DIY Dying

There’s a movement going on. People are taking their funerals seriously…but not necessarily solemnly. As end-of-life issues become more openly discussed and contemplated, many individuals are pondering the question of how they want to mark their own departures. Today, tears of sadness are not on the menu for everyone. Aging baby boomers in particular are likely to create and embrace new options, including those that celebrate life once it has ended.

Breaking Rules

“The same generation that questioned convention in sex, birth, and marriage will probably do the same in death care,” says 51-year old Char Barrett, a Seattle funeral director and founder of A Sacred Moment. Services include home funerals and life celebrations. These celebrations include everything from environmentally-friendly balloon releases and butterfly releases to affordable sea burials and aerial missions where cremated remains can be scattered by air. They also create customized folders that become memorable keepsakes for loved ones.

Custom Coffins: Art or Bacon?

Burial vessels need not be boring. Those individuals wanting to express themselves to the very end can now choose from a variety of creative options. There are caskets depicting a golf course, a sunset motorcycle ride, and The Last Supper. There is even a bacon coffin, thought by some to be a joke, but it is real. If you really want to go 100% DIY, you can build your own casket from this downloadable blueprint, then decorate it. The sky’s the limit.

Sensitive, Personal, and Eco-Friendly

There is also the choice of handcrafted burial and cremation shrouds, which are natural, biodegradable, and customized. Marian Spodone, founder of A Fine Farewell, is a textile artist, licensed minister, and ceremonial facilitator in Portland, Oregon. She believes in the power of beauty and creativity to help heal grieving hearts. Her customized shrouds are gorgeous works of art that not only take an ecological perspective into consideration, but a spiritual one as well. In lacing the cross ties of the shroud, families can participate in a “hands on” way of saying goodbye to their loved one. She also offers plain cremation boxes for individuals to take home and paint, collage, or embellish in any way they choose.

Party Time

Erika Dillman wants to “put the F-U-N back in funerals.” Her funny, irreverent book, The Party of Your Life: Get the Funeral You Want by Planning it Yourself, shows how to plan your final farewell so it happens exactly the way you want it to, even if that means customized t-shirts, disco balls, and gift bags. Her blog even features her own personal iTunes funeral soundtrack. Dillman reminds us that the power of personal choice can be ours even after our last breath if we just think about it, write it down, and tell our loved ones well in advance.   Thank you to Ken30684 for the use of your photo “Death isn’t that bad.”


  • Vivienne

    Excellent piece. Thanks for the interesting and informed view into a world I haven’t thought about for a while. I think breaking the long held rules here makes a lot of sense. You have to love progress.

  • Christine Osborne

    This tone is exactly right. Damn well done. Plus motivating. I have thought that it would be cool to design my own marker, putting to use decades of collected cups, saucers, plates, bowls, etc. Time to move on that, maybe. Thanks for the nudge, Arlene.

  • Gail Cohen

    It’s about time people felt empowered to throw a funeral that matches the personality of the dearly — or not so dearly — departed! I suspect that Erika Dillman’s book won’t be the last to address this topic as our death-denying society works to get over itself. Arlene: you rock.

  • Anne Millheiser

    I love this article, Arlene! Nice work.

  • Susan

    Arlene, in your inimitable way, you’ve put a warm, earthy face and unique perspective on something that for many only looks daunting and inarguable. What’s remarkable about you is that whatever subject or conundrum you tackle in your work as well as your life, you infuse it, and the situations surrounding it, with joy and humor.

  • Paula

    Arlene, your friend Susan expressed my admiration of you and this piece better than I could have myself!
    Now all that remains (oh, pun so intentional) is my 2-cent contribution:
    When my tres avant ed professor encouraged us to teach a taboo subject as part of our final (again, intentional) student teaching requirement, I chose not sex, drugs, or rock and roll (all of which were somehow not considered taboo in the mid-’70’s), but death.
    I chose death.
    I studied Kubler-Ross, preached the Gospel of Laura Nyro (And When I Die), and encouraged my high school students to mindfully create a culminating project best representing their understanding of all they’d learned that semester.
    Imagine my delight when my most inward student brought in a life-sized, hand-hewn coffin, equipped with stereo speakers…just in case (oh, my, I believe I’ve exhausted my pun limit for this post).
    So grateful for your inspiration, in this life and all the others to come.

