DIY funerals

Diycofffitnintin Fancycoffffinininin
Max Alexander's father and father-in-law died the same month. One received a typical American funeral. The other was a more DIY affair, including a homemade casket. During the course of the two funerals, Alexander learned a lot about the death industry and the resurgence of homebrew funerals. He wrote up his experiences for Smithsonian Magazine. From the essay:
In life both men had been devout Catholics, but one was a politically conservative advertising man, the other a left-wing journalist; you'll have to trust me that they liked each other. One was buried, one was cremated. One was embalmed, one wasn't. One had a typical American funeral-home cotillion; one was laid out at home in a homemade coffin. I could tell you that sorting out the details of these two dead fathers taught me a lot about life, which is true. But what I really want to share is that dead bodies are perfectly OK to be around, for a while....

A movement toward home after-death care has convinced thousands of Americans to deal with their own dead. A nonprofit organization called Crossings maintains that besides saving lots of money, home after-death care is greener than traditional burials–bodies pumped full of carcinogenic chemicals, laid in metal coffins in concrete vaults under chemically fertilized lawns–which mock the biblical concept of "dust to dust." Cremating an unembalmed body (or burying it in real dirt) would seem obviously less costly and more eco-friendly. But more significant, according to advocates, home after-death care is also more meaningful for the living.

"The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral"
Judging from their Web site, Crossings is a fascinating non-profit organization. They're a clearinghouse of information about home funerals and "green" burials. Apparently, as long as you're not in Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, it's perfectly legal for anyone to play the role of funeral director. Crossings even run, er, "hands on workshops" to teach you how to deal with the logistics of death at home. I'm not sure whether hands-on means that they provide a practice body or you have to bring your own. From the Crossings Web site:
How is home funeral care different from funeral care by a funeral director?
Funeral care refers to the time between the last breath and final resting - whether that be cremation or burial. Most people hand over this care to a funeral home, but in so doing limit their options to costly, impersonal, and sometimes invasive procedures provided by an emotionally uninvolved funeral director. Home funeral care refers to one's family and friends performing these last deeds of love - including the process of washing, dressing, and laying out their loved one's body....

What about embalming? You may be surprised to learn that embalming is almost nevcr required for the deceased. There are some situations where this is so, such as when out of state transportation is necessary. For the most part, however, embalming is not required and is undesirable due to the highly toxic chemicals used and the invasive procedures required for embalming. Embalming only delays the breakdown of the body, it does not prevent this breakdown. It also denatures the body and artificially changes it at a time when peace and tender handling are most important. Caution: Most funeral directors require embalming if you use their funeral home and choose to have a viewing of the deceased.

Crossings: Caring For Our Own At Death
Oh, and the Do-It-Yourself Coffins and Fancy Coffins books pictured above are real. From the DIY Coffins book description:
All of the tools and techniques needed to produce strong and beautiful coffins are presented here in clear, concise language. Color photographs illustrate every step in the construction of three pet-size and three human-size coffins. Detailed patterns are provided and different box construction techniques are revealed. One box design even doubles as a beautiful blanket chest or coffee table. Once the coffins are built, the discussion turns to the many moldings, appliques, linings, and finishes which may be used to make each coffin unique. A color gallery is also provided. With full color illustrations and detailed instructions, this book is a challenge to the novice and a joy for the experienced craftsman.

"Do-It-Yourself Coffins: For Pets and People"
"Fancy Coffins to Make Yourself"


  1. I like that “pets” come before “people” Is that so you can start small and work your way up?

  2. Climbing into the box and lowering yourself down is the tough part. Never could figure that out.

  3. This is very interesting. I’ve got a number of different feelings about my own funeral, and I especially like the DIY aspects laid out here. I recently read an article about a company that will mix your ashes into cement, pour it into a mold, then set you down as part of an artificial reef, with a bronze and copper plaque with your name, dates of birth and death, and a one-line epitaph. I really liked the pictures that they posted of the underwater graveyard, and I can definitely get behind building artificial reefs.

    Of course, I also want a sundial on my tombstone, which kinda rules out the underwater burial thing.

  4. I find it particularly creepy that when I went to the Amazon site to view the books, the “people also bought” section included several tomes on animatronics.

  5. #5 posted by Dr Triffid:

    I find it particularly creepy that when I went to the Amazon site to view the books, the “people also bought” section included several tomes on animatronics.

    Makes sense to me. Those folks probably have the most kick-ass Halloween display on their street.

  6. From the post: “Most funeral directors require embalming if you use their funeral home and choose to have a viewing of the deceased”

    A service which they will perform “for a small fee”.

    What disgusts me about modern burials is the sheer volume of concrete used to keep the holes from collapsing.

    Oh, you didn’t know that every dead person gets their own concrete box, with a concrete lid, to rest the wooden box in?

    Also, embalming fluids only make zombies tougher.

