It had been a rough five years for Robert Denboer, who mourned the deaths of his mother, father, mother-in-law and several close friends in quick succession.
Then, in June, the cancer his wife had fought to a stalemate years ago returned vengefully. He knew he would be planning another funeral.
One day Denboer wandered onto a YouTube video of two women discussing home funerals — services conducted for loved ones, usually unembalmed, right in the living room or other part of the house.
“I got two impressions out of it,” said Denboer, 60, of Fort Worth. “One, that it was morose, even kind of gross, just too strange. But the other impression I got was that the two ladies talking about it were very sincere and felt it was the only way to fully experience that their loved one was gone and to be reconciled with that.”
He discussed having a home funeral with his wife, LuAnn, who liked the idea but didn’t want their adult daughters to be uncomfortable with it.
Rebecca and Lacy Denboer, who live at the family home, hesitated at first.
“It seemed a very foreign idea,” said Rebecca, 30. “My initial reaction was, ‘Is this going to be respectful enough?’ ”
Home funerals are nothing new. In the pioneer days, families took care of their dead on their own. Funeral homes didn’t start springing up until embalming procedures were refined and became popular during the Civil War.
Home funerals are legal in all states, although 10 of them require the involvement of a licensed funeral director for some services.
Texas is not among those 10 states, although critics say some funeral directors don’t always make that clear to their grieving customers.
Bonnie Smith of Arlington, a nurse who had a home funeral for her husband in April, complains that many funeral directors push expensive, unnecessary services on families who may too be shellshocked with grief to make good decisions.
“Especially people who go into debt to pay for this and they don’t have the money. That’s terrible,” Smith said. “They don’t know what they’re getting into.”
Michael Land, past president of the 125-year-old Texas Funeral Directors Association, said the vast majority of funeral directors have the best interests of the families at heart. For those needing more incentive, the U.S. Trade Commission’s “Funeral Rule” has strict requirements for openness and fairness.
“When we sit down with a family, we have to disclose certain things — like embalming is not required by law and not all cemeteries require an outer burial container,” Land said. And they must go over a detailed price list with the family. “But when a family comes in to make arrangements, we don’t just sit down and say, ‘You know you can do this yourself.’ ”
19,391 Number of funeral homes in the U.S. in 2015, down from 21,528 in 2004, according to the National Directory of Morticians
People like Elva Roy are working to spread the word that there are alternatives to full-service traditional funerals, also including green burials, in which all materials are completely biodegradable. Roy says more and more people are learning about their choices — certainly those in the audiences she speaks to as a board member of the advocacy group Funeral Consumers Alliance.
“We as Americans have been conditioned to fear death. It’s a taboo subject because we’re in denial that one day we’re going to die,” said Roy, who helped the Denboer family with their in-home service. “So it’s hard to even get a conversation going with family members.”
Home funerals are clearly less expensive than traditional funerals, which on average cost about $10,000 in the U.S., including a standard casket and cemetery vault, said Land, who has been director of Forest Ridge Funeral Home in Hurst since it was founded in 1997.
He said independent and family-owned funeral homes, like his own, tend to charge less than those owned by corporate chains, “because stockholders like to see dividends.”
A comparable funeral at Forest Ridge would cost around $7,500, he said.
$10,000 Average cost of a standard traditional funeral in the U.S.
Home funerals can be done on the cheap, depending on how many of the tasks the family wants to assume.
Smith became interested in home funerals when she learned that embalming isn’t required by law. The in-home service option became part of the family discussion when her husband, Maurice, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in July 2013. He died March 30 at age 63.
“I ordered a casket from the Trappist monks,” she said, referring to the community of Roman Catholic monks near Dubuque, Iowa. “It was made of walnut. I thought it was quite beautiful.” It cost about $1,200 plus $300 shipping.
Her daughter transported her father’s remains in her van. Hospice workers helped prepare the body for services. Smith said she filled out the death report, and where it asked for the funeral director’s signature, she took the advice of Jim Bates, a North Texas-based guide for the National Home Funeral Alliance, and wrote “acting” in the the space and signed her own name. That alone saved her $1,600 to $1,700 in funeral home fees, she said.
They used a funeral home to open and close the grave. But other than that, she said, “We basically bypassed the funeral industry.”
Her daughter, April Pickle, who said she thought her mother “was crazy” to suggest a home funeral, soon was on board.
