By LORAINE ANDERSON, firstname.lastname@example.org
TRAVERSE CITY — Kathi Mulder believes that how people come into this world and how they leave is important.
"Having the people you love surround you at both times is important to me," said Mulder, a Traverse City midwife.
That's why she helped arrange the Home Funeral and Green Burial presentation to be held Saturday, Nov. 10, in Traverse City from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at the Boardman River Nature Center.
Presenters are Merilynne Rush, a retired Ann Arbor nurse and midwife for 25 years; Leelanau County resident Alison Heins, president of the statewide volunteer organization, Funeral Consumers Information Society; and Vaughn Seavolt, manager/owner of the Life Story Funeral Home in Traverse City.
Rush, who works today as a home funeral guide, consultant and advocate, will do another public education session by herself at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Alden District Library in Antrim County. She has conducted about 40 similar talks and slide shows in Michigan and elsewhere since 2008.
Her long-term goal is to "become obsolete." That will happen when everybody knows that home funerals are one of several choices families can make when a loved one dies.
Home funerals and green burials are two separate things and part of a growing "after-death-care" movement that strives to help people lose anxiety and fear of death and instead view after-death care as a special and needed time for family and friends to say goodbye to a loved one.
"When we experience being with the body and caring for it, we understand that they are really dead," Rush said. "Accepting death and being with death helps us to embrace life more fully."
Home funerals and green burials also seek to offer more eco-friendly end-of-life rituals. Specifics of each vary, but often share common aspects: No embalming, no cremation, no cement grave vaults, while shrouds or coffins made out of wood, bamboo or other nontoxic, biodegradable natural materials are acceptable.
Embalming, which started during the Civil War, slows the body's decomposition process by injecting formaldehyde, a carcinogen, into the body. Embalming is not required in any states, but must be done in most places if the body is not buried or cremated within 48 hours after death.
Few pure "green cemeteries" exist across the United States, though some have created natural sections within or adjacent to the traditional graveyard.
A 100 percent green cemetery looks more like a nature preserve than cemetery. Grass is not mowed or weed-whacked or fertilizers spread. Often, grave markers are not allowed.
As of 2010, there were only 22 green cemeteries in the nation and 40 states with funeral providers offering green services. U.S. green cemetery professionals place the number today at about 60. There are 200 in the United Kingdom, where the movement started earlier.
Home funerals differ from commercial "institutional" funerals by emphasizing minimal, noninvasive care and preparation of the body in the home, Rush said. Family members wash, dress and lay out the body, which is kept in the home and cooled with dry ice to slow decomposition, if necessary. In many states, a funeral director is not involved at all.
As a consultant and home funeral guide, Rush said her job is not to provide the after-death care herself, but to educate and work with families so that they can do it.
"What the guide does is to empower the family to know that this is normal and that they can do it," she said. "They help take the fear out of it. This is the way people used to do it. It's only been done the current way for a few generations."
But after-death care isn't easy in several states, especially Michigan, where funeral directors are considered agents of the state to make sure health regulations are followed. The state also has the 48-hour rule, which requires embalming if the body is not buried or cremated within two days after death.
State law does not require that a concrete vault be inserted in graves to hold the casket, but cemeteries often do to keep the ground from sinking, for ease of maintenance and a groomed look. The state also requires funeral directors to sign off on death certificates, even if the medical examiner already has done that, said Heins, who also will speak Saturday. She was part of a group that researched the possibility of creating a green cemetery in the Traverse City area.
"You can't die in Michigan without services of a funeral director," she said. "And if a person dies in the hospital, the hospital won't release the body directly to the family, only to the funeral director."
But funeral directors generally are willing to work with families that want home funerals, said Seavolt, who will speak Saturday. They can pick up the body and bring it to the home.
He said he hasn't had many requests for home funerals, but some families will keep the body at home for a few hours after death before calling the funeral home.
Dan Jonkhoff, owner of Reynolds Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Traverse City, said he's had less than 10 requests for home funerals over the course of his career.
Eco-friendly burials come in many shades of green, depending on families' wishes, he said. They can cost the same, be cheaper or even be more expensive than the average funeral, depending on coffins chosen, cemetery plot rates and other factors.
An average funeral and burial in this area costs from $5,000 to $10,000, he said.
The "strictest of strict" green funeral ranges from $3,000 to $5,000, about the same amount for a traditional Jewish funeral, Jonkhoff said. Orthodox Jews view embalming as desecration of the body and also require a simple wooden casket, so that the only thing between the body and the earth is the biodegradable wood. As a result, the required concrete vault is placed upside down over the body.