Friday, July 31, 2009

American Home Burials

If you think about it, funerary art and architecture make up a large chunk of our studies of ancient and medieval material culture. Whether churches, mausolea, tombstones, or statues, our surviving specimen of funerary treasures had a prominent public presence. Death and commemoration was dealt as a public endeavor and involved redemption, communal memory and visible inter-generational responsibility. But most of funerary practices took part in the private rather than the public realm. Thinking publicly about death in antiquity conforms to our own customs, which are higly sanitized and subcontracted to professional strangers. Incidentally, the professional strangers call their industry funeral "homes." A newspaper report on the rise of private burials in the United Sates offers a conceptual entryway into the private realms of the past. The medieval home was certainly a multi-functional realm lacking the modern divisions between private and public realms.

The average American funeral costs $6,000. Given the economic downturn of many households, some families are taking burial practices in their own hands bringing costs down to $300 but, more importnatly, enganging intimately with the life cycle. Katie Zamie of the New York Times reports on this phenomenon, in "Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative," (July 20, 2009). A few years earlier, Elisabeth Westrate's documentary "A Family Undertaking" explored this phenomenon on PBS (Point of View, Aug. 3, 2004). The funeral industry is naturally lobbying heavily against home burials; as a result, Oregon just passed a bill requiring professional certification. Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York already have laws that require funeral directors to handle the dead. But in all other states, the family can take over the preparation of the body and its burial. Consider, for example, what the state of Vermont says about the issue here. Paying close attention to home burials today might bring us closer to the actual practices of the past.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States