Today we speak with Jerrigrace Lyons a family funeral guide and educator—one of the original pioneers of the home funeral movement (read part one here.) She is a founding member of the Home Funeral Alliance, and the founder and director of Final Passages, through which she both guides families and certifies home funeral consultants. This is Part Two of her two-part interview with SevenPonds—read Part One here, and the Introduction here.
Jerrigrace: There are so many! I’ll just choose a recent home funeral—it occurred this year, in our local cemetery. We’ve been able to do green burials at this cemetery for years, but the owner had not agreed to shroud-only burials because he was concerned about lowering the body into the grave. However, this family was certain their loved one would prefer a shroud-only burial to anything else, and I told the cemetery owner about how we could use Esmerelda Kent’s original design to lower the shroud. Finally, he gave his permission.
This was a funeral for a young woman, 38 years old—her 11-year-old son participated, as well as her parents and partner. We brought the body into the living room, where all her women friends came together to perform a beautiful anointing ceremony with special oil, sing songs and tell stories about her. Then her son and his friends came in and they all were with her.
I suggested we decorate a cardboard casket to transport her body to the cemetery. Her son and all his friends went to work painting the casket—the adults helped too, but it was really beautiful to see children, even some of his younger nephews, getting involved in the ceremony. We then placed the body in this beautiful box and brought her to the cemetery, where we used Esmerelda’s specially designed straps to walk the body to the grave and gently lower it in. Lots of flowers were thrown on top of the shroud. The woman’s son and his friends shoveled dirt into the grave. It was all so beautiful—so many layers of ritual! It was a new experience for us; shroud-only burial seems like the most natural way of all.
Aurora: That’s such a lovely story. What are your thoughts on green burial in general?
Jerrigrace: Whatever form of disposition the family wants, I am happy to assist—but if they are going to choose burial over cremation, my hope is that they have heard about green burial—where the body is placed in the ground with the least impact on the earth. This means no cement or plastic vaults placed in the ground to hold the casket, and no embalming. Instead, the body is buried in either a shroud or biodegradable casket made out of things like bamboo, banana leaf, or seagrass.
Most people don’t realize that every year, we place enough steel in the ground to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge—that’s 104,000 tons of steel! Every year, we use 1,600,000 tons of concrete for grave liners, and 30,000,000 board feet of hard wood in conventional burial. So many precious resources are being used up that there is a whole movement to go back to green burial, using caskets or shrouds. When people are embalmed, all the blood drained from them goes down the drain. So for many reasons, we are trying to bring about an awareness of green burial.
Keep asking your cemetery owners to provide access if green burial is not yet an option on their grounds. Preferably, this land will be located through land trusts that conserve the land by making a section for green burial and using the revenue to conserve the entire parcel of land.
Aurora: Could you talk a little about the National Home Funeral Alliance and the upcoming conference?
Jerrigrace: After some 15 years of doing this work, I joined several peers in a conference to discuss our experiences and unifying the movement. Specifically, how we could provide resources to women interested in becoming home funeral guides, as well as to people in general learning about their end-of-life options. Out of that meeting, 13 of us stepped forward to create an alliance by teleconferencing from across country. The Home Funeral Alliance was born. We have nonprofit status. This year, we will have our second annual NHFA Conference in Boulder, CO, September 22-24. The Preconference (on the 21st and 22nd) offers introductory workshops on home funerals. I have trained those who are teaching, and I strongly recommend both the Conference and Preconference workshops!
Aurora: Finally, what is your vision for the future of end of life?
Jerrigrace: I hope that everyone will know what a home funeral is, what their options are, and that they have a choice. I hope they will have easy access to those resources and find a guide to help them if they want someone to walk beside them. I also hope that people will know what green burial is; and that many, many more green burial cemeteries will open around the country. I hope that more crematoriums will be open to families who choose home funerals, and that these families are only charged for cremation itself. My vision for our organization, Final Passages, is opening a center of education, so our institute has a center where people from all over the world can come to take courses, see biodegradable caskets, see films about home funerals; and, ultimately, see how graceful and gentle and loving they are. That is my vision.
Aurora: Wow, Jerrigrace—thank you so much for talking to us!