  • Jessica


    This is wonderful. We have come a long way at Adler and we have learned quite a bit. And it shows. Bravo.


  • Barbara Meltzer

    Hi Arlene,

    Your article is wonderful. It is well written, informative, funny and important. Boomers are not only changing the way we live, they are changing the way we die.


  • Melissa Buckles Haley

    Short and sweet! I loved this article because it talked about how older adults and even us as a younger generation, can truly CELEBRATE our lives instead of doing the traditional funeral! Thank you for this piece!

  • kim mohan

    arlene, this is wonderfully informative. thank you so much for that!

    it’s not just boomers who are changing the solemnity of funerals. when my dad passed last year at the age of 83, my family agreed that the best way to approach his loss was to celebrate his life. we collected photos from as early as his basketball days in grade school and filled the viewing room with them. the funeral director – we had the viewing at a funeral home where my mom had worked when she was a teenager – said to my mom, “i’ve never heard so much laughter at a funeral, nancy!” and it was true: the gift that my dad gave to all of us was his sense of humor. he made us all laugh, so it was only appropriate that we bid adieu in the same fashion. he’s probably laughing somewhere right now…and drinking some cheap scotch!

  • Elyse Baylis

    Interesting article. What is DIY?

  • Arlene Wanetick

    DIY stands for Do It Yourself.

  • Rashelle

    This article is wonderfully written and an important contribution to our discourse around a sometimes difficult subject: dying. I love the idea of embracing unique ceremonies and processes that more accurately reflect the person, as compared to following a tradition that may have little to do with the loved one’s personality. I am especially attracted to the weaving idea so that loved ones can participate! Thank you for sharing!

  • Gwen Rutledge

    Hey Arlene,
    When you posted this article, I think I had been to two funerals in as many months. I have since been to two more. I guess my biggest comment is that funerals aren’t for the dead!! You will be gone. It isn’t about your wishes any longer. Funerals, cremations, celebrations … whatever we want to call them are for those that are left behind. I am no different than a lot of the people who responded here. I’ve said constantly over and over and over that if anyone stands over my body and sings Amazing Grace, I’m gonna haunt them for the rest of their days!! I don’t want anyone to spend money on me. Have a Party!! Blah … blah … blah …

    But having had such a myriad of experiences over the last 8 weeks has taught me — it’s not about me or what I want! It’s not about you! Not if you’re dead!!
    You’re gone. Relinquish control! You’re a badly made up by a stranger, looked better than you ever did because of a stranger, let’s keep the coffin closed, let’s buy a fancy box and fill it with their ashes or here’s my favorite picture from twenty years ago– replica that someone who is still alive and missing you terribly has chosen for you. My suggestion would be to talk to the people that you leave behind. Find out what will make them feel more comfortable. What will help them through their grief? What I’ve experienced is that for some, it’s a big hoopin’ hollerin’ celebration where you sing to the coffin, yell at the coffin, tell jokes to the coffin. For others, it’s having 3 viewings in 2 days and feeling a little distraught because the last viewing will be the last time you get to see your loved one. Then again, let’s cremate the body and not have a viewing at all but allow loved ones to talk about how special you were to them. I think we need to get over ourselves. If you’re gonna do something now, do it for those you leave behind. When you’re gone, it shouldn’t be about you!!

  • Susan

    Arlene, imagine my surprise as I just stumbled across this piece shortly after my own mother’s funeral. Thank you for infusing a difficult topic with lightheartedness and just the appropriate amount of wit, and fo reminding us that we can even exercise our creativity after we’re gone.

  • Lynne Rachlis

    We’ve done everything else ourselves. Why not this too! Thanks for the insights, eloquence and humor on this tough topic.

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