Rest at home forever? Home burials surprisingly legal
In rural areas, the law often lets you bury someone at home, which can drastically reduce burial costs and environmental impact. But a family grave might hurt your property value.
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When Katey Branch's ex-husband learned he would die soon, he asked to return to the small farm near Paris, Maine, that the two had started 20 years before and where Branch still lived. He died a few months later. His friends and family prepared his body, wrapped it in cloth and carried it to the spot where the couple had been married: a circle of moss that overlooks a pond and is surrounded by oaks.
It was February. The ground was frozen. A neighbor used his backhoe to dig the grave. Friends laid the body in it with pine boughs and rose petals and closed the grave with earth. They marked it with a big boulder. (Bing: Are home burials legal in your state?)
"It felt like the most natural thing to be buried in the land that you love," Branch says. She says the burial experience, and having the grave close by, helped her twin daughters, then 15, cope with the loss of their father.
No one tracks how many home burials take place in the U.S. But if you live in a rural or semirural area, chances are good that the law would permit you or a loved one to be buried on your property when the time arrives.
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Home burial is a longstanding tradition in the U.S., especially in the rural South, says Mark Harris, author of "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial." George Washington is buried at home in Mount Vernon, Va., and Thomas Jefferson's bones rest at his Virginia estate, Monticello. Old graves and family burial grounds still can be found here and there, especially in rural areas on the Eastern seaboard and in the South.
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"Our great-grandparents would have recognized this as an accepted way of doing things," says Josh Slocum, director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance and co-author of "Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death." "This was not anything weird or abnormal or out of the ordinary for our great-grandparents."
The demise of home burials began with the rise of embalming during the Civil War. Families often traveled to battlefields to retrieve the bodies of their soldiers. "Against this backdrop, Lincoln approved embalming for Union soldiers so their bodies could be sent home," according to a 2011 Obit Magazine article titled "Preserving a Nation."
As the country grew more urbanized and home lots shrank in size, the use of embalming grew along with a move away from home burials, says Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association. (Bing: Home embalming kits)
The Federal Consumers Alliance reports a small but steady interest — six to 12 inquiries a year — in home burial. The Green Burial Council, which promotes "ecologically responsible death care," receives a couple of dozen calls a year about home burials, and the number has been rising slightly, says Joe Sehee, executive director.
The interest in home burials is still tiny, however, next to the surge of demand for other alternative funeral arrangements — "green" burials, home funerals and the preparation of bodies at home for interment.
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Two forces are behind this small revival of home burial, experts say: the financial savings, which are of particular concern in a recession; and environmental worries about chemicals, plastics and other materials that are used, buried and burned during embalming, cremation and conventional interment.
Although Branch's decision to bury her girls' father on their land wasn't about finances, she did save: His burial cost just $200, for the backhoe work. In comparison, the average U.S. funeral with a vault costs $7,755, excluding cemetery fees, monument or grave marker, flowers and obituaries.
There are varying analyses of the environmental costs of a traditional burial. A 2009 analysis for the Green Burial Council estimated that cemeteries bury 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults and an additional 90,000 tons of steel coffins each year – enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge each year, Sehee says.
Burial vaults use 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete annually, sufficient to pave a two-lane highway from New York to Chicago, he says. That's in addition to 30 million board-feet of hardwood used in coffins and 750,000 gallons of embalming fluid, much of it containing formaldehyde.
The funeral directors association looked at wastewater discharge from funeral homes and found that it contains low levels of biodegradable formaldehyde, methanol and phenol. But the amounts are small enough that the wastewater "will not impact the operation of treatment plans or result in toxicity in local waters," Koth says.
What happen's when you plan on selling the home? Do they just move the plots?