  7. Having just gone through the whole funeral home runaround with my grandmother’s funeral, I am convinced that the entire industry is a bit of a scam designed to exploit families at their most vulnerable to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

    When I inquired about cremation, the funeral home director started in on a tirade about how it’s no less expensive because of “DEQ regulations” and embalming (which I figured was boilerplate anti-cremation FUD from someone who makes lots of profit from putting bodies in the ground). Aside from the obvious question of why a body destined for cremation even *needs* to be embalmed, I felt kind of like I was getting the same runaround one gets in the “bullpen” at a car dealership, with the funeral director trying to sneak in as many expensive add-ons as he could get away with. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been given a pitch for undercoating…

  8. being the son of a funeral director I can say that like any business there are good funeral directors and bad funeral directors. The bad ones give a distaste to the whole industry. Good funeral directors know that the job is to help the family with the process of grief. And I can say that for my father there was emotion involved- not like the crossings statement of “emotionally uninvolved”.

    I would suggest going with a locally owned funeral home instead of a national chain.

    Also I think in some states, if you want to have an open casket for a public viewing, the body does need to be embalmed.

  9. My understanding is that the Simple Pine Box is traditional for Jewish funerals — it being considered an inappropriate time for ostentatious display. Then again, that tradition calls for the bottom of the box to be perforated to hasten the body’s return to the earth, rather than the hermetically-sealed microcrypt that some seem to favor.

  10. A family friend died this winter. Jim fell on his icy driveway fetching the mail, hit his head and died 10 days later. We were all shocked. His best friend made him a pine casket. It was beautiful and appropriate. At the funeral luncheon we joked that Jim would have done the same for him, except Jim would have welded it out of steel. Apparently the funeral director (who is also a family friend and a great guy) was very specific about the difference between a casket and a coffin. In the US funeral business a casket is a rectangular box and a coffin tapers out and in at the shoulders like a mummy case.

    I asked if there were specific requirements to meet, but since Jim was cremated in the casket there were none. Listening to the maker it seems like the hardest part was saying no to all the people who wanted to help him.

    This was not a DIY funeral, there was an open-casket viewing and a Catholic funeral mass, but the handmade pine box made the whole ritual of death more personal and real for me.

  11. “I have thought up a scheme,” replied Eumolpus, “which will embarrass our fortune-hunting friends sorely,” and as he said this, he drew his tablets from his wallet and read his last wishes aloud, as follows:) “All who are down for legacies under my will, my freedmen only excepted, shall come into what I bequeath them subject to this condition, that they do cut my body into pieces and devour said pieces in sight of the crowd: {nor need they be inordinately shocked} for among some peoples, the law ordaining that the dead shall be devoured by their relatives is still in force; nay, even the sick are often abused because they render their own flesh worse! I admonish my friends, by these presents, lest they refuse what I command, that they devour my carcass with as great relish as they damned my soul!”

  12. GordoTheGeek @11, Great link. Thanks. Maybe some goth maker might use the casket handles for drawer pulls. ; )

  13. being the son of a funeral director I can say that like any business there are good funeral directors and bad funeral directors. The bad ones give a distaste to the whole industry. Good funeral directors know that the job is to help the family with the process of grief. And I can say that for my father there was emotion involved- not like the crossings statement of “emotionally uninvolved”.

    I would suggest going with a locally owned funeral home instead of a national chain.

    Ditto that. My father, uncle, and brother are all funeral directors/morticians, and I don’t know if I’ve ever met people who were more emotionally and personally involved in the communites they serve. For those out there who would disparage what they do, I would only ask this: Can you imagine burying not only your family, but hundreds of your friends and neighbors, and what that must be like? It takes a very special kind of person to make that their life’s work, and to put the care and energy (psychic and physical) into helping those who come to you for help in what is, obviously, one of the most difficult times of their lives.

    The local, family-owned funeral home is, sadly, something of an endangered institution in this country. Like so many other types of local small business, they provide an invaluable service to their communities, and we should be encouraging their continued existence, not demonizing an entire class of people based on the actions of the very people who would seek to push them out.

    That is all.

  14. I made a pine-box for my mother-in-law a few years back and it was one of the most surreal and bittersweet experiences of my life. She died on a Wednesday and I had her casket built by Friday. It was a wonderful experience to create her final resting place.

    Also, the cheapest thing that the funeral home had cost $450 and looked like a single-wide trailer. A beautifully finished pine-board casket cost all of $200 in materials (including the pillows and quilt that we lined it with).

  15. My great-great grandfather was a carpenter, and built his own coffin.

    In true Calvinist fashion, he decided that it was a bit flashy for himself, so propped it up in his shop as a work example, and then made himself a plain pine box.

  16. The funeral industry in the UK at one point was being bought up by the big American chains. I’m not sure how successful they ended up being.

