A few years back I came across a guy named Earnest Becker, a psychologist whose work was based on the idea that the whole of human culture has been established in order to distract us from thoughts of our impending, inevitable death. According to Becker’s theory, the heightened, hyper insurgence that human culture has enjoyed over the past century goes hand in hand with the separation of the living and the dead that has taken place over the same period. Most notably, the hospital has emerged as a buffer zone where death is sanitized and kept out of sight from those of us who still have to go to work. (If you’re intrigued by Becker’s work, here’s another post and part of an article that focus on his work a little more and here’s an SYSK episode we did on Terror Management Theory, which fleshes out how we avoid confronting fear and death.)
It wasn’t very long ago (just prior to the rise of the other institution that society employs to deal with death on our behalf, the funeral home) that people dealt with death in a very hands-on manner. People died at home, their wakes and funerals were held at home. In cases where their family owned their land, they were often buried at home. As the use of funeral homes grew, a distance between the average person and the average person’s funeral was insinuated. Over time, laws were passed that professionalized carrying out funerals and dealing with dead bodies, and the funeral became part of an industry. Lately, however, it appears that people are finding these laws either never really existed or don’t have much teeth. So instead of following the currently prescribed process for a death — taking a dying relative to the hospital where they breathe their last and are carted off to a funeral home to be embalmed and placed in a very shiny casket and buried in a cemetery — some Americans are dealing with death face to face with home funerals.
It’s a pretty sterling example of something old being new again; just as they did a century or so ago, a person dies at home, his funeral is held at home. And while it seems at once mentally unhealthy, I can also see how the claim by people in the home funeral movement that home funerals allow for a much deeper acceptance of death and healthier bereavement could also be true. Perhaps the idea seems dangerous only because it’s so outside the norm. We Americans weren’t any more messed up when we dealt with death at home than we are today; perhaps even less so. Perhaps that’s why.
Huffington Post has a really great article on the growing movement of home funerals. Check it out here.