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Dead Wrong 

Are Vermonters getting stiffed on the facts about home funerals?

Any mother can appreciate the bond that held Elizabeth Knox to her daughter on the day in October 1995 when 7-year-old Alison Sanders was pronounced brain-dead from the impact of an airbag that deployed during a low-speed car accident. Even after the life-support machines were disconnected and her heart stopped beating, Alison was still Knox's child, and the mother needed time to let go.

Knox had delivered Alison by natural childbirth and stayed home to raise her. She'd always put her daughter in car seats, taught her to wear a bicycle helmet and instructed her on table manners. To be told by the hospital nurses that "some stranger" would take over the care of her daughter's body was anathema to her.

"Not only was I sending my daughter to a place that I had no positive feelings about - the hospital morgue - but it was completely off-limits to me," Knox recalls. "And yet, people are forced to make that choice constantly. I knew there was another way."

Knox, a fourth-generation Vermonter living in Maryland, decided to handle the funeral herself, though she was utterly ignorant about what it entailed. The hospital staff told her, incorrectly, that Maryland law requires a licensed mortician to transport the body. So Knox found a funeral director to bring her daughter home, where family and friends held a three-day vigil.

Afterward, Knox rode with her daughter's body to the crematory and watched as the body was loaded into the cremation chamber. Several hours later, she came home with Alison's remains.

The experience of caring for her daughter's body after death had a profound effect on Knox and her family. "People all told me, 'This was so lovely! This was so much better than my other experiences of being in a funeral home,'" she recalls. "In the face of this terrible, terrible tragedy, that was not lost on them."

Two years later, Knox founded Crossings. The nonprofit educational organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland, teaches others how to care for their dead. Crossings has helped hundreds of families arrange their loved ones' "after-death care" - the one- to five-day period between the time of death and the burial or cremation. Knox sees it as the final act of love a person can perform for a family member.

She also travels around the country giving day-long workshops on caring for the dead. One such seminar is scheduled for Saturday, February 3, at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne.

"People have a certain idea, because of their own projections and fears, that they can't do this," Knox says. "But without exception, they are all so grateful and so comforted and quite amazed at their own response."

The sense of closure that comes from doing a home funeral should make sense to anyone who has lost a close friend or family member. During a time of mourning, especially after a sudden, unexpected death, people want to feel useful. But all too often, the expression of condolence - "Is there anything I can do?" - has no response. In this country, where 99 percent of all deaths are handled by funeral directors, there's rarely anything of substance for friends and family todo. But, as Knox explains, giving people a task - picking up the death certificate, buying more dry ice, building the coffin or digging the grave - provides a physical way to work through grief.

Crossings doesn't just walk people through the process of arranging a home funeral. It also clears up the many myths and misconceptions surrounding the final disposition of the dead - embalming, transportation of the body and the need for a coffin.

Knox says she all too often hears misleading or false information about home funerals being disseminated - most egregiously, by health-care workers and public officials who ought to know better. Before Knox holds a workshop, she contacts the relevant state agencies - typically, the attorney general's office or state health department - to verify the laws for that particular state.

Knox took these steps before a workshop scheduled in Vermont last fall, only to learn later that the information she received was inaccurate. (For unrelated reasons, that workshop was canceled.) This misinformation was especially surprising, she says, because Vermont is home to two of the nation's leading public advocacy groups on funeral ethics: the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Burlington and the Funeral Ethics Organization of Hinesburg. Now, the directors of both organizations say they're shocked and incensed by the level of misinformation being distributed by Vermont officials.

There are very few people in this country who have as much working knowledge of the laws and ethics of dealing with funerals and burials as Lisa Carlson. The Vermont native has that earthy sense of humor that comes from years of dealing with dead people - or, more accurately, with the sometimes inept and unscrupulous people who handle them for a living. As an author, public speaker and founder of the Funeral Ethics Organization, Carlson literally wrote the book on DIY funerals, Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love. This 640-page tome is a state-by-state compendium of laws governing the handling of the dead without an undertaker.

Carlson, a consummate public speaker and storyteller, also wrote I Died Laughing: Funeral Education With a Light Touch. It's a collection of jokes and cartoons that take an irreverent look at our passage into the sweet hereafter. But Carlson's own introduction to home funerals was no laughing matter. In 1981, her 31-year-old husband, John, committed suicide by shooting himself in the stomach with a hunting rifle. The couple hadn't done advance funeral planning, and Carlson didn't have enough money in the bank to cover the cost of cremation, which at the time was about $750.

Because of the nature of John's death, an autopsy was performed. When the state's attorney called Carlson to ask which funeral home he should notify to pick up the deceased, she informed him there wouldn't be one. Carlson asked the official to please deliver the body to her house. "I'm sure he thought I'd gone off my squash," she recalls with a chuckle.

After John's body came home, Carlson felt an overwhelming need to stay with him. She called a friend - a janitor at the school where John had taught - who helped her drive the body to a crematory in St. Johnsbury.

When Carlson's story about her home funeral appeared in The Burlington Free Press, she became a local cause célèbre. "For a year later, a week rarely went by without a phone call or letter from people wanting to know what to do and how to do it," she says. "I felt so grateful that I'd had the information when I needed it, I felt obliged to share."

