The dead belong to their people

Charles Cowling

In the United States, Thomas Lynch, sage, poet, writer and undertaker, has been denounced by industry watchdogs the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) and the Funeral Ethics Organization (FEO). Both of these organisations exist to protect consumers, expose malpractice, shame shysters and explore ways in which funerals can be cheaper and more meaningful. Both organisations are keen for families to reclaim funerals from funeral directors. You could sum up their philosophy like this: ‘We deal with death by dealing with our dead.’

The Good Funeral Guide supports all of these objectives wholeheartedly.

What are the watchdogs saying about Tom Lynch? In essence, they are saying that he is “vocal against families caring for their own dead.”

Lisa Carlson of the FEO says: “Tom Lynch has stated to me personally that he will lobby against [a] change [in the laws] that would allow families to care for their own dead without a funeral director.”

Wendy Lyons of the Funeral Consumers Information Society is campaigning in Tom’s state of Michigan for the repeal of a 2006 law mandating that the handling and disposition of a body “shall be under the supervision of a person licensed to practice mortuary science in this state.” She wants the state to “enact a law protecting the rights of families and faith communities to care for their dead without assistance from a funeral director.”

What’s all this got to do with us in the UK? A heck of a lot. No one has written with more intelligence and humanity about death and its rituals than Tom, nor more quotably. No one, arguably, is more influential. If we find out now that he is nothing more than a money-grubbing fraud our disillusionment will leave us feeling grievously foolish and terminally dismayed.

I asked him what this was all about.

First, that 2006 law. It was brought in after some abusive parents burned the body of their child. The state now requires that someone supervise the handling, disposition and disinterment of a dead person, someone, in Tom’s words, “having some oversight, some witness to the verity of who died, of what, and what was done with the corpse … In our state of Michigan the occupational group charged with collecting and registering these vital statistics and medical certification is licensees in mortuary science … an occupational class which it licenses and regulates”

Tom goes on to say (and I include this exclusively for its word-music): “In Milford we can’t burn leaves in the autumn, bury our trash in the back yard, drive an unlicensed vehicle or tend to the duties of our toilet in public.  Nor can we hunt squirrels, coyotes, deer or dogs in town.  “We the people” have made our laws, on these and a million other matters.  Including the dead.”

Does this give Tom a stranglehold over families who would wish to care for their dead themselves?

I put it to him. “Would I,” I asked, “in the State of Michigan, be able to keep [my dead wife, Sharon,] with me and tend to her and take her to her place of final dissolution (earthly or fiery) without the intervention of a funeral director except in an administrative capacity as the envoy of the state government? Would I be able to engage a funeral director in a consultative capacity to drop in, say, twice a day and deal with the stuff that’s coming up out of her nose, but stay his hand in matters I wanted him to keep out of?”

Tom’s reply: “What you describe as what you want for you and your Sharon, and the partnership or collaboration that you have control over with the funeral director, is PRECISELY allowed under the law and ENCOURAGED (right word) by me and everyone who works with me.”

What that 2006 law means is that (Tom’s words) “any legal next of kin may make any decisions about handling, possessing, burying, burning, scattering, disinterring a body, and is not prevented from doing so at their own home, in their own style, at their own pace, with their own people … It DOES NOT MEAN that only a funeral director may handle or dispose of a body.  It only means that a funeral director must supervise.  What level of oversight might be involved is up to the agreement between an individual family and the individual funeral director. ”

Wendy Lyons says there’s a human rights issue in this. Can’t see it, Wendy.

There’s an insane irony here. It is this. The watchdogs and Tom share, mostly, the same values. All of them want to help families to hold funerals which accord best with their wishes and values. That phrase about dealing with death is Tom’s, not theirs.

Let’s hand the microphone to Tom: “I’m the one, after all, who has preached for thirty-five years that OURS IS A SPECIES THAT DEALS WITH DEATH BY DEALING WITH OUR DEAD.  And that part of the funeral director’s job is to embolden families to do all that they can themselves.  But you are right, some want to be empowered, others to be served, others not to be bothered at all.  Our job is to meet them where they are on this continuum and help where we can when we’re asked.”

I rather think that admirers of Tom can come out from behind the sofa. If you’ve yet to read him, read him.

2 thoughts on “The dead belong to their people

  1. When tickety-boo = bugger's muddle | The Good Funeral Guide

    […] got into perhaps our hottest water when surveying the way regulation of the funeral trade works in the US, back in January 2009. It concerned a law in Michigan which requires a family to engage a funeral director to supervise […]

  2. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Lisa Carlson said…
    Conscientious funeral directors will always be sensitive, caring, and do only as much as is wanted to serve their families.

