By Philip Olson and Millie Smith
Olson is an assistant professor in the department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg. Smith is majoring in Humanities, Science, and Environment at Virginia Tech. She lives in Blacksburg.
It is lawful to care for your own dead in the Commonwealth of Virginia: to wash, dress, casket, and simply spend time with the bodies of your dead at home, without hiring a funeral professional.
However, legislation under consideration in the General Assembly would limit private citizens’ ability to care for the bodies of their deceased loved ones at home. If passed, SB595 would require that any person or institution in possession of a dead human body for more than 48 hours before disposition (burial, cremation, etc.) maintain the body at 40 degrees Fahrenheit by use of refrigeration.
Most private homes are not equipped with body refrigeration units, so this service, as stated in the bill, would have to be purchased from a professional funeral service. Senator Kenneth Alexander (a funeral home owner from the 5th District) introduced SB595, which has passed the Senate and moved onto committee hearings in the House.
Growing numbers of Americans (including many Virginians) are exploring new death care options for themselves and their loved ones. Organizations such as the National Home Funeral Alliance, the Green Burial Council, and the Funeral Consumers Alliance have spearheaded efforts to inform the public about home funerals, while advocating for citizens’ rights to conduct do-it-yourself home funerals. According to those who have participated in them, home funerals offer a more meaningful death care experience, and a more fulfilling way to grieve.
Advocates of home funerals recognize that home death care is not for everyone, and they do not expect home death care to become the norm. Home funeral advocates want what all funeral consumers want, namely, options that allow them to say their final farewells in a way they find most meaningful. SB595 would frustrate the interests of law-abiding Virginians who wish to safely care for their dead at home.
When former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum’s infant son died in 1996, he and his family did not call a funeral home but instead cared for the boy’s body themselves. The Santorums are among those Americans from many walks of life who have begun to question the prevailing impulse to call a funeral director immediately upon the death of a loved one. Death, say home funeral advocates, is not an emergency.
For Silver Spring Maryland’s Elizabeth Knox (a leader of the national home funeral movement), it was the sudden, accidental death of her seven-year-old daughter in 1995 that initiated her interest in home death care. Unwilling to relinquish care of her daughter’s body to others, Knox washed, dressed, and spent time with her daughter’s body at home. Knox later founded a home funeral nonprofit called ‘Crossings’ to share with others the profound value that she discovered in caring for her daughter’s body herself.
Virginians actively exercise their right to care for their own dead. Last year, Ben Coleman of Big Island, Virginia participated in a home funeral for a close friend. Coleman hopes his loved ones will be able to honor his own request for a home funeral.
In a comment about SB595 posted to RichmondSunlight.com, Blacksburg resident Courtney Stewart recalls how she and a hospice nurse cared for Stewart’s mother’s body at home. And Samantha Embrey of Nelson County reports, “Many times I have experienced the numerous advantages of a family being able to keep their loved one at home. The proposed bill would not serve the needs of those who are grieving.”
If the reasoning behind SB595 is that unrefrigerated dead bodies pose a threat to the public health, then the bill rests on shaky ground. Leading public health authorities, including the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, maintain that dead bodies rarely pose a threat to public health (exceptions include the bodies of people who have died of Ebola or other rare and highly infectious diseases).
Home funeral advocates point out that dead bodies can be kept cool using dry ice (available at local grocery stores), cooling blankets, ice packs, or air conditioning. No refrigeration units are necessary. Dead bodies may be kept at home for up to three days at 65 degrees Fahrenheit without producing odors or visible evidence of decomposition, and three days is usually enough time to conduct a home funeral before moving the body to a burial or cremation site.
Before our delegates vote on SB595, they should learn more about their constituents’ interests in home death care, about the rationale for the bill’s requirements, and about whose interests would be frustrated — and whose advanced — should SB595 become law.