    When the great love of my life died, his mother and I set about organising the funeral ourselves. She stole a copy of The Natural Death Handbook ( from the library, and we set about it. Mostly, our experience was OK, even though some of the companies we spoke to were a bit bemused about us wanting to do it ourselves. One guy – despite being listed in the handbook – was very derisive of our efforts. That was quite upsetting. But in the end we felt much better having arranged everything ourselves, and there was more money to spend on the wake. Yay!

    Having gone through the experience of looking after the dead ourselves, I would never want to entrust them to a stranger again. But I suppose I am a bit of a control freak.

    For myself, I quite like the idea of having everyone who knows me having a giant papier-mâché-a-thon party and making me a coffin Ghanaian style (

  17. I am a funeral director and am horrified by this post. I would like to first say that before you read on, you are allowed to make your own casket. The only legal requirement in doing so is that it have handles, as opposed to some cremation caskets (used for a visitation prior to cremation) which isn’t legally required. I do realize, also, that the purpose of this article is to express the point I just did. What is illegal is if the funeral home demands a casket handling fee. By making your own casket you are taking full responsibility for it, say, if the bottom falls out and your loved one hits the ground. Caskets through funeral homes have warranties through the manufacture, put often is determined by the type of burial – use of a vault, etc.

    Regarding embalming, in some states it is a legal requirement for individuals to be embalmed for public visitation, but in other states, it is the discretion of the funeral home (traveling over state lines does require embalming and within a state if traveling over 24 hours). The priority in embalming is to first preserve, then restore. By preserve we should never mislead a family into saying this is permanent. And, yes, formaldehyde is carcinogenic but most importantly, disinfects. If you have an individual that died of something infectious, to have a public visitation would be putting the funeral home at risk of a lawsuit. Not the family, and certainly not the deceased. The funeral home would have to post signage indicating the potential risk to the public, have visitors sign disclaimers… tacky, tacky behavior.

    Our job isn’t to swindle but to give families a “memory picture” of their loved one. Before I became a funeral director/embalmer I didn’t personally realize why embalming is necessary. Embalming doesn’t only slow down the process of decomposition it restores. Decedents that have retained moisture (edema) through their sickness, for example, are prone to decomposing much faster. Individuals who have been dead for even a day can start to become gaseous, something you can smell, and could even possibly purge. If you have had an autopsy or have had organ procurement it is, honestly, viewing of that body would be fairly unpleasant in my opinion without embalming.

    I used to not realize why funerals were so expensive but I do now. I stay up all night and work all the next day. It takes numerous people to make a funeral happen, not just me. We own our own hearses, have a beautiful facility, and will bend over backwards at the risk of never being with our own families just to give you exactly what you want. I get yelled at by grieving families. I clean up vomit and catch fainting people.

    In the article when it described most funeral directors as people who aren’t personally involved – this is incorrect for funeral homes like mine. Because we care we continue to see families throughout their and our lives. I bury mothers, fathers, children – friends of a family. I live in the community I serve. If I see you in Wal-Mart I will remember your first name.

    So, to sum it up, there is nothing wrong with wanting your funeral to be green. I don’t think there is anything wrong with placing a body directly in the ground or building your own casket. If this is what funerals came to, funeral homes could still provide a service. We do your paperwork. We file your insurance. We write and submit your obituaries. Even with a traditional funeral service, or as the article put it, “American”, it is important to personalize.. and whatever that means.

  18. #7, mdh:

    Oh, you didn’t know that every dead person gets their own concrete box, with a concrete lid, to rest the wooden box in?

    This might be true where you live; this is certainly not the case here in the UK.

    A friend-of-a-friend makes felt shrouds to use instead of coffins; she was interviewed on Radio 4 on the subject just this week.

  19. Please read the American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. It’s an interesting read and also very enlightening as to the whole industry of death. Before reading it I never questioned letting strangers drain my blood and fill my body with chemicals once I die.

  20. Just fascinating.
    I wrote a story about “green” or eco-friendly burial for Oxford American magazine’s Spring 2008 issue–specifically, about the United State’s first green burial cemetery, Ramsey Creek Preserve, in South Carolina.

    An excerpt:

    A “green” burial means interment without embalming fluids or anything else that isn’t biodegradable. It’s likely that your great-great grandparents buried their loved ones in much the
    same way; and burial without embalming is a longstanding tradition in Jewish

    Despite these cultural and historical ties, Kimberley, who oversees the preserve’s day-to-day operations, says that Ramsey Creek raised the eyebrows of a number of its neighbors when it opened in 1996.

    “I mean, ‘Are they throwing bodies in the woods?’” she intones with put-on foreboding. “There was some of that.”

    And then there’s the fact that Billy Campbell, Kimberley’s husband and Ramsey Creek’s founder, is also Westminster’s town physician. A patient of Dr. Campbell’s once jokingly compared him to the proverbial vet who’s also a taxidermist, whose sign reads, EITHER WAY, YOU GET YOUR DOG BACK.

Comments are closed.