Friends of North Fork resident Bob Carlin were determined to ease the burden of burial expenses for his wife, Cathleen 'Caitlin' Carlin, who died Jan. 14 of cancer at age 57.
A memorial gathering was held Saturday at North Fork Town Hall.
When Cathleen, a registered nurse, passed away at Hinds Hospice in Fresno, no mortuary was called due to previous planning. The Fresno County Coroner's Office transported her to their facility and kept her until her funeral Jan. 26.
The morning of her funeral, she was placed in a silk-lined pine casket built by her husband and family friend Roric Russell.
She was wrapped in a quilt, and her husband of 38 years placed her favorite pillow, a Teddy bear and her guitar in the casket. Bob Carlin and Russell then transported her to the North Fork Cementer.
"We found we could organize and manage Cathleen's burial without the expense of a commercial mortuary and save Bob thousands of dollars," said Sarah Rah, a friend of the Carlins.
Cathleen's death certificate was secured from the Fresno County Office of Vital Records with assistance from the hospice for $12. For $100, the county coroner picked up and cared for the body for 12 days.
The county issued a deposition permit to Carlin for $11, which allowed him to transport Cathleen's body from Fresno to the cemetery.
To help Carlin, friends had gone online and found information about a national movement that supports family-managed home funerals, as well as information on how to build a casket. Carlin built his wife's casket for $150.
Rah researched state and county regulations, which they were surprised to discover are flexible.
Research showed private parties can care for the deceased at home and can also transport the casket and the body themselves, as long as they obtain the proper permits.
Russell said everyone at Hinds Hospice and the Fresno County Coroner's Office were supportive and helpful with the necessary paperwork.
"I just wanted to help Bob out," Russell said. "I went with him (Bob) to the funeral home and the least expensive casket was $800. I asked if we could build a casket and the mortician told me that no one does that but there is no law against it. I asked Bob if he wanted to build one and he said yes. We bought the wood that day."
Plans for building the casket were found from an old Mother Earth Magazine article.
The Carlins had been together since they attended high school in New Jersey prior to moving to North Fork.
Bob Carlin said he felt good about building his wife's casket as it made the process much more personal.
"A lot of people choose cremation for their loved ones because they cannot afford a casket."
North Fork musician John Kilburn gave Cathleen guitar lessons for 12 years and helped organize a life celebration, held Dec. 13 at North Fork Studio.
"We were able to honor Cathleen while she was still strong. She sang with us and people got to tell her what she meant to them. It was very powerful," Kilburn said.
A nationally known advocate of family-managed funeral care is Jerrigrace Lyons, founder and director of Final Passages in Sebastopol.
Lyons, an ordained minister, has assisted in more than 300 home funerals, followed by traditional burials or cremations, over the past 14 years.
Lyons has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Mother Earth News and San Francisco Magazine.
Final Passages offers education in personal and legal rights concerning home or family-directed funerals and final disposition -- burial and cremation.
Although home funerals are legal in California, home burials are generally not allowed, Lyons said. The exception is if a family has an established plot on land that has been passed down over generations.
"It is our intention to reintroduce the concept of funerals in the home as a part of family life and as a way to deinstitutionalize death," Lyons said. "(A) home funeral is the way that families in America and around the world took care of their loved ones prior to the growth of the funeral industry in the early 1900s. The traditional way was to wash and dress them and do the ceremony at home. It also provides more visitation time for family and friends.
"We are dedicated to a dignified and compassionate alternative to current funeral practices," she said.
Through her research and experience, Lyons said, families are able to make informed decisions, take charge of the funeral arrangements and secure closure and healing without incurring significant debt.
"I see the movement growing," she said. "With today's economy, people are looking to save money. After all the health care costs to take care of a dying loved one, funeral expenses can be overwhelming. The least expensive cremation is $1,000 in the county of Sonoma, and that is about the minimum anywhere."
Lyons said the average cost of a funeral nationwide is $6,000 to $10,000, not including the cemetery plot, and she considers some of the expenditures unnecessary.
"You do not need to spend a lot of money to honor your dead meaningfully," she said.
When a mortuary is hired to handle a funeral, Lyons said, the body typically is whisked away from a medical facility or a home, wrapped in plastic, stored in a refrigerated utility space and may be embalmed.
In a home-funeral celebration, she said, the family can purchase or construct a casket, urn or plaque without pressure from a professional salesperson, and the decision to do so can be based on ecological, economical and social needs, not on guilt.
"Friends and family can create an atmosphere that reflects cultural and personal beliefs, including ritual, storytelling and casket decoration," Lyons said.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs licenses and regulates the California funeral industry, crematories and cemeteries in the state.
"The law allows consumers to prepare the disposition of their loved ones," said Lyons. "If you choose to do this, you must provide a casket or suitable container and make arrangements directly with the cemetery or crematory.
"A properly completed certificate of death, signed by the attending physician or coroner, must be filed with the registrar at the county office of vital records and a permit for disposition obtained before any disposition can occur."
Now that Rah has gone through this process, she wants others to understand there are alternatives to a traditional funeral.
She is preparing a small brochure, "Self-Directed Burials," which she will distribute to churches, hospice and senior care facilities.
"People need to know that they have a choice," Rah said.
A free detailed guide about family-managed death care can be obtained through the Cemetery and Funeral Program of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.
Details: Department of Consumer Affairs, 400 R St., Suite 3080, Sacramento, CA 95814; (800) 952-5210.
Sarah Rah, (559) 877-7272.