Backyard burials growing in popularity
By Elizabeth Fournier

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There's something appealing about the return to family cemetery plots on land where the decedent lived. And there's obviously a very, very long tradition of this. It's what families did for generations — burying their loved ones on the family property. It's done more typically in rural settings, and laws vary not only state to state, but county to county.

The problem I ran into years ago when families starting requesting this was that essentially there is no law concerning how a person can (or even must) be buried or cremated. There are extensive regulations in state law for formal, publicly owned and privately owned public cemeteries, all designed to "preserve the sanctity and dignity" in perpetuity of any gravesite, and lengthy sets of laws and regulations regarding funeral homes. There also are federal laws and regulations that prohibit both burials and the disposal of cremated remains on federal lands (without special permission).

But "family plot" burial regulations on privately held lands are left entirely to cities and counties to develop relevant ordinances — and few have them.

Under state and provincial law, a person must notify authorities of any death of which they are aware. That's designed to prevent someone from "burying Uncle Hank after he's died in the parlor" without telling anyone. A death certificate must then be issued.

But once that death certificate is issued and the body released to a family, what they do with it is largely up in the air. There are no state laws — other than possible health-code violations that might eventually apply — regarding what they do with the body after that (except a requirement that a body must be embalmed if the person died of a communicable disease).

Common social practice is to send the body to a funeral home, for proper preparation and burial in a casket, or cremation, at which point a large number of state laws and regulations come into play regarding what funeral directors, morticians and embalmers can, can't and must do.

Advocates say the number of home funerals, where everything from caring for the dead to the visiting hours to the building of the coffin is done at home, has soared in the last five years, putting the funerals where home births were 30 years ago.

The cost savings can be substantial, all the more important in an economic downturn. The average funeral costs are plentiful at a funeral home, in addition to the costs of cremation or burial. A home funeral can be as inexpensive as the cost of pine for a coffin (for a backyard burial) or a few hundred dollars for cremation or several hundred dollars for cemetery costs.

More people are inquiring about the lower-cost options, said Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group.

"Home funerals aren't for everybody, but if there's not enough money to pay the mortgage, there certainly isn't enough money to pay for a funeral," Slocum explained.

Baby boomers who are handling arrangements for the first time are particularly looking for a more intimate experience.

While only a tiny portion of the nation's dead are cared for at home, the number is growing. According to Slocum, there are at least 45 organizations or individuals nationwide that help families with the process, compared with only two in 2002.

Elizabeth Fournier is the owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremation in Boring, Ore.