Women Of Death

Should backyard burials be OK?

Senate Bill 796 targets 15 women whose knowledge makes them dangerous: They know, for instance, that it is not illegal in Oregon to bury a dead relative in the backyard.

At issue in SB 796: whether that knowledge makes them dangerous to the families of dead people or to the funeral-home industry.

Home burial is one piece of an emerging death-care industry offered by these women to avoid the costs of a mortician, formaldehyde, a funeral service and a pricey casket.

The option—which self-described home funeral guide Nancy Ward makes available for around $1,500—circumvents a standard funeral process. The conventional process can cost as much as $8,000 for the full package of embalming, ceremony, coffin and graveside service, according to Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

This group of 15 people, who happen to all be women, uses many names to describe its services: "death midwife," "doula," "home funeral guide." But all of them and the services they've offered the past four years alarm state Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene).

Walker is the chief sponsor of SB 796, which passed the Senate 20-7 on May 12 and now heads to the House.

Her bill—which includes new requirements for burials on private lands such as backyards—defines the women as "death-care consultants," adding them to a law requiring the state's 594 funeral practitioners to have an associate's degree and serve 12 months of apprenticeship before they qualify to take a state exam and get a practitioner's license. If the measure passes, Oregon would become the first state to deal with the new class of self-described death-care consultants by requiring them to get licenses.

Walker says she can't point to a recent example of a problem arising from backyard burial, but adds that she hopes to prevent possible screw-ups.

"I became concerned with 'green burials,' and people being buried in backyards," Walker says. "I want a bill to clarify where you can bury someone, and a notice requirement when you sell your home that Grandma is out back."

Current law lets loved ones bury loved ones on private land, though a doctor signing a death certificate can stop the body from leaving the hospital for a backyard burial if there is a danger of communicable disease.

Ward, who runs Sacred Endings in Scappoose, disagrees with Walker's proposal. Ward teaches families the logistics beyond obtaining a death certificate or getting the permits needed to transport their loved ones' bodies to their final disposition, be it a cemetery, crematorium, or even a backyard.

Ward became interested in death care after her parents, Lola and Perry Reams, died within six weeks of each other in 2005. Ward says the hardest part was watching the mortician, a stranger, take her dad and mom to the mortuary. Then working in industrial sales, she began learning about home funerals and started teaching her friends.

"It's a lost art," Ward says. "We're bringing back a tradition where we empower the family to do a sacred duty."

Thus far, she has had two clients, both friends. She didn't charge either one for her services.

Michelle Gaines, executive director of the Oregon Mortuary and Funeral Board, says home-funeral guides should require licensure, since they are "supervising or otherwise controlling the transportation, care, preparation, processing and handling of dead human bodies."

Ward says she does not want to be licensed through a board that does not include representation of death midwives. The 11-member board has embalmers, morticians and funeral home owners.

Both Walker and the funeral industry deny any industry hand in SB 796.

But the industry does have a history of keeping low-cost alternatives from gaining a foothold in the market by raising the cost of entry through licensing fees, says David Harrington, an economist and professor of economics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, who's testified before Congress on the funeral home industry.

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