    But some families would prefer to handle everything on their own, without the expense or involvement of a funeral director. Court rulings (1909) indicate this is a Constitutional right.

    There are 43 states in the U.S. where families may care for their own dead, where crime and health problems are not rampant. (Crime and stupidity occur in all states occasionally, regardless of the laws. One can’t legislate against stupidity.)

    When a state requires a family to hire a funeral director, that body becomes a hostage of the funeral industry. The funeral director is suddenly in a position of authority with his meter running. He does, after all, have a right to be paid for his services. Tom said in your article, “It only means that a funeral director must supervise.” But perhaps that funeral director is not familiar with my family’s cultural and religious values and won’t “approve” of some activities let alone know how to “supervise.” The Hmong, for example, have very different rituals than the Catholic masses Tom is familiar with. The theosophists will want to sit with the body at home for three days while the spirit leaves.

    One can birth at home, hospice at home, but in Michigan one can handle a death at home only if you get out your wallet and open your door to the funeral director whether you want him there or not. Wendy’s right, this is a civil rights issue. Why should we lose our familial rights at the moment of death?

    27 January 2009 16:15
    Aphra said…
    Sounds like another case of people getting all het up because they’ve misunderstood. I’ve helped families with DIY funerals. One asked a funeral director to prepare the bodies for two funerals, several years apart. Apart from that, they did everything themselves, taking the coffins to the crematorium in the back of an estate car.

    Jane Wynne-Willson wrote “Funerals without God” (available from the BHA). She hoped that more people would do funerals themselves, or partly themselves, rather than handing them over to professionals. I know she finds it rather disappointing that so few people use the book that way. I’d much rather help a family conduct a funeral themselves than do it for them.

    Interesting that you should blog about this now; I’ve been thinking about writing a post about taking control of our own funerals. I find the increasing professionalisation of all aspects of a funeral – not just the funeral directors, but the equivalent of wedding arrangers combined with grief counsellors, a depressing development.

    28 January 2009 16:34
    Charles Cowling said…
    Here’s a comment from Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company He was unable to post it himself because his computer sullenly refuses to speak to Blogger – or the other way about.

    Charles, as you know we are heavily influenced by Thomas. ‘The Undertaking’
    remains for us a seminal text. You also know that we couldn’t be further
    away from the American funeral directing model, who would consider us
    unlicensed amateurs. We [specifically the Green Funeral Company] have no diplomas after our names, we are largely
    self taught and learnt on the job. We belong to no trade guild, have no
    bearers or fleet of cars and indeed exist at all only because of deep rooted and
    long held cultural prejudices by the UK funeral and religious establishment
    toward any meaningful family involvement in the ritual, so it was indeed
    with a heavy heart we heard of this spat. I felt like Malcolm X felt upon
    realising his leader the not so honourable Elija Mohammed was all too human
    after all. Thus crumble all our idols. However, having heard Ms Carlson and
    Tom, I can’t find anything here that contradicts the philosophy of the
    natural death movement, or would be a threat to genuine involvement in the
    greater experience.
    We regularly advise people on how to perform a funeral with the minimum of
    involvement of ‘professionals’ like us, and they do just that; picking up
    their father from the mortuary, digging a hole on their own land and laying
    them down without the help of clergy or undertaker, but they do NOT do this
    without the say so of either a doctor or the coroner, and when they have
    done so, the same piece of paper that is required to be accurately filled in
    by sexton or crematory official is sent to the registrar of births,
    marriages and deaths. Knowing who has died, what they died of and where they
    are buried is not an outrageous piece of state intrusion, but a sensible
    approach to ensure that foul play doesn’t go unpunished and future
    generations have some information about their ancestors. It seems to me that
    what Tom is licensed to do in the state of Michigan is the equivalent, and
    not what is being portrayed at all.
    None the less, it is a sadness this has happened. I have respect for Lisa
    Carlson and her work, we are on the same side, as is, in my opinion, Tom
    Lynch. Both parties are good people, though I don’t imagine Tom is quick to
    litigate and must feel pretty aggrieved to start this. He remains for me
    an inspiration.

