When Pam Howley’s 17-year-old daughter died of brain cancer in 2005, she knew one thing: “I did not want her embalmed.”
After a year and a half of watching her daughter Daron endure surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and finally hospice care, Howley did not want to put her daughter’s body through the procedure. Nor did she like the idea of turning her beloved daughter over to a funeral director. From a hospice nurse, Howley learned of another option: a home funeral.
It’s part of a small but growing movement in the United States to take back death. Led by aging baby boomers, often dealing with the deaths of their parents and facing their own mortality, Americans are slowly relearning what it means to care for their own dead.
“So many times, if a family does not have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way, they’re lost,” says Char Barrett, owner of A Sacred Moment in Seattle. She has assisted with two dozen home funerals and memorial services, including Daron’s.
A home funeral can encompass a memorial service, wake, viewing or a combination of the three. It's also an intimate experience: Friends or family members might help wash and dress the body, build or decorate a casket, plan a memorial service or accompany the deceased to the burial site or crematory.
After Daron died at her home in Bellevue, Wash., Howley kept her there for two days. Family members washed and dressed the body of the teenager who loved soccer and played the cello, placed dry ice under her torso to slow decomposition and moved her to a back bedroom so visitors could pay their last respects. A sister who flew in from New York painted Daron's nails and applied her makeup. Howley slept in the same room as Daron.
“It was really comforting to be able to go back and touch her, to have her still there,” Howley says.
Two days after Daron died, her casket was delivered. It was too big to fit in the apartment, so family members lifted Daron’s body with a sheet and carried her outside to it. Friends arranged stuffed bears, photos and mementos around her body before loading the casket into a friend's truck. Mourners accompanied her to the cemetery for a graveside service officiated by a priest, followed by a memorial service at a Catholic church.
Having Daron at home after her death gave Howley more time to accept the reality that her daughter was gone. “It meant a lot,” she says.
Many don’t know their options when a loved one dies, explains Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt., a nonprofit federation dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified and affordable funeral.
“Most of us in this country don’t know much about death, dying and funerals,” he says.
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Most states legally require only a certified death certificate, a permit giving permission to transport the body for disposition, and that the body be buried, cremated or donated to medical science, Slocum says. “There’s no law that says you have to have a viewing. No law that says you have to have an embalming.”
Coming full circle
Lisa Carlson, author of “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love” and executive director of the Hinesburg, Vt.-based Funeral Ethics Organization, a nonprofit that examines ethical issues facing the funeral industry, views home funerals as an extension of the natural childbirth and hospice movements rediscovered by baby boomers.
About 2.4 million people in the U.S. died in 2004, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About a third of them were cremated.
While it's difficult to track how many home funerals are held each year, Carlson says she's noticed an increase in inquiries. And this year, the nonprofit People's Memorial Association of Seattle began offering members the option of choosing a home funeral coordinated by Barrett's A Sacred Moment.
The average cost of a funeral in 2004, not including cemetery costs, was about $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Price varies considerably, depending on whether the body is cremated or buried and whether the family chooses a plain pine box or an expensive casket.
In contrast, Barrett says a home funeral and cremation can cost less than $1,000 if the family does everything including transporting the body to the crematory. For complete assistance with a three-day home funeral, which includes consultation, preparation of the body, purchase of dry ice, daily check-ins with the family, officiating of a memorial service and burial with a basic cloth-covered casket, the amount is about $2,000. That price does not include cemetery costs.
But the real value of a home funeral, Barrett says, isn't in the dollars saved but rather in slowing down the process and allowing the family to have some last, precious time with the loved one.
'It's the action that heals'
A home funeral can help mourners accept the reality of death, says Karen Russell, executive director of the nonprofit National Grief Support Services, based in West Hills, Calif. “The biggest myth of all time is that time heals all. Time does not heal, it’s the action that heals.”
But a home funeral might be too much for some to deal with, Russell says. “They might be exhausted, they might not have support from others or support of community.”
For families who choose a home funeral, she recommends placing the body in a back room so mourners do not have to look at it unless they choose to do so.
Even home funeral advocates acknowledge the experience is not for everyone. It might not be the best arrangement if a death is sudden, if a body is disfigured or if not everyone in the family agrees on it, Barrett says.
Others might not want to be so intimately involved, says Pat Lynch, at-large representative to the executive board of the National Funeral Directors Association. “Some people say, ‘I don’t have any interest in doing that at all.’ And that’s where a competent and licensed funeral director can help take their hand and lead them through it.”
Planning your own
For those making their own after-death arrangements, Lynch recommends leaving suggestions rather than directions, since survivors will have their own needs after a loved one’s passing.
Families should have a candid conversation about death, Slocum said. Tell your loved ones what you want and ask what's meaningful to them.
Even a morbid joke can help break the ice.
“Sometimes humor really helps,” Slocum says. “It lets people know this is a normal part of life, even if it’s a little bit scary.”
Howley has already told her remaining children her wishes for a home funeral when she dies.
“I can’t make them,” she says. “But I already told them that I want that.”
An advantage of a home funeral is that a family is truly in charge, Barrett says. After all, they knew the one who died the best.
“It’s sort of that one final act of love.”
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