For in-home funerals, a 21st-century revival

MINNEAPOLIS — Dr. Eric Stull spent the last six weeks of his life in a hospital bed next to the bay window in his St. Paul living room. He spent the first three days after his death in the same place.

The in-home funeral after Stull died from cancer was a scene from an emerging movement. Home funerals were common until the start of the 20th century. Now they are making a comeback, fueled by environmental concerns (no embalming), the faltering economy (families can save thousands of dollars compared to a traditional funeral) and surging interest in holistic practices and home hospice care.

Minnesota law was changed last year to ease the process. Hospitals will accommodate organ donors by picking up the body, harvesting organs and then returning the deceased home. And even though the initial reaction among funeral homes was to see the movement as competition, a growing number are reaching out to participants after discovering that there's still a need for many of their services (the burial, for instance).

Stull, a pediatrician, and his wife of 30 years, Kyoko Katayama, decided prior to his death six months ago that a home funeral would be a fitting conclusion to his in-home hospice care.

"When we realized that the chemotherapy wasn't working, he wanted to come home," she said. "I was overwhelmed at the way the community got involved. People started bringing over food. Neighbors walked the dog and cleaned the house. Patients' families helped us move out of his office. Healers came to do energy healing. Friends gave him massages. A nurse offered to take care of the IV fluids he was getting.

"Literally, we had people coming through the door at all hours of the day. So when he died, it seemed natural (to have the vigil in the home). This is where people came when he was alive, so this is where they came to say goodbye."

Home funerals are commonly misunderstood, according to the Minnesota Threshold Network (, an organization that describes itself as "a meeting place for all who are interested in death, home funerals and green burials."

The bodies don't rot or stink; they're packed in dry ice or chemical cold packs. There's little danger of disease; you're at a greater risk of catching something from the person sitting next to you at work than from a dead body. And there are no religious prohibitions against them.

In Minnesota, Linda Bergh has become, for lack of a better term, a death-care midwife who fields calls at all hours from people asking for help.

"It's a just a question of what can I do at this point to make a difference in people's lives?" said Bergh, a retired psychologist with personal experience in the process. She has buried her husband, her 17-year-old daughter and, after she remarried, her second husband.

Until last year, there were strict limits on home vigils. Children were not allowed, and the vigils couldn't be publicized in newspaper obituaries. In the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, introduced a bill that removed those prohibitions.

"I wanted to allow more family involvement," she said. "I didn't know anything about home funerals until I attended one. I walked in on an absolutely marvelous experience. It was a tangibly sacred time, and I was completely taken aback. I had never experienced anything like that."

Advocates are seeing more cooperation from funeral directors. "They used to roll their eyes and say, 'You want what?' " Bergh said. "Now they're open to our suggestions."

In-home care accounts for only a sliver of all funerals, although no one keeps statistics. But supporters expect a jump in the next two decades as baby boomers make their arrangements.

"It's not in the mainstream yet," Bergh conceded. "But I think it's coming."

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