Rethinking the modern funeralNancy Manahan’s sister-in-law, Diane, had time to prepare for her own funeral. After being diagnosed with very aggressive cancer, treatments failed and Diane Manahan was told her cancer was terminal.
By: LaReesa Sandretsky, Lake County News Chronicle
Nancy Manahan’s sister-in-law, Diane, had time to prepare for her own funeral. After being diagnosed with very aggressive cancer, treatments failed and Diane Manahan was told her cancer was terminal.
Diane, a nurse, decided she was going to eschew a traditional burial and went for a greener, more holistic funeral. After her experience helping Diane prepare for her own funeral, Manahan became an advocate for nontraditional burials. She and state Rep. Carolyn Laine will be at the Two Harbors Public Library this week to discuss more affordable and ecologically friendly options.
“We had always gone with commercial funerals (before Diane’s death),” Manahan said. “Diane broke the mold.”
Diane planned her life celebration down to the detail. She requested that friends bring their most famous baked goods; she asked her nephew to write a song and she even interviewed funeral directors before choosing one.
“We all were part of that planning for a funeral as if it were the most normal and natural thing in the world, which of course it should be,” Manahan said.
The funeral director had a small role: He drove her body from her house to the cremation society, which was required by law. All other duties, such as washing her body and dressing her in a favorite outfit, were taken care of by her family according to Diane’s wishes. Her body stayed in her house the day and night after her passing, and Manahan said guests came and went the entire time, sharing stories and laughing and crying together in the presence of Diane.
“It’s so amazing how natural it all felt. It felt as if we’d been doing this for generations,” Manahan said. “It’s only the last few generations who’ve thought we had to turn this over to professionals.”
After Diane’s death, Manahan and her wife, Becky Boman, decided to write a book sharing her story. “Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully” won several awards and started Manahan on a path toward home funeral advocacy. She started the nonprofit Minnesota Threshold Network, which makes information available about more holistic approaches to death. In 2010, the nonprofit advocated heavily for a bill that would allow Minnesotans more freedom in death, introduced by Laine, a Democrat from Columbia Heights.
“It was the most rewarding legislation I’ve ever passed,” Laine said.
The law now allows people to transport the bodies of their deceased relatives and allows public viewing of an unembalmed body. It passed easily, and Laine said the presentation she crafted made clear the benefits of more freedom in the funeral process. A medical professional testified that there is no public health risk with an unembalmed body, and citizens shared their experiences of holistic funerals for their loved ones and how it improved their grieving process.
“There is a push that people want something different,” Laine said.
She first attended a home funeral for the husband of a friend and knew it was special.
“I walked in on something that was tangibly sacred,” Laine said of the vigil. “The people all understood something of the nature of honoring this person moving on.”
Manahan said that embalming became commonplace only after the Civil War. The families of killed soldiers started asking doctors to preserve the bodies of their loved ones so they could be transported home for burial.
“People gradually started to think that was a good thing to do,” Manahan said, and slowly the entire funeral process began being handled by professionals. In more recent years, she said, there has been a slight push back as people realize commercial funerals aren’t the only option. Alternatives can be cheaper, more environmentally friendly and more spiritually satisfying.
Thursday’s presentation will include personal anecdotes, a documentary clip and lots of resources, Manahan said. Laine will speak to the legal aspects of funeral alternatives as well.
“We can die when we’re 17 or 37 or 87,” Manahan said. “All of us should be thinking about this.”