    30 January 2009 10:31
    Lisa Carlson said…

    I’ve certainly never suggested that DIY families ignore their paperwork and permit responsibilities. Indeed, my book gives detailed directions on when and where to file such for each state. It’s less complicated than filling out a U.S. income tax return. The doctor (or medical examiner if it’s an unexpected death) fills out the cause of death section of the death certificate. All the rest of the information comes from the family– i.e., mother’s maiden name. Funeral directors many times misspell things on this portion and must file a correction later. Why require the hiring of a funeral director, at an unwanted expense, if the family would prefer to do it themselves? There have been few if any problems in the 43 states where families may care for their own dead, file their own paperwork.

    By the way, it was in Tom’s state that a funeral home left a body in a cardboard casket in the garage to await cremation, but where it was mistakenly picked up by the trash man and taken to the landfill, never to be found again.

    I’m all for consumer choice, but it is limited in Michigan and six other states.

    30 January 2009 17:36
    Lisa Carlson said…
    I just had a fun thought: If states feel that funeral directors should be the ones to fill out the death certificates in order to facilitate the state’s responsibility for recording deaths, then it should be the state’s responsibility to pay the funeral directors. And the funeral director shouldn’t feel hesitant about billing the state for this service. Right?

    I know of no other situation in which a state can force a family to use a for-profit business when there are no other alternatives, do you? If, in order to get the building permit, you don’t want to hire an engineer for the septic design of a new house you want to build, you can choose not to build the house. If one doesn’t want to hire a lawyer to respond to a lawsuit, one can act as one’s own lawyer. Or one’s own doctor to deal with health issues. One can’t choose not to die. A dead body really becomes a hostage of the funeral industry if family choices are limited . . . at a time when many families will find it harder and harder to pay the high fees.

    31 January 2009 00:12
    Anonymous said…
    Hi everyone,

    As I promised Charles, I’ve posted a response from Funeral Consumers Alliance. It’s on our site at:

    I hope you’ll take the time to read it. Unfortunately, I think Mr. Lynch has left out some crucial information in a way that’s misleading to readers. What Funeral Consumers Alliance and home funeral advocates are asking for is not unreasonable, and Mr. Lynch doesn’t appear to be as forthcoming as he should be about the real issues. For example, did you know:

    1. 43 of 50 US states permit family-directed funerals without undertaker involvement? Michigan is one of only 7 that stand in the way.

    2. That home funeral families complete the same legal and medical paperwork that funeral directors do? No one is trying to “get away” with anything.

    3. That several states, such as Vermont, have published clear guides to home funeral families, supporting that choice and making it clear an undertaker is not required by law?

    There is more to this than Mr. Lynch has disclosed, at least according to how he’s been quoted here. Don’t be mislead by red herrings about families absconding with bodies – the claim falls apart when you examine the facts. I’ve tried to do that in my piece at


    Josh Slocum
    Executive Director
    Funeral Consumers Alliance

    31 January 2009 01:37
    Wendy Lyons said…

    Thank you for the invitation to respond. As you have admired the work of someone from my side of the pond, I have long admired the work of Nicholas Albery and The Natural Death Centre on your side.

    When individuals approach the same topic from different perspectives, it is inevitable that there will be disagreement, which is OK. I welcome conversation that is meant to be constructive, and it is my goal to accurately relate the facts to the best of my ability.

    Because it is fundamental to your article, I’d like to begin with a short history of the 2006 amendment mentioned:

    Act 386 of 1998, Section 700.3206 (1): “The handling, disposition, or disinterment of a body shall be under the supervision of a person licensed to practice mortuary science in this state.”

    Michigan law contains sections dedicated to the disposition of dead human bodies as well as occupational codes for mortuary science, which would be logical places to find such a far-reaching provision. Yet this law is in the Estates and Protected Individuals Code, which deals with wills, probate, estates, etc. It was added to a bill that was seeking to establish the order of priority in which adult survivors of decedents have the right to possess the decedent’s body and make decisions about funeral arrangements. It was not included in the original text of the bill.

    Now, according to your article, Thomas Lynch stated that the 2006 amendment “was brought in after some abusive parents burned the body of their child.” While that statement may sound compelling, it is not accurate. The incident, which he is referring to, came to light in late 2007. The amendment became law in 2006.

    Unfortunately, this is not the first time that I’ve heard Thomas Lynch refer to this tragic story in order to make a point. In April 2008, Thomas Lynch attended my community-awareness presentation, “DIY Funerals: Families Caring for Their own Dead,” at the Highland Township library, which is near Milford. During the question and answer period, Thomas Lynch implied that these parents were performing some sort of do-it-yourself funeral and cremation. (Many in the audience were rightly offended by his insinuation.) I made it clear that just because some newspaper headlines used the word “cremate” to sensationalize the story, it does not mean that the family was conducting a home funeral and cremation. I further explained that this was the case of abusive parents attempting to cover up the wrongful death or murder of their child. I have pasted below an article, which was published at the time, for your reader’s convenience.

