- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO

Michele Moser died as she lived a child of the '60s hippy culture. At her funeral, the 52-year-old astrologer lay in an open casket decorated with hand-painted portraits of Egyptian gods, while friends performed Buddhist and American Indian rituals and played a flute over her body.

Such alternative funerals are becoming common as baby boomers seek to transform the American way of death.

Having spent most of their lives challenging authority and conformity, they see their last moments as a final act of self-expression and rebellion. The result has been a rapid growth of interest in mortality from a generation that until recently appeared reluctant to grow old.

The familiar rituals of the traditional funeral are being jettisoned. Elaborate and costly bronze coffins have been replaced with simple cardboard or pine containers, often lovingly decorated, with the family minivan standing in for the hearse on the final journey to cemetery or crematorium.

The trend also has created a new profession of death consultants, sometimes called "death midwives." Organizations such as the Natural Death Care Project will provide advice and help plan even the most unconventional funeral.

Jerri Lyons, 52, who runs the project from a converted garage at her home in Sebastapol, Calif., a small town north of San Francisco, says her peers are just beginning to contemplate the inevitable.

"They say that America is the only culture in the world which believes that death is optional," she jokes.

When a close friend died in 1994, she helped to plan the funeral, which included bringing the body home to a living room filled with candles and flowers. "It was very intimate, very lovely and very personal," she recalls. Afterwards she decided to set up an organization for people hoping to follow the same path.

Up to 70 percent of Americans die in hospitals or nursing homes, but just as the home birth movement took hold in the late 1960s, so home deaths are becoming the latest trend for a generation no longer in the first flush of youth.

"As baby boomers, we are not just happy to hand over anything to anybody," Miss Lyons says. "We like to be in charge. It makes us feel more powerful."

In the past two years she has helped to plan hundreds of alternative funerals. She steers families through the maze of paperwork and helps with everything from choosing music to finding homes for pets and plants. She tries to lighten the mood when possible, sometimes accompanied by a carved wooden skull from Bali nicknamed "EZ (easy) Death."

The baby bulge of the late '40s will translate into at least 10 million Americans older than 65 by the next decade. For many boomers, being actively involved in planning their funerals makes the prospect of mortality easier to bear.

Michele Moser, who died of pancreatic cancer, even filled out part of her own death certificate. Shortly before her death, smoking marijuana to ease the pain, she told friends, "I was in control of my life, and I want to be in control of my death."

One compelling reason for home funerals is the rising cost of professional services. The average burial costs between $8,000 and $10,000, with $2,000 for the cheapest cremation. In contrast, doing it yourself can be as little as $300, including a $30 biodegradable cardboard box and dry ice to preserve the body at 69 cents a pound.

Macabre as the details sound, they strike a chord with many who want to challenge the hugely profitable American funeral industry, which is dominated by a few powerful conglomerates. All the signs point to another clash between the establishment and the alternative society.

Fearing a threat to their profits, all but one of the crematoriums around Sebastapol now refuse to handle bodies unless they come from professional undertakers.

But the evidence suggests that they are fighting a losing battle. San Francisco now has its own "Zen hospice," which next year will begin training "professional death companions." Graduates will be known as "midwives for death."

The Chalice of Repose project sends volunteer harpists and singers to soothe the dying.

Death has even staked a claim on the Internet. Todd Krim, an entrepreneur who created the FinalThoughts Web site after a turbulent airplane flight, has signed up at least 5,000 members for a service that allows them to record final messages to their loved ones.

After a member's death, a nominated "Guardian Angel" hits the send key and distributes the messages as posthumous e-mails.

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