THE BLOG
10/09/2009 07:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bury Your Own

Last week, we arranged for my 57-year-old brother-in-law to fly back from the rural Philippines. His health was failing and he was not expected to live more than a few months. He had been suffering for years from hepatitis C, contracted from a 1977 blood transfusion following a bad car accident. After enduring two long flights, he arrived at our home on Monday, September 28.

We had purchased a bed and fixed up a special room for him, and told him he could stay as long as necessary, while he awaited a liver transplant that most likely would not be available in time to save him. Yet he was buoyant and hopeful. On Tuesday afternoon, he was sitting in our sunny backyard. Being with family, he said, felt like an "oasis." He was smiling.

By noon on Thursday, he was dead. The cause was septic shock, along with acute respiratory distress and liver failure.

Still, we felt fortunate that we had gotten him back in the nick of time. Instead of his dying alone, thousands of miles away without palliative care, he died with people who loved him. He was happy in our home in those last two days, and once hospitalized was given medical care to ease his suffering.

With all other family members scattered across the country and aware of the intense psychological pressure surrounding death, we realized that we would be handling the funeral arrangements ourselves, something we'd never done before.

Typically, when a friend or relative dies, the bereaved are left behind in shock, often confused about their options and vulnerable to misleading information and high-pressure sales pitches from funeral directors.

We tried to stay focused on what made sense, so our very first decision was not to display his body. There would be no wake.

Advance planning is always best, but in our case there was none. Thankfully, my brother-in-law had made some of his wishes known. He had requested that he either have a "green" burial or be cremated. Since we had cared for him while he was alive, as a final act of love we decided we would care for him in death. Rather than placing him in the hands of morticians with who'd had no personal relationship, we decided to take a deep breath and do it ourselves--which, from time immemorial until about 150 years ago, was the traditional way human beings handled the death of a friend or relative.

A "green" or natural burial is the most ecological way of disposing a body after death. The deceased is quickly buried into the earth in a biodegradable shroud or a pine coffin. However, the closest green cemetery--which, not surprisingly, would not accept a body that had been embalmed--was in southern Maine, about 2 ½ hours away. The cost would be $800 for the plot and $500 for excavating the grave, not including the headstone.

In addition, there was the matter of transporting his body a long distance. A funeral director told us he would charge about $500 for transporting the remains across state lines to Maine, which required a special permit. Due to decomposition and odor, we were told that the green burial would have to take place within 48 hours of death. The logistics seemed daunting, so we decided instead on cremation.

Although cremation in Europe used to be widespread from Paleolithic times until Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, its use in America only began a little over 100 years ago. Now, approximately one third of all dead are cremated in the United States.

Our next decision was a fairly logical one. We would not purchase and place my brother-in-law in a $5,000 mahogany casket, in which he would then be reduced to ashes.

We began the seemingly daunting "Bury Your Own" process by trying to obtain the death certificate, usually issued by the attending physician. However, there was a glitch. Because my brother-in-law had died within 24 hours of being rushed to an emergency room, state law required that the medical examiner rule out foul play. This caused a 24-hour delay.

In the meantime, we located a crematory in a cemetery about a mile from the hospital. There were four prerequisites for cremation: a death certificate, a burial transit permit, a medical examiner certificate, and a cremation order signed by the next of kin. According to the law in most states, there is a mandatory 48-hour waiting period before cremation can occur.

There was a second glitch. We were informed that hospital policy forbade the release of a body to anyone other than a licensed funeral home. I knew that this had to be illegal, because it violated federal anti-trust laws. (Releasing a body exclusively to morticians promotes a monopoly.) One administrator told us that during her 32 years at the hospital a next of kin had never personally picked up a deceased from the hospital morgue.

At Friday noon, the day after my brother-in-law's death, we returned to the hospital and picked up his death certificate. We were also told that the hospital's legal counsel had reluctantly agreed to release his body directly to us.

We brought the death certificate to the city's health department, which issued a "burial transit permit," allowing us to transport my brother-in-law's body to a cemetery or crematory.

Next, we rented a van and drove to the crematory where we picked up a free "cremation container" and placed it in the back of the van. This container was essentially a flimsy coffin. It consisted of a wooden base and a cardboard cover. (Some cremation containers are made of opaque plastic.)

As we drove back to the hospital and parked near its morgue, I began to feel queasy. We were met by two security guards who helped us carry the cremation container to the morgue. I took a deep breath and steadied myself as the door to a large refrigerated room was opened, and my brother-in-law's body, which had been placed in a somewhat tightly fitting white zippered bag, was wheeled out on a gurney. He resembled an Egyptian mummy.

We placed the empty cremation container on a second gurney next to his 200-pound body and then, with some difficulty and assistance from the security guards, made the transfer.

We placed the cardboard cover over my brother-in-law and tied it shut. We then wheeled him to the van and slid his coffin into the back. It took us five minutes to drive to the crematory.

The crematory manager helped us off load the coffin onto a gurney, which he then wheeled into the crematory. Outside the door of the retort (furnace), we placed flowers on my brother-in-law's coffin, bowed our heads, and said goodbye.

He was cremated on Monday, October 5. We did not purchase a $1,000 urn and will not be putting his ashes in a columbarium, a building that holds ashes. We have used our own pottery container.
Later, we will hold a memorial service and will scatter his ashes in places that had special meaning for him.

In the United States about 2.5 million people die every year, and the typical American funeral costs approximately $6,500. The cost can easily exceed $10,000 once the burial plot, headstone, flowers, and other expenses are included. The typical cremation can cost from $800 to $4,000. Ours cost $410, along with $20 to rent the van.

My brother-in-law was the kind of person who would have smiled at and approved of the way we dealt with his earthly remains.

"Bury Your Own" may not be for everyone, but it is a viable and loving option, even more so during an economic depression.*

Gary S. Chafetz is the author of The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

* 1. Contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit federation of nearly 100 local organizations, which educates the public on prudent funeral planning and assists against the exploitation of grieving consumers. (http://www.funerals.org).

2. Funds are often available to assist in burying or cremating the dead:
• Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces and some civilians who have worked with the military or U.S. Public Health Service are entitled to free burial at a national cemetery, including a grave liner, marker and opening and closing of the grave. This does not include mortuary fees.
• The Social Security Administration offers a lump-sum $225 death benefit payment that can be used for funeral expenses, payable to a spouse or minor children of the deceased if they meet certain requirements.
• Organizations built around certain careers, such as the Railroad Retirement Board, as well as some social groups, unions and pensions, offer allowances to defray funeral costs.

3. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) recently introduced The Bereaved Consumer's Bill of Rights Act of 2009 (HR 3655). The bill sets national standards for the protection of funeral and cemetery consumers. The Act will direct the Federal Trade Commission to strengthen and expand the Funeral Rule, which currently applies only to funeral homes, but not to cemeteries. The Bill requires the FTC to enact rules that will:
• Compel cemeteries to give consumers accurate prices before the sale.
• Provide cemetery consumers the right to purchase only the goods and services they want. Families will be able to buy markers, monuments, or grave vaults from less expensive retail vendors, rather than being held captive to the cemetery's prices.
• Bar cemeteries from forcing families to buy entire packages of goods or services, if the family wishes to choose them a la carte.
• Require cemeteries to keep accurate records of all burials sold, and where remains are interred, and to make those records available to regulators.
• Bar cemeteries from lying about the law--for example, claiming that state laws "require" vaults to surround an in-ground casket.