuary,” Grefsrud said. “But it gave me great comfort because I could cozy up in a blanket in a chair right beside him and talk to him. It just gave me more peace.”

But the family ran into problems finding a crematorium to do the work.

“The medical examiner said that we would have to go out of the county,” Grefsrud said. “He said no one was going to cooperate with us.”

So the family drove his body 100 miles -- in a pine casket in the back of a pickup -- to a facility that agreed to cremate it for about $800.

Basler acknowledged “a home funeral isn’t for everybody: It involves a lot of hands-on, and there are some folks who feel uncomfortable with that.”

Last month, just before Thanksgiving, Elizabeth Sky Nogotona, 61, invited Lyons to her house in Santa Rosa to discuss with her children and elderly father the possibility of an at-home funeral. Nogotona knew that she would not be able to afford a standard funeral for her father or her mother, who is in a nursing home. But she was willing to do whatever they thought was right.

After a discussion, the family decided on at-home funerals followed by cremation.

“It’s less expensive,” said her father, Michael J. Borge, “and more personal.”