Each year, 2.5 million Americans die. For the majority, about 70 percent, deaths happen in a hospital, nursing home or long-term care facility. What happens afterwards is nearly always the same, with few exceptions for religious traditions: A doctor or nurse will sign a death certificate and the body will be whisked to the funeral home, where it’s washed, embalmed, dressed, and prepared for a viewing and burial. A family usually sees the dead only a few times: when they die, if there’s an open-casket viewing and in the rare case when a casket is opened during burial.
But a small and growing group of Americans are returning to a more hands-on, no-frills experience of death. In the world of “do it yourself” funerals, freezer packs are used in lieu of embalming, unvarnished wooden boxes replace ornate caskets, viewings are in living rooms and, in some cases, burials happen in backyards.
Nobody keeps track of the number of home funerals and advocacy groups, but home funeral organizations have won battles in recent years in states such as Minnesota and Utah that have attempted to ban the practice. Most states have nearly eliminated any requirements that professionals play a role in funerals. It’s now legal in all but eight states to care for one’s own after death. And the growth of community-based, nonprofit home funeral groups and burial grounds that are friendly to the cause point to an increasing demand.