Green burials, home funerals: Closure for end-of-life care

By Diana Johnson

Diana Johnson, a Transformative Social Change degree student at Saybrook, grew connected to the aging process and caregiving early in life. Her mother was a volunteer caretaker. But instead of going into the medical field, Johnson wanted to learn more about the social aspects of aging, including end-of-life care. This summer, Johnson attended a training on green burials and home funerals taught by end-of-life-doulas. She left with new ideas to make end-of-life care “more intimate and meaningful.”

Diana Johnson

As a Saybrook student, I’d like to create a space for us to delve into considerations surrounding aging and the end of life, without looking at death solely as a medicalized event. Home funerals and green burials are options that align with an intimate and sustainable approach, facets of end-of-life considerations that I find central to transformative social change.

As part of the Saybrook community, we dedicate our lives to bettering the human condition. Our collective work spans the life course from supporting the youngest among us to comforting our elders through palliative care. We promote sustainable ways of being, devoting much of our time to work that positively impacts others and the planet. So how can this work continue even after we are gone? Have we considered how we might continue this legacy in death? Green burial and home funerals provide options in line with these values.

Why the sustainable option of a green burial is in line with my mission

What we choose to do with our bodies, after they have served us for a lifetime, is one way we can continue this legacy of conscious sustainable service. Current burial practice in most of our nation’s cemeteries requires a cement vault for internment. Cement vaults, in addition to nonbiodegradable caskets, perpetuate a burial system that is not sustainable. Cremation offers a more environmentally friendly option but still requires the use of natural gas and may release harmful chemicals. Some cemeteries have set aside space dedicated to green burial practices, and there are also burial grounds dedicated to preserving the land and local wildlife. Green burials do not include embalming, an invasive practice, which uses cancer-causing chemicals, harmful to workers and the environment. Rather, a body in its natural state is buried in a biodegradable casket, or shroud.

While participating in the Green Fair this summer, I was surprised that even among the socially and environmentally conscious, most people were unaware of these options. However, each person stated that they would prefer them now that they had more information.

There’s no place like home … funerals

Home funerals are an option that often precede a green burial. It is standard practice for funeral homes to require embalming, which would rule out a green burial. Historically, people have cared for their own loved ones after death. It was only after the Civil War, and the invention of embalming, a practice created to get fallen soldiers home to their families, that our modern death care industry was born. Death care eventually became big business, and a symbol of status—the grander the display, the better.

Home funerals provide space to create an intimate experience. Families can either pre-educate themselves in after-death care, or hire a support person (ex. end-of-life doula) to provide guidance. Over the course of a number of days, family and friends can stop in to honor their loved one. There is the option to partake in the healing power of art, ornamenting the casket. Sometimes people chose to paint on, color, or otherwise decorate the biodegradable casket. Children can be a part of the process at their level and comfortability.

There are no set standards for a home funeral, but this is the beauty. Time and presence are afforded to create an intimate and personalized experience with the potential for ceremony, healing, and closure. This is a family-led time, with the option to bring in a celebrant, or someone experienced in guiding the process.

Preplanning is essential for home funerals. Some barriers exist, but each state does legally allow you to care for your loved ones in your home. They don’t have to be taken somewhere else. The end-of-life doula that I worked with provides guidance on how to care for a deceased family member’s body within the home. This includes washing the body, dressing the body, and laying them out at home rather than a traditional funeral home. Family and friends come to the home to sit and honor their loved one, similar to a traditional memorial service, but from the comfort of the deceased’s home (or caregiver’s home).

Why sustainable end-of-life practices matter in my Transformative Social Change studies

I strongly believe that attention and resources need to be directed toward the oldest among us, and as a Transformative Social Change student, this is where my passion lies. There is an intergenerational disconnect that I believe leads to our current death-denying culture. I hope to be a part of the bridge that leads us back to ourselves and our awareness that our time here is finite. Death is indeed a sensitive topic. However, we will all eventually be faced with the death of a loved one, and one day, our own mortality as well.

The gift of time can be honored in so many ways. We can take time to consider, discuss, and record our own wishes for what we would like done when “our time” comes. We have the option of giving our own time and attending to our loved ones during and after this sacred transition, within the home environment we chose.

And finally, as we consider the ultimate resting place of our own body, the body that has been the vessel in helping us serve humanity and the natural world, we can choose to honor this lifetime through the sustainability of green burials. If we are able to look at ourselves as aging beings, we will be that much more cognizant and helpful at addressing the challenges and wishes of the loved ones around us.