The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral

Charles 1 Comment

Posted by Vale

“So a few weeks before Bob died, my 15-year-old son, Harper, and I made a coffin out of plywood and deck screws from Home Depot…We routed rabbet joints for a tight construction.
“I guess we wouldn’t want him falling out the bottom,” Harper said.
“That would reflect poorly on our carpentry skills,” I agreed.

Max Alexander has written a fascinating account of two contrasting funerals. One, a home funeral, for his father in law (Bob, on the left in the photograph) the second, more conventional, for his father (Jim, on the right in the photograph). His description of what happened is warm, intimate and very moving:

“When Bob died, on a cold evening in late November, Sarah, her sister Holly and I gently washed his body with warm water and lavender oil as it lay on the portable hospital bed in the living room. (Anointing a body with aromatic oils, which moisten the skin and provide a calming atmosphere for the living, is an ancient tradition.) I had been to plenty of funerals and seen many a body in the casket, but this was the first time I was expected to handle one. I wasn’t eager to do so, but after a few minutes it seemed like second nature. His skin remained warm for a long time—maybe an hour—then gradually cooled and turned pale as the blood settled. While Holly and I washed his feet, Sarah trimmed his fingernails. (No, they don’t keep growing after death, but they were too long.) We had to tie his jaw shut with a bandanna for several hours until rigor mortis set in, so his mouth would not be frozen open; the bandanna made him look like he had a toothache.

We worked quietly and deliberately, partly because it was all new to us but mainly out of a deep sense of purpose. Our work offered the chance to reflect on the fact that he was really gone. It wasn’t Bob, just his body.

Bob’s widow, Annabelle, a stoic New Englander, stayed in the kitchen during most of these preparations, but at some point she came in and held his hands. Soon she was comfortable lifting his arms and marveling at the soft stillness of her husband’s flesh. “Forty-four years with this man,” she said quietly.”

The full account of both funerals can be found here.

Max took inspiration from an organisation called Crossings, that acts as a home funeral and green burial resource center. Crossing, they say, exists “to foster the integration of dying and after-death care back into our family and community life.” Their site can be found here.


  1. Charles


    The only thing I would point out is the difference in time between death and the funeral in the UK and the US.

    Rigor mortis goes after about 36 hours, for us, barely the beginning of the liminal time, where as in the US, they’re probably in the ground or the furnace by then. Any longer, and his jaw would have fallen open again, hence the British undertakers penchant for a lip stitch. We use a wishbone style plastic collar.

    I wish there was a way to convince our American colleagues to slow the whole process down, but this seems unlikely on an immigrant founded country, so many of which have a speedy burial as customary.

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