CAMDEN, Maine — When the funeral home employees arrived at the house and put Klara Tammany’s father in a body bag destined for the crematory, the process seemed rushed.
Tammany recently recalled her mother standing in the living room saying, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this,” as her husband’s body was whisked away.
“We didn’t see him again until the ashes came back,” Tammany recalled.
Her father had lived with Parkinson’s disease for 37 years, and Tammany’s mother had taken care of him the entire time. She wanted to play a bigger role in caring for the body after his death, said Tammany, who has since become a leading member in a volunteer group that educates people about alternative ways to care for a loved one’s body after death.
“After Dad died, [Mom] said, ‘This will never happen in our family again,’” Tammany said.
Years later, when Tammany’s mother was diagnosed with a terminal disease, her mother and family members began planning for a memorial service at home. They found a friend to help fill out all the paperwork to address state and local regulations. They found a coffin maker.
When her mother died months later, Tammany washed the body at her mom’s home and called the friend who had made the casket.
“We put my mom in it, and she was laid in our dining room on two sawhorses, and she was there for two days. It was an old-fashioned wake in the house,” Tammany said. “People wrote messages to my mother on the inside of the [coffin] lid.”
Then, after waiting the two-day period that Maine requires for all bodies before they can be cremated, Tammany and her friend loaded the coffin into a van and brought it to the local crematory.
“It was wonderful to not be rushed. When Dad died, within a half an hour, the funeral home came and put him in a body bag and rushed him out of the house. With Mom, it was really nice. I could say goodnight to her for those two nights. It was gentle and slow,” Tammany said.
Tammany estimates that her father’s funeral cost $2,000 and that her mother’s cost about $350.
“It’s not right for everybody,” she acknowledged. “Philosophically, emotionally or spiritually, some people would not feel right doing what we did, but for people who want to, people should know it is an option.”
She referred to the family’s allowing what happened to her father as “uninformed consent.”
“With my mom, we did what we wanted the way we wanted,” she said.
To help tell other people about funeral options, including home memorial services, Tammany and two other Mainers formed the group Last Things. The volunteer organization has created a website, www.lastthings.net.
Eva Thompson, another member of Last Things, recently gave a talk in Camden about funeral options available in Maine.
“I think it’s sad when people go to a funeral that’s not meaningful to the family and the family is left shaking their head over the bill,” Thompson, an ordained interfaith minister, told the 50 or so people assembled at Merryspring Nature Center for her lecture. “It’s good to think about [funeral planning] when you’re not under stress.”
Thompson asked audience members to research their post-mortem options. While she explained several choices, the talk focused on green burials, which she prefers and which she said have less environmental effect than typical burials. Green burials avoid embalming, shun coffins made of exotic woods or metals, and don’t use cement vaults to preserve the body and coffin.
Thompson presented the group with the following funeral options and costs, based on her research:
• Standard funeral home burial, $6,000-$10,000 plus fees.
• Standard cremation, $1,200 plus fees.
• Green burial in a green cemetery, $1,000-$1,200.
• Burying a body on family property, price varies.
If someone chose to do a home burial, that person could transport the body, build a coffin, put the body in the coffin, dig a hole in the yard and fence off the area at pretty minimal cost, Thompson said. But the process to do that requires a lot of planning and heaps of paperwork to meet state and local laws and regulations, she stressed.
“There are choices,” said Thompson, who offers to work with families to create and officiate individualized memorial services. “You wouldn’t do a home funeral because it’s cheaper. It takes a lot of paperwork. It’s a philosophical choice, like a home birth.”
The major regulations around home burial are that the homeowner have enough land, that not more than a quarter-acre be used for burial, that the area be clearly defined and that the burial site be marked on the property’s deed, which Thompson said could affect the resale of the property.
“It freaks some people out,” she said. Also, the new owner would have to allow the family reasonable access, which some people interested in buying a property might not like.
Thompson’s lecture was attended by mostly senior citizens.
“We are all going to die, and I’d like to go out the way I want to go out,” said Tom Hopps, 81, of Camden.
Talking about the process helps, Hopps said.
“I think it makes the passage somewhat more acceptable,” he said. “If you’re really thinking about this, maybe death isn’t so dark.”
Before she became a minister, Thompson worked as a hospice volunteer and bereavement caregiver. She believes that planning one’s own funeral can be therapeutic. It can be therapeutic for family members to plan a funeral for a loved one ahead of time too, she said.
“It’s healing to be part of the process and do something physical, like build a coffin, instead of having someone whisk the body away,” she said after the talk.
But funeral director Jim Fernald of Brookings-Smith Funeral Home, who is a member of the Maine Funeral Directors Association, said not many families are prepared for that kind of involvement in a loved one’s funeral.
“Although a lot of people think they want to participate in the handling of remains, when it comes down to it, it puts them in an uncomfortable position,” Fernald said. “I’ve heard people say ‘I really wanted to be part of it,’ but when it comes to that time, it’s still their mom or dad.”
Fernald said green burials and home funerals have not seemed to be a huge trend in Maine’s funeral industry recently.
His business, which also has a crematorium, conducted 700 cremations last year, only one of which involved family members transporting the body and handling the paperwork themselves, he said. Of the burials his funeral home conducted last year, he recalled one being a green burial out of about 325.
“Although it happens occasionally, I wouldn’t call it a trend,” he said.
Maine has two green cemeteries, according to Thompson. One is in Orrington, the other in Limington.
The important thing, Thompson stressed at her lecture, is “we have to be good consumers.”
“I think it’s similar to buying a car,” she said. “You don’t just buy what they tell you to buy. You shop around. We have to be educated and ask for what we want.”