by Peter Dowling
Our father died unexpectedly in 1998, just a few months before his 80th birthday. He'd always planned to be buried alongside our mother and other ancestors in Stamford, in a plot purchased by his great grandmother in 1865 at Long Ridge Union Cemetery. After he died, my siblings and I buried him there. We did so ourselves, without using the services of a traditional funeral home.
Planning and performing our father's burial was a spontaneous, intimate, and more gratifying act of love than any of us imagined. Under Connecticut law, it would have also been illegal -- except for a loophole in the statutes that applied to our case. The lessons we learned in burying our father were instructive, and of special significance to Connecticut residents. Here is our story.
It began in a Massachusetts hospital, where our Dad lay in a coma resulting from complications following arterial surgery. Years earlier, he had executed an advance directive and appointed us, his three children, as his health care agents. Because the directive specified that our Dad did not wish life support to be administered if he was in a vegetative state, we carried out his wishes. When the hospital disconnected all equipment and made him as comfortable as possible, we waited for him to die.
While we were with our Dad in the hospital, I became desperate for information and guidance -- hardly knowing what questions to ask. In recent years I had begun researching how one goes about purchasing funeral services, and the various options available. I was impressed by a pamphlet I came across on the subject, written by FCA -- so I called the national FCA office from the hospital.
I explained the situation to associate Ella Bracket and executive director Lisa Carlson, and wondered aloud what we were going to do. Their sensitivity and kindness were a dry anchorage in a terribly stormy sea. As Ella and Lisa asked compassionate questions, I explained that our Dad was a conservative and simple man, and that we did not want to make any elaborate arrangements for his burial. The time they gave me on the phone provided much more than the information I was seeking. They helped me realize that we had both options and advocates available to help us - that we were not at the mercy of a funeral home.
The words Lisa Carlson spoke that day changed the lives of my siblings and me. She told me that "Some families find that transporting and caring for their own dead can be a very intimate and fulfilling way to honor their loved ones." The thought had never -- and would never have -- occurred to us! From the moment Lisa spoke those words, our family could think of no other way of caring for our Dad that would have been more intimate or more honorable. So we began making the arrangements.
Lisa explained that if our Dad died in Connecticut, state law required that all transportation and burial arrangements be managed by a licensed funeral director. However, this does not apply if a person dies outside of Connecticut and is transported into the state with a valid permit. Since our Dad was about to die in Massachusetts, Lisa said that we could obtain a transportation permit ourselves from the local health department, then transport his body to Stamford, pay the cemetery directly for opening and closing the grave, and handle the arrangements ourselves -- all without involving a funeral home. Lisa's counsel was very comforting to us. Her suggestions seemed to be the natural things to do, and they made a great deal of sense.
Our Dad died a few days later. We would need to purchase a casket, as he wished to be buried in one. We also wanted our Dad's body to be stored for several days after his death -- to allow sufficient time for out-of-town friends and family to attend burial services. As it turned out, we did need the assistance of a funeral home for these things -- and were blessed by the services of a consumer-friendly funeral director in Massachusetts to whom Lisa referred us. This person sold us a simple casket and a concrete vault (required by the cemetery), procured a U.S. flag and Veteran's marker, and stored our Dad's body for nine days. Our cost for all of this was $750.
As we arranged for a burial transportation permit in Massachusetts, we learned that our journey would not be as easy as we had thought. The Health department in the town where our Dad died refused to issue a permit to us. I called FCA immediately, and was referred to Byron Blanchard, an FCA board member who had been instrumental in changing Massachusetts law to allow families to transport their own dead. Byron explained that the town's refusal to issue us a permit was not in accordance with the new law. He then referred me to the director of the Massachusetts state health department, whom I phoned at his home on a Saturday morning. This person called me back within ten minutes, and said our permit had been issued.
Driving his family's mini-van, my brother transported our Dad's casket, draped in the U.S. flag, from Massachusetts to Stamford on the morning of his burial. I had arranged for the cemetery superintendent to open our Dad's grave, and understandably he was quite resistant to do so without the involvement of a funeral director. I assured him that we would give him a legal burial permit issued by Massachusetts, and a check in payment of his fee. Family members placed our Dad's casket on the lowering device, and we conducted our own funeral service with 50 people in attendance. It was natural, heartfelt, and fitting. Flowers consisted of three white roses-one representing each of his children. We lowered the casket and roses into the ground, as a bugler from the local American Legion chapter played Taps.
The way in which we cared for our Dad at the time of his death brought our family closer together and created exceptional memories that we will cherish always. We would not - and could not - have honored our father so fittingly without the steadfast support and unselfish assistance of the people of FCA. But our case was an exception: if our Dad had died in Connecticut, state law would have prevented us from doing any of this. As detailed in Lisa Carlson's book, Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, Connecticut laws are among the most onerous and conflicting in the U.S. Perhaps with the interest and support of chapter members, FCA-CT and the national office can begin working with the Connecticut legislature to change this-so that other families, if they wish so, can experience the love and intimacy of caring for their own dead.