The result was Carlson's first book, the 1987 Caring for Your Own Dead. It earned her national acclaim. The book was written up in The New York Times, and Carlson appeared on "Good Morning America" and "CBS This Morning" and twice on "The Phil Donahue Show."

Little wonder Carlson is "shocked and embarrassed" that Vermont officials are promulgating what she calls misleading and false information about home funerals and burials. Worse, she adds, those officials seemed unconcerned about correcting their errors now that they've been brought to light.

Like Carlson, Joshua Slocum is a funeral ethics watchdog who has little patience for bureaucratic bungling, especially when it affects people at their most vulnerable. As executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, Slocum is typically the one who gets a phone call - whether from families or from the national media - whenever a body goes missing from a funeral, or some unsavory crematory operator is caught stashing unburned bodies on his property.

In October, Slocum learned what Knox had been told about Vermont's funeral and burial laws, and wrote a seven-page letter to Attorney General William Sorrell and Vermont Commissioner of Health Sharon Moffatt. The letter outlined what he called the "flatly incorrect and unsupported legal advice and inaccuracies" given out by state officials.

According to Slocum, those errors included the "incorrect advice" by Vital Statistics Director Richard McCoy and Chief Medical Examiner Stephen Shapiro that Vermont families may not transport their own dead for burial, the "unsupported interpretation of Vermont statutes" that caskets are required for burial, and the "unsupported contention" that bodies crossing the Vermont border must be embalmed.

The errors regarding caskets and embalming are particularly egregious, Slocum notes, because they conflict with the religious tenets of devout Muslims and Jews, who often bury their dead in direct contact with the earth and without embalming. As Slocum points out, Vermont law is unambiguous on this matter. The statute reads: "A bylaw or regulation shall not be adopted to restrain a person in the free exercise of his religious sentiments as to the burial of the dead."

Slocum sent his letter to the attorney general and health commissioner in October. He claims he has yet to receive a response, either in writing or by phone. In December, Carlson sent a similar letter to Governor Jim Douglas complaining about the "misinformation" being offered by Vermont officials. The two-sentence reply she received from Commissioner Moffatt reads, "Health Department staff have reviewed the issue of whether a coffin is necessary for burial of a dead body. The Department believes there is minimal to no infectious disease risk associated with burial in something other than a traditional coffin and crypt, (e.g., shroud or green burials)."

Moffatt's letter, Slocum notes, does not clarify whether coffin-less burials are legal; it only states that the health department doesn't believe they pose a public health risk. It says nothing about embalming requirements or the right of next of kin to transport a dead body.

"I am shocked and infuriated at the indifference, bordering on contempt, that the state of Vermont has shown to those of us who are trying to bring accurate information to the public," Slocum tells Seven Days. "The errors from the state are bad enough. But to ignore constituents repeatedly is inexcusable. I never would have guessed in a million years that Vermont would react this way."

Seven Days' efforts to clarify the state's interpretation of the law were similarly stymied. Phone calls to the attorney general's office were deferred to the Department of Health. And when Moffatt responded, her explanation left some questions unanswered.

Reiterating her response to Carlson, Moffatt said, "There is no public health reason for any concerns around coffin-less burials." She acknowledged some "gray areas" in the law about the coffin requirement, saying that "We appreciate the need to have further clarity about legislative intent." But Moffatt couldn't say whether the law permits families to transport their own dead: "That's not an issue we've had an issue about."

Moreover, the state's highest health official couldn't say definitively whether a body must be embalmed when it crosses the state line; she promised to "get back" to us. A subsequent email from a health department spokesperson clarified that, in fact, Vermont has no such mandate, though other states and countries where the body is going to or coming from may require it. As to whether family members may transport their own dead, the email included a link to the Vermont statute dealing with the permit requirements for transporting a dead body. That statute mentions funeral directors and licensed embalmers, but says nothing about the rights of next of kin.

Slocum is not surprised by Seven Days' inability to get simple, straightforward answers. Reiterating his and Carlson's understanding of Vermont law, he insists that Vermonters may transport their own dead, provided they obtain all the necessary permits. They may bury their own dead - with or without a casket - on their own property, provided local ordinance allows it and the grave is a specified distance from wells and bodies of water. And, he says, families are never required to embalm the body, unless required to do so by a transporting agent, such as an airline. And even in those cases, alternative accommodations may often be made.

Ironically, both Carlson and Slocum say they offered to write a simple, plain-English brochure about caring for your own dead on behalf of the health department. According to Carlson, their offer was declined.

Why is it so important to pin down the facts? Slocum points out that the average citizen isn't going to be as dogged as a consumer advocate, or a reporter, especially during the stressful and chaotic time after a loved one's death. People have no reason to question what they're told by government officials on these matters, he adds, even if that information proves to be wrong.

In her own experience, Knox says it's easy for families to just do what their told - by hospital staff, morticians, even other family members - rather than challenging their mistaken assumptions about home funerals.

"It's amazing the amnesia we have as a society," she says. "In every room I lecture in there's someone who says, 'We cared for my great aunt that way,' or whatever. In two generations, this information has been lost to us."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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