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.

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[…] 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 […]