Elizabeth Knox, one of the first people to work towards our culture shifting to more nurturing death practices, came to this work after losing her child, Alison, in an automobile accident in 1995. This is a part of her story from the article, Who Owns The Dead?
Once Alison had arrived at Knox’s house, the girl belonged to her mother again. Knox and her own mother gave Alison a sponge bath in her bed and clothed her in a dress they’d bought at the beach that summer. They made a wreath of flowers for her hair. The funeral home staff arranged the girl over dry ice to slow her decay, and she lay in a small, child-sized casket made of pine, placed perpendicularly across the bed. Knox slept curled up in the small space beside it at night. Hundreds of people came through the house over the next few days, as Knox remembers it. Teachers and classmates brought gifts for the coffin. About three days after her death, Alison was taken to a crematorium, where Knox rocked the gurney on which her daughter’s body lay, and watched as she was put into the furnace.
The days Alison spent at home before the cremation were both “tragic and beautiful,” Knox said. “It was such a comfort.”
Just 100 years ago, the sight of a dead body laid out in someone’s front parlor would not have been at all unusual. Indeed, the home was the province of the funeral for most of U.S. history. According to records from the 1600s and 1700s, the earliest Americans often died at home and remained at home until the burial; there they were washed, wrapped in shrouds, and laid out on boards while the family made preparations for a funeral feast. This homespun approach to death largely persisted throughout most of the 1800s: In addition to family and midwives, women known as “Layers Out of the Dead,” took care of the immediate tasks following a death. The body might be placed over ice and watched over for days to ensure the person was truly dead and wouldn’t be buried alive. Sometimes, the bereaved had a photographer come to take a post-mortem picture. Family, neighbors, or local carpenters made the coffin.
When did death care change from being family based? The industry that is known as the Funeral Industry started during the Civil War and the embalming of soldiers so that they could be sent home. From then, it has grown into a large industry. Today the average traditional funeral costs between $8,000 and $10,000 (this is not the case here in Western Colorado where the cost is much lower), and about 42% of people are cremated. The US funeral industry accounts for about $20 billion in annual economic activity, with around 130,000 employees that make a living on the 1.5 million people that die each year.