A state senator who runs a funeral home discovered that arrangements are never quite complete.
Sen. Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk, thought he drew together all the parties who would handle a corpse when he crafted a regulation: Anyone keeping a dead body for more than 48 hours needs to have it refrigerated to no warmer than 40 degrees.
He forgot, though, to check with families — especially families who want to care for their deceased love ones at home. Alexander’s bill, SB 595, sailed through the Senate, but home funeral advocates caught wind of it and started an online petition drive. Once he learned of the problem with the bill’s wording, Alexander said he started working to correct it.
“This bill will in no way affect persons who bury their own loved ones,” he said.
Denise Klasen-Lopez of Springfield, who started an online petition a few weeks ago, was relieved to hear that.
“We wanted people to know there is a demand for alternative funerals out there. We wanted our voices heard and are happy that they were,” she said. As of Tuesday, 3,522 people signed the petition, but she was unable to determine how many live in Virginia.
Alexander said his intent was to have nursing homes and hospitals comply with the same law that governs morticians. Families sometimes delay making arrangements, and he wanted to ensure that bodies were not left in environments that would hasten decomposition. He is now working with House members to amend the bill so it regulates institutions, not families.
Alexander, president of Metropolitan Funeral Service in Norfolk, said he filed the bill after being approached by a distraught family from the Hopewell region.
One of the family’s relatives had died at a hospital on a Friday and was kept there in an uncooled room over the weekend, he said. Larry Spiaggi, of Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service in Chesterfield County, handled the funeral arrangements for the family.
“By Monday morning, when we were finally contacted, this gentleman had gotten into a pretty bad state of decomposition,” said Spiaggi, who’s also second vice president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association.
The family was denied the viewing it had wanted and filed suit. Spiaggi said during the proceedings officials learned that hospitals and nursing homes are not under the same regulations as funeral homes and don’t have to chill corpses if holding them for more than 48 hours.
Alexander said his bill first asked for refrigeration to begin at once, but through talks with hospitals, physicians and nursing homes it was amended to 48 hours.
Because it did not specify institutions, family funeral advocates thought the bill was aimed at them.
Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance, said other states have adopted provisions requiring refrigeration of dead bodies after 48 hours in order to circumvent the desire of families who wish to avoid funeral homes. It appeared Virginia sought to do the same, he said.
“The biggest issue we have is when families want to take care of their own dead, and the government steps into private residences,” she said. “Funeral directors offer these services, which are satisfying to many, but families shouldn’t be compelled to use these services.”
It goes to the fundamental right of Americans to care for their own, she said.
As to cooling bodies, Webster said refrigeration is not at all necessary. Dry ice, cooling blankets and air conditioning can be used to lower the temperature of the body to 65 degrees.
“It’s just not a big deal,” she said. There’s time for families to gather in their own homes, visit with friends and say goodbye on their own schedules and terms.
No agencies track home funerals. Webster said her association started six years ago with a handful of people sitting around a room talking about it and now has 2,000 members.
The movement has intrigued Philip Olson, a professor of science and technology in society at Virginia Tech. He began a few years ago to study the home funeral movement and is now learning how to guide families through the process. He is a board member of the Funeral Consumer Alliance of the Virginia Blue Ridge.
“Nobody expects it [home funerals] to become widespread,” he said. “It’s largely a woman-led movement from the same generation that challenged the medicalized birth” and pushed for home births. They now seek to keep government intervention from the end of life, he said.
Alexander said it wasn’t his intention to interfere.
“We’re going to be very respectful of a family’s preference, be it a religious preference or be it their personal choice,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we don’t, in any way, infringe on that.”