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Originally published Saturday, December 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Death midwives" tap a growing market

Business is booming for specialists who can help families save money and find more options for saying goodbye to loved ones.

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — When Jerrigrace Lyons goes out on a case, she carries a basic set of tools: makeup kit, cardboard caskets and a handbook with practical instructions for icing and transporting bodies.

Lyons is a "death midwife," a specialist in the little-known field of helping people manage the passing of a loved one outside the traditional funeral industry. As the nation reels during its worst economic crisis in more than a generation, her business is booming.

In normal times, Lyons' clients tend to be people more interested in alternative lifestyles. But many people are drawn to her by a stark calculation: They cannot afford traditional funerals and burials, which often run $10,000 or more.

"People want something that is in line with what their loved ones would have wanted," Lyons said by telephone from Hawaii, where she was teaching a sold-out workshop. "But they also want something that they can afford."

Lyons, an ordained minister from Sebastopol, Calif., started a nonprofit organization, Final Passages. As a death midwife, she teaches workshops about alternative possibilities for families, such as keeping the body of a deceased relative at home or burying it outside a traditional cemetery.

Lyons also guides families through the legalities and paperwork of at-home funerals — death certificates and body-transport permits — while providing emotional support and counseling. Depending on what a family needs, her services can run from $500 to $1,500.

Interest grows

Other death midwives have reported a similar increase in interest, with much of the growth tied to economic need.

"In good times and bad, funerals have consistently been an incredible expense," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance. "This economic situation is forcing us to reassess the value of the dollar, and not just the value of money, but the value of what we buy."

When Howard Kopecky, 66, of northwestern Wisconsin, was diagnosed with terminal cancer this year, he decided he did not want his family and his wife, who had just lost her job at a nursing home, to spend a lot of money on his funeral.

The couple did not know how to proceed, until Kopecky noticed an ad in the local newspaper for death midwife Lucy Basler. "I think it made us feel like, OK, other people are doing this," his wife, Phyllis, said.

Basler had been trained at one of Lyons' workshops and assisted the couple with the legal and logistic particulars of staging a funeral in their home.

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After Howard died, Phyllis and their children had a memorial and buried him in a pine box on their property, in a spot they legally had designated as a cemetery. For a headstone, they used a large rock from a neighboring field.

The cost: less than $1,000.

"As a death midwife, I'm helping to usher a person out of this world and into the next," Lyons said. "It is really the same threshold as birth. I think of it as the comings and goings of our spirit. We come in and we go out. But it is the same doorway."

Economy a factor

The economic crunch has pushed other people toward money-saving options such as cremation and "green" burial. Nationwide, cremation is estimated to have been the choice in about 35 percent of deaths in 2007, up from about 28 percent in 2002, the Cremation Association of North American reported recently.

Likewise, green burials — which often skip embalming (about $600) and grave liners ($400 to $1,200) — are an increasingly popular option because they are thought to be better for the environment and potentially less expensive.

"The financial constraints that people are facing, and the realization that there are more ecological burial options, are the two forces that are really reshaping the death system," said D. Brookes Cowan, a grief educator and professor at University of Vermont.

Even those opting for traditional services are looking for ways to save. Slocum recently has advised people on cost-cutting measures, including making their own caskets, bringing their own flowers and having a day of family viewing without embalming and then a closed casket during the funeral.

Just before Thanksgiving this year, Elizabeth Sky Nogotona, 61, invited Lyons to her house in Santa Rosa, Calif., to discuss with her children and father the possibility of an at-home funeral. Nogotona knew she would not be able to afford a standard funeral for her father and her mother, who is in a nursing home. But she was willing to do whatever they thought was right.

After a discussion, the family decided on at-home funerals followed by cremation.

"It's less expensive and more personal," said her father, Michael Borge.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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