Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly founded a business in California called Undertaking LA. Their business encourages and teaches families how to be more involved in end-of-life-rituals. Another similar company, the Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, offers green burials, witness cremations and post-cremation memorial services. Fitting Tribute is known for offering “anything that makes celebrating a life live more personalized and more meaningful.” For many, traditional funerals are not preferable or economically feasible, and home funerals offer a more intimate alternative. For many, eco-friendly alternatives are more appealing. This movement towards more natural funeral experiences has also expanded to burial decisions. David Wolfe’s website discusses innovative ideas for using organic burial pods to turn remains into trees. These biodegradable urns and pods could be utilized to create a “memory forest” as opposed to a cemetery.
At Wake Forest University School of Law we are lucky to have Professor Tanya Marsh, who has been called “our nation’s foremost academic scholar on the law of cemeteries and human remains.” She teaches the only course in a U.S. law school on Funeral and Cemetery law. I had the opportunity to discuss with her the growing home funeral business.
I asked Professor Marsh about the funeral home industry’s response to start-ups such as Undertaking LA. She explained, “The funeral industry’s typical response to new competitive threats is to propose and support legislation that makes it more difficult for those start-ups to operate. However, it is more difficult for them to do that with respect to Undertaking LA because it is set up as a funeral home and run by women who are licensed and fully qualified. There isn’t much that they can do to stop them. There is a lot that the funeral industry can try to do in order to make it more difficult for families to choose home funerals (particularly without the involvement of a funeral director). The legislation proposed in Virginia, which requires embalming or refrigeration at a particular temperature, is one kind of example. We have seen and I think will continue to see efforts by the funeral industry to get laws passed that make it practically impossible for consumers to not hire a funeral director.”
In over ten states, hiring a funeral director is required. Sixteen states require that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within a particular amount of time after death. Virginia already requires that human remains by embalmed or refrigerated within 48 hours after death, but as Professor Marsh mentioned a proposed bill in Virginia would require that human remains be refrigerated at a temperature of no more than 40 degrees. Virginia State Senator Kenneth Alexander, who is also a funeral director, proposed the bill. This bill seems to be directly aimed at the home funeral industry. Refrigeration under 40 degrees is not feasible in a home setting due to the fact few families have a walk-in refrigeration in their home. As Caitlin Doughty explains, ice packs and dry ice sufficiently preserve a loved one’s remains for a home vigil, but that practice would no longer be legal in Virginia if SB 595 were enacted. These legal requirements are burdensome to the average consumer and curtail reasonable home funeral options. The passing of a loved one is very stressful and emotional time. People should have the autonomy to choose from a variety of options, ranging from home vigils to the traditional funeral conducted through a funeral home.
*Molly Pearce is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Florida State University. After graduation, she hopes to practice employment law.