Jolene Bryant kneels by the headstone made for her husband's grave. It reads "Papa Luke Bryant." Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

KNOX, Maine — Luke Bryant, a jack-of-all-trades — husband, father, brother and son — wanted to live free.

Free from debt, free from unnecessary complications and free from being told what to do.

He died that way, too.

Bryant, 44, who had cancer, died at home in Knox on July 24, with his wife, Jolene Bryant, and his brother, Ben Bryant, nearby. He was buried the next day, on a green patch of land on his farm close to the beehives he loved, in a wooden casket that his brothers made for him.

It was just what he wanted, his wife said, and cost the family very little. The home burial was about as far as they could get from the myriad decisions and costs associated with a more traditional funeral.

According to the National Funeral Director’s Association, in 2017 the average American funeral cost $7,360, plus at least $3,500 in cemetery costs. Death can place a financial burden on families that may be grieving, ill-prepared to shop around and unaware that they can do so.

When a loved one dies, everything can feel overwhelming. Advocates for funeral choice want to encourage people to plan ahead and know their rights, so they can make the right funeral and burial decisions for them.

That’s just what the Bryants did. They had no idea it was even possible to bury someone at home until last September, when they stumbled upon the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine’s booth at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity.

“You’d never seen two people in their late-30s so excited,” Jolene Bryant said. “It was just like an elephant was lifted off of us. We left there floating on clouds. We knew it was going to be OK.”

The alliance is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that aims to help people make more informed decisions about after-death arrangements. It’s a mission now shared by Jolene Bryant, 40, who wants other people to know they have choices.

“As difficult as it may be to think about and plan things like that, down the road, you’ll be glad you did,” she said. “Because it’s going to happen whether you think about it and plan for it or not.”

Luke and Jolene Bryant were used to forging their own path. When they married in 2001, it was a homemade affair. She wore a wreath of daisies atop her hair and he wore a $10 Goodwill suit for the ceremony at the top of Aborn Hill in Knox.

“The wedding was as unique as the funeral,” Luke Bryant’s mother, Jackie Bryant said. “Everybody loved Luke. He was very friendly, very upbeat. He helped anybody.”

Clockwise from left: Luke, Jolene and their son Diesel, pictured together over the years. Credit: Courtesy of the Bryant Family

Ten years ago, though, Luke Bryant had a scary brush with death when he hit a patch of loose dirt on his motorcycle and got hurt badly. He lost his spleen, and it was touch-and-go for a while. After he had recovered, he and Jolene started to get serious about making financial goals and otherwise planning for the future. They took out a life insurance policy for him “just in time,” his wife said.

“You think all these practical things, they’re really boring. But they let you be free,” she said.

It was just in time because when he was 39, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Doctors found a tumor, and Luke Bryant had surgery and chemotherapy. After that, he was cancer free for about a year.

Then it came back with a vengeance and began to metastasize. After another surgery to remove a large tumor, Luke Bryant decided not to go through chemotherapy again.

“It was quality rather than quantity he wanted,” his mom said.

Much later, they learned that their doctor figured that Luke, as sick as he was, could only hang on for a couple more months. The doctor, who they count as a friend, kept that opinion to himself, and Luke beat those odds. For two years, he kept working and taking care of the couple’s 17-year-old son, Diesel, who has cerebral palsy. He called it living with cancer rather than dying of it, and concentrated on making great memories for his family to hold on to later.

But he was getting worse. Luke Bryant got connected with the hospice care program, to help him stay at his own home even as he grew sicker.

“Hospice was amazing. They made everything so smooth,” Jolene Bryant said.

The discovery that they could have some control over his funeral and burial was a relief, and they went to a lawyer to create a deeded cemetery plot at their home. And when they realized the end was near, Luke Bryant was able to help his wife sell his dump truck and other equipment he used for his welding business.

They created a bucket list of things to do together before his death, but the pandemic put the brakes on a lot of their plans.

“Everything was closed,” Jolene Bryant said.

They went on a couple of family trips around Maine, but the bumpy roads were hard for him to handle.

“It was really hard to watch him decline — someone so healthy, who was always so busy,” Jackie Bryant said.

His brother, Andy Bryant, decided to build a casket, and did so with the help of Ben Bryant and other family members. They didn’t know if they should tell Luke Bryant at first, but finally decided to show it to him. Inside, they had placed a photo of Luke, Jolene and Diesel.

Clockwise from left: Jolene Bryant, left, and Jackie Bryant look at Luke Bryant’s grave site in the newly-created family cemetery plot; Family members gathered at Luke Bryant’s funeral service in July; Andy Bryant works on the casket he made for his brother, Luke Bryant. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN; Courtesy of the Bryant Family

“That touched him,” Jolene Bryant said.

He had some strong ideas about where he wanted the coffin placed.

“He was so adamant about wanting to be buried at an angle. He wanted to be facing east, and raised up a little, to see the sunrise,” his wife said.

The end came quietly.

Over a few days in July, he stopped eating, and then drinking. He lay unconscious on the couch, his breaths the clearest sign he was still alive. Then they stopped, Jolene Bryant said. She and his brother checked for a pulse and didn’t find it. They saw his eyes had changed, and that he was gone.

She called hospice, then his parents. His father and brothers came over to dress him in his funeral clothes — which included a T-shirt emblazoned with an off-color joke.

“I told him, ‘I’m burying you in that T-shirt that I hate,” Jolene Bryant said. “He laughed.”

The next day, family and a minister gathered outside the house. There was a brief funeral service, they sang “Amazing Grace,” and then put the coffin in the ground.

“It was ideal. It was what he always wanted,” Jolene Bryant said. “He just wanted everything to be simple, to be the least burden on me he could.”

The family hasn’t missed the trappings and formalities of the other kind of funeral at all.

“Luke’s not suffering now, and we’re all pretty much at peace with everything,” Jackie Bryant said.