“That’s what was surprising to me,” Pickle said. “That none of it made me feel squeamish. It felt so right and natural.”
The consensus is that home funerals are happening in one form or another all over the country in increasing numbers.
Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance
Robert Denboer said cost initially was a factor in his family’s decision as well.
“We don’t have a lot of means,” he said. “We kind of live paycheck to paycheck.”
He said he was pleased to have saved roughly $3,000 from the $8,000 he was expecting to pay. Those costs mainly were for the modest cedar casket, body transportation and traditional burial his wife wanted.
But the cost took a back seat to the family’s experience, the poignancy of continuing to care for their mother and wife for those two days after her death.
“It’s never going to be easy,” Rebecca said. “For me, it was just this person who loves me and hugged me, this voice that came out of her, the smile on her face. The memories of her I just want to honor in every way.”
Robert Denboer said that taking care of his wife, shoulder to shoulder with his daughters, also far exceeded what he had hoped for after his recent experience with traditional funerals.
In those cases, he said, “It was almost like the funeral home was protecting you from the impact of death. They pass, and the next day you see them in costume and makeup. It’s a strange place with a bunch of other people around, some of whom you don’t know,” he said. “I felt like I was separated from the reality of them passing.”
The in-home service experience couldn’t have been more different, he said.
“When we got her from the morgue, she was in terrific condition, and her face was very natural,” he said. Especially, he added, compared with the unnatural appearance he’s witnessed of other loved ones after embalming and makeup.“She looked better than anyone I had seen who had passed.”
It felt so right and natural.
April Pickle, on the home funeral of her father, Maurice Smith of Arlington
Following recommendations for home funerals, he kept small packages of dry ice along her midsection to keep the body cool.
He and his daughters agreed she did not need cosmetics. “We just put jewelry on her,” he said. “She looked beautiful. I was surprised.”
Kala Rath, a professional photographer and close family friend from Arkansas, snapped hundreds of pictures of the services, the $1,400 cedar-plank casket the family purchased and the interaction of family and friends. But the idea took getting used to.
“I was startled — afraid of facing the reality of her death, afraid of having a corpse in the very house I would be sleeping in, afraid it would be more emotionally painful than what I felt capable of withstanding,” Rath said in an email.
Her doubts soon disappeared. “The ability to spend time with this dear woman and motherly figure in my life for the last time was crucial to my healing,” she said.
It felt like we were giving her that last measure of respect and dignity.
Robert Denboer of Fort Worth on the home funeral he held for his wife, LuAnn, in June
Home funeral advocacy groups say there are no statistics on how common they are.
“Home funerals are by nature private. We can’t know what people are doing once we’ve given them the tools,” Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance, said by email. “We do know that our membership is growing exponentially. And we are training people all over the country — the world, really — to teach others, who teach others, and so on. The consensus is that home funerals are happening in one form or another all over the country in increasing numbers.”
Bates, who is also board president of Funeral Consumers Alliance of North Texas, said the most popular location in Texas for home funerals appears to be the Austin area, with about a dozen a month, compared with about one a month in DFW.
Home funerals are not for everyone. Bypassing the full service of a funeral home can be unnerving, because it means taking over what many would consider macabre tasks and responsibilities of providing a hitch-free return to ashes and dust.
Picking up a body at a hospital or morgue can be less queasy than frustrating. Many still refuse to release a body to anyone but a funeral director, citing company policy that Bates said conflicts with state law.
Land said that, although unembalmed bodies don’t decompose as quickly as some might fear, there can be other disconcerting byproducts.
“Natural processes occur,” Land said, starting usually in the gastrointestinal system, laden with bacteria. “Sometimes there may be odors present that some might not be comfortable with.” And more.
Denboer went in a different direction.
“I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re not really close to [the deceased],” he said. “It’s already such a difficult time. There is a lot of emotion. I had concerns if everyone was going to show up on time and ‘What if I get to the cemetery and the hole isn’t dug?’ I had to call and call back and double-check and call back and triple-check. There were so many times that all it would take was one or two things to make the process impossible. These are things funeral directors are familiar with.”
Having said that, he would do it again.
“It felt risky, but there was a possibility of it being very, very special. And it was everything I hoped for and more,” he said. “It felt like we were giving her that last measure of respect and dignity.”