Reclaiming death

DEATH ISSUE: Death midwives shepherd the dying and then help the living say an intimate, inexpensive, and eco-friendly goodbye
Jerrigrace Lyons trains new death midwives to assist in DIY funerals.

DEATH ISSUE Death is the Grim Reaper come to collect his dues, a silent, bewildered specter bound in black, this undeniable truth that we avoid at all costs. But it doesn't have to be.

Beginning in Northern California, a growing movement has mounted an attack against death as we know it. They call themselves "death midwives." Part ferry operator for the dying, part guardian of those left behind, these home funeral guides are committed to transforming our experience of death.

"Most people in this country have no exposure to death," Jerrigrace Lyons, a prominent death midwife based in Sebastopol, tells us. "The references they do have are negative; it's frightening, it's ghoulish, it's a failure. We need something realistic that shows death to be beautiful and graceful, with a lot of compassion and love and honoring involved."

The most expensive party you never wanted to have, funerals in America have become a multibillion-dollar industry. Between the fees for completing the necessary paperwork, transporting the body, embalming, flowers, headstone, and casket, funerals cost an average of $7,000. (This is excluding the price of a cemetery plot, an 8 by 4-foot piece of real estate that can cost $5,000.) The services only take a few hours.

"Everything happens so fast," Lyons says. "People need more time."

Nearly two decades and 350 corpses have taught her that there is nothing more important for a family than having time with the body to grieve. This is just one part of the death process that we have lost touch with.

"Death is such a sacred and holy thing, and we have commercialized it," Heidi Boucher, a veteran death midwife in Sacramento, tells us. "The funeral industry has made it really mysterious and creepy, so people are afraid of death."

Americans once took care of their dead in the privacy of their own homes. During the Civil War, embalming became popular as a way to preserve dead bodies. Meanwhile, more people were dying in hospitals, distancing the living from death.

painting a coffin

When funeral directors established a monopoly on the legal right to embalm, we were separated even further from death. Today, most people have no idea what to do with a dead body. Even if they did, there are enough laws and restrictions around death to daunt almost anyone grieving over the loss of a loved one.

Paying someone thousands of dollars to deal with it no longer seems unreasonable. But handing our dead over to funeral homes might come at an even greater cost than we realize.

"When a body's taken away, it's taken out of the hands of the family," Lyons explains. "There's no direct care of the deceased, no personal involvement. There's no way for the family to feel empowered by knowing that they've done everything they could to give their loved one a great send-off."

Related articles

  • Guardians of Fospice

    DEATH ISSUE: Death is part of life at San Francisco's SPCA

  • Why won't you let me go?

    DEATH ISSUE: Unlike in Oregon, Death with Dignity is not legal in California. Why not?

  • Among the archived

    Exploring the Bay Area Reporter's online database of AIDS-era obituaries

  • Also from this author

  • A Modern tragedy

    Important progressive bookstore and gathering place facing closure

  • SF Board of Supervisors approves new tenant protections

  • All together now

    It takes a village — and a Google Doc — to legalize pot: California's Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act of 2014, a new crowd-sourced legislation proposal