Grave debate

Mar 3, 2010 at 12:00 am

As octogenarians, Ann Arbor residents Jean and John King are, not surprisingly, giving some thought to what will be done with their remains after they pass.

But, because they live in Michigan, their options are limited.

Jean King says they know they want to be cremated and have their ashes delivered to a family plot outside of Pittsburgh — they get that much of a choice. But they might want home funerals to spare their family the expense of an event orchestrated at a funeral home.

But since Michigan is one of just a handful of states that require a funeral director to "certify" a death and is the only state to require that any handling of a body be under the supervision of a funeral director, they'll need to involve and pay someone in the funeral industry no matter what.

"How do you get out of their clutches?" asks King.

The Michigan Funeral Consumers Information Society is working to loosen that grip. Advocating for more options, including families being able to care for their own dead, the society is working on a package of bills that would repeal the funeral director requirement in Michigan and make other changes that would give families more rights, says Wendy Lyons, the group's president.

"I don't think we're asking for too much, just basic, basic civil rights that we should already have, that most of the nation already has," says Lyons, who lives in Midland. "It's not going to signal the end of the funeral industry here in Michigan. We don't want that. We're just trying to restore some balance."

In 2003, the Legislature added the requirement that a licensed funeral director certify all death records and, in 2006, made Michigan the only state where any handling of a body must be under the supervision of a funeral director. Utah had such a requirement but repealed it, says Lisa Carlson, president of the Funeral Ethics Organization, based in Vermont.

The Michigan society wants that to happen here. Lyons says the organization is positioning itself to be more politically active in 2010. The group's roughly 2,000 members include an increasing number of people beyond southeast Michigan. In the past, most members were from metro Detroit and Ann Arbor.

In an attempt to help further its cause, the society's annual meeting in April will feature Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), who will speak about how to effectively advocate in Lansing as the society plans its first Funeral Consumer Advocacy Day in the Michigan capital.

Warren is expected to introduce a package of bills in the next few weeks that would limit the funeral director requirements and give families who would like more involvement — such as caring for bodies at home — the legal ability to do so, Lyons says.

Society members have worked with Warren to draft language for the measures. In short, they want a "cleanup" of Michigan laws related to death, as some of the provisions are conflicting.

For example, the law currently states that a funeral director shall "certify" a death record. "Even state bureaucrats have said they don't know what 'certify' means," Lyons says. "We're hoping to change it to 'sign' the death certificate but still allow families to do that too."

The society also wants a repeal of the requirement that licensed funeral directors supervise any handling of a body. "Family rights really need to come before industry protectionism," Lyons says. "Family custodial rights are a basic principle."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]