Home Funerals and Green Burials

Last week we attended a seminar organized by the Minnesota Threshold Network. I’ve  been interested in green burial ever since I heard about it from a funeral director when I volunteered at hospice. The trouble is, it has been illegal in Minnesota — until now.

Thanks to the work of State Rep. Carolyn Laine, Minnesota families now have choices about how to conduct funerals and burials. (But we may not have these options for very long. HF1744 has been introduced in the state legislature and it evidently would repeal some or all of the rights only recently gained. As I understand it, the president of the funeral director’s assn is a constituent of the bill’s sponsor.)

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The home funeral movement is about options. It gives the family the legal right to do as much or as little as they would like to do in the period from the time of death until the burial. Families can choose to:

  • Bathe and prepare the body
  • Use a plain wooden casket (there is even a community casket that the Threshold Network can loan)
  • Hold the visitation in the home, at a church, or at another location
  • Keep the body for up to 4 days
  • Refuse embalming

Several people talked about their personal experience with a home funeral. The reasons they cited for doing so were spiritual, economic and environmental. One woman compared this desire for a more natural death and burial experience to our society’s shift to natural childbirth some 30 years ago.

The speakers were very moving. They talked about the benefits of being able to spend time with their loved one — the time they wanted, not the time available in a commercial establishment. They had greater opportunity to grieve. They had time to create ritual. Each of the speakers kept the body at home for 3 days, during which they could be with their loved one or be in another room. Children came and went – sometimes playing and sometimes crying.

The Threshold Network has materials that explain how to do the paperwork, how to prepare the body, how to keep the body preserved during the viewing period (if you want to have a viewing period) — the secret is dry ice (or a Minnesota winter). They also have volunteers who can help families with bathing the body or making arrangements.

Here are a few interesting things I learned:

  • Embalming is a remnant of our civil war. It is only meant to keep the body preserved for a short period of time before burial. Embalming fluid contains formaldehyde. It breaks down relatively quickly once in the ground, but it is toxic to the people who work with it and has recently been named a known carcinogen.
  • Cremation is generally thought to be a “greener” burial option but it is none too green!!! With the energy used to cremate one body, a person could drive 4,000 miles. In just one year alone, the energy used for cremation could take us to the moon and back 83 times. WOW – Peter is rethinking his desire for cremation.
  • There are some other methods for disposing of the body besides burial and cremation, but they are not easily available. One is biocremation (mixing with chemicals to break down tissue) and promession (available in Europe,  the body is freeze dried and then the remains are broken up into powder).

Truth be told — I’ve been preparing my husband to break the law for a number of years now. I want to be buried in the dirt, not in a concrete vault. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get my wish unless a family member was willing to sneak out into the woods at night to bury me. But perhaps that will soon be available in Minnesota, like it is in 20 other states.

Green cemeteries are called “conservation cemeteries.” In a typical cemetery, if you peeled back the grass you would see a veritable parking lot of concrete vaults, put there purely for the ease of lawn maintenance. A conservation cemetery does not have concrete vaults. It does not require embalming, or even a coffin/casket. Some do not allow traditional headstones, some do. These cemeteries look like parks or forests and because cemeteries are protected from development, conservation cemeteries will remain natural.

This was an excellent presentation and we’d like to see many more people around the Twin Cities learn about this option. The Network folks are available to give talks. And they have an excellent list of resources on their blog.

1 thought on “Home Funerals and Green Burials

  1. Kathryn Nelson

    I’m considering the option of donating my body to the University of Minnesota for medical research. I’ll post more information later, unless someone else has the details already.



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