    Furthermore, Thomas Lynch states that the 2006 law is not interpreted as impeding a family from caring for its own dead, saying, “It DOES NOT MEAN that only a funeral director may handle or dispose of a body. It only means that a funeral director must supervise.”

    Perhaps that is how Thomas Lynch interprets the law. However, he is just one of 1,300 funeral directors in our state. Phil Douma, the executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association, which is a lobbying organization, has clearly indicated otherwise.

    In April 2007, a reporter, who had previously attended my presentation, wrote an article about families caring for their own dead, which was published in The Detroit News. The article, “Family Undertaking: At-home funerals are more personal, cost less,” included quotes from funeral director Dan Dwyer, who said “I have a deep conviction that if someone needs to deal with their grief and show their love by doing everything themselves, I’m not going to let my license stand in their way.”

    In the July 2007 MFDA Journal newsletter, Douma responded to the article stating: “One funeral director is quoted in the News article saying that he is willing to assist families desiring this do-it-yourself option, and he says, ‘I’m not going to let my license stand in their way.’ Perhaps he needs to ask himself why he has this license in the first place.”

    The fundamental issue is not what Thomas Lynch or any other individual funeral director purports to allow or encourage. The issue is: Who gets to decide how our dead are cared for? Is it the decision of the family who loved the deceased in life and continues to love him or her in death, or is it the decision of a funeral director?

    For me, the answer is crystal clear. This is why I will continue to work to restore the right of Michigan families to care for their own dead—if they so choose—without the assistance of a funeral director.

    Investigation Continues Into Baby’s Death After Bones Found In Home

    Saturday, November 24, 2007

    DETROIT — The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office continues to investigate the discovery of the charred remains of a baby boy, whose parents are facing child abuse charges.

    Joseph Miller and Nikki Reid, of Lillibridge Street, are accused of burning their 1-year-old son while giving him a bath. But they are also under investigation in the death of one of their other children – a baby who relatives say had been missing for several months.

    According to police, the remains of the baby were hidden in the ceiling of Miller’s sister’s basement on Lappin Street, about 5.5 miles away from his house, without her knowledge. Police reports also say that Miller had tried to burn the baby’s remains on a barbecue grill.

    Miller and Reid lived with their five sons, all younger than the age of 5. But for the last several months, relatives had been wondering about the whereabouts of one of their children. They were told he was with other relatives, but Miller’s sister had doubts.

    The sister, Tammy Johnson, said that she told relatives, “I’m getting the feeling that the baby is not alive.”

    Johnson said her brother recently stopped by to do laundry at her house. As part of investigation, police went to her home and found the body. It is unclear how long the body was there. An anthropologist is studying the remains to determine if the baby died from natural causes.

    As police continue to investigate before a decision is made on whether to charge the couple in the death, the Michigan Attorney General’s office is asking the courts to terminate the parental rights for Reid and Miller for their remaining four children who are in protective custody.

    Reid is jailed under a $400,000 bond. Miller’s bond is $700,000.

    1 February 2009 02:02
    Antler said…

    There will always be folk who abuse the system – any system.

    There will always be folk who want to care for their own dead – and folk who can’t manage it when the time comes.

    Somewhere some common sense has to prevail.

    Sadly – often, human beings aren’t sensible!

    Blaming Funeral Directors may not be the best thing. The people at the sharp end of policy making have to see all the options, not just a cloud of arguments and banter.

    I have been involved in many DIY and part DIY funerals….garden burials – whatever…..but then, I don’t live in Michigan……..

    2 February 2009 17:12
    Anonymous said…
    Antler, please take the time to read the article on the FCA site where I examined this issue in detail. I really don’t think you can understand this if you’re not willing to view the facts. I don’t know what you mean by “blaming funeral directors.” All we’re asking for is for the state of Michigan not to make our dead the legal, custodial property of a paid funeral director against our will. This is not unreasonable, it’s not radical, and it’s not difficult to understand. Please read my article – this is not a matter of “he said, she said,” but a matter of Mr. Lynch being misleading. The facts simply aren’t on his side.

    Here’s the article:

    Josh Slocum
    Executive Director
    Funeral Consumers Alliance

    3 February 2009 03:59

    Charles Cowling

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