Home burial on legislators' radar; Meyersdale plans vote
When Gene Schmucker died, there was no question about where he should be buried.
Schmucker, 69, a retired teacher, was laid to rest in the tree-shaded front yard of the Sipesville, Somerset County home he loved so dearly.
“The house was the joy of his life,” said his son, Douglas Schmucker of Bolinas, Calif. “He raised Tennessee walking horses there.”
“I can hear my brother saying, ‘Just plant me out here under a tree,' ” Mary Shaulis, Gene Schmucker's sister, said of the property that has been in their family for four generations.
When Gene Schmucker's wife, Harriet, died at 89 in 2011, she was buried under that tree, along with the ashes of her beloved dog, beside her husband on the small, fenced-in plot just steps from the home where they raised their family.
Although a vast majority of Americans still favor traditional burial, some are opting for home burials.
The trend has prompted officials in one Somerset County community to take action.
The borough council of Meyersdale, a community of slightly more than 2,000, will vote this week on prohibiting the burial of human remains or ashes on private property.
“There's very little regulation on what's required to bury someone,” said Meyersdale councilwoman Mardiann Vincent.
The state leaves it up to local officials to set the rules.
So Vincent said she's being “proactive” before the practice becomes commonplace in her community.
Butler County coroner William F. Young III said there are a few communities in his area — Cranberry, Butler and Middlesex are among them — that ban home burials through zoning laws.
Young said he sent letters to officials a couple of years ago letting them know that home burial was a route some families were considering.
“I was just trying to bring it to their attention. I see nothing wrong with it,” said Young, who is a funeral director.
Some communities in Allegheny County have banned the practice, said Peter McQuillin, manager of the Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Verona, which allows burials in biodegradable caskets or burial shrouds and prohibits toxic embalming fluids.
“It doesn't happen where it's built up,” said McQuillin, who recently buried someone in a cardboard box.
A spokeswoman for one statewide group of municipal officials said the issue is on their radar.
Courtney Accurti of the Pennsylvania Association of Boroughs said the matter will be addressed in her group's newsletter.
Cost, conscience factors
Proponents say they don't know what all the fuss is about.
“Death is a natural experience and a spiritual experience. ... There is no health reason why you can't bury bodies on your own land,” said Chuck Lakin, 68, of Waterville, Maine, who began talking about the idea about 15 years ago and teaches people to make coffins, many for home burials.
In some cases, home burials are driven by deeply rooted ties by the deceased to his or her home, experts say.
In other instances, it's the desire to “go green” by conserving property and forgoing the usual coffin, vault and embalming of traditional funerals.
Sometimes it's a matter of cost.
A typical funeral can cost about $7,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Added to that are the costs of a gravesite, preparation of the site and a vault or liner, which can be about $3,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
“You can do it yourself. Buy a casket, put a body in it,” said Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller, a funeral director who has fielded home burial requests.
The state doesn't require that a body be embalmed before burial, according to the state Department of Health.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Pennsylvania said refrigeration for 24 to 48 hours is generally sufficient.
And a funeral director doesn't have to be involved unless the family chooses that path, Young said. A physician or coroner can pronounce the death, and a designated member of the family can file the death certificate.
Boswell funeral director Chris Hoffman has buried people on farms in Somerset County, but said the practice is “not very common in tight neighborhoods.”
Hoffman urges caution with home burials.
If you bury someone on your property, the law requires you to record it on your deed, so “having someone buried in the backyard can decrease property values,” Hoffman said.
The National Home Funeral Alliance does not recommend burying loved ones in a home's yard.
“It makes it hard to sell the property ... you probably should have a minimum of 10 acres,” said Zalene Corey, a home funeral guide in Kimberton, Chester County.
“It's emotional and romanticized, but it's not thoughtful for the future,” she said.
The practice of tending to one's dead is not new, as evidenced by the number of centuries-old burial sites with time-worn tombstones on private properties throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Years ago, when someone died, relatives prepared the body and laid it out in the parlor, where callers paid their final respects. That changed after the Civil War, when families of soldiers who died on the battlefield wanted their bodies sent home for burial. At the same time, family graveyards were being replaced by local cemeteries and national military cemeteries.
In recent years, nontraditional burials have made headlines.
In Fayette County, the Rev. Ewing Marietta garnered national attention when he was cited by local officials in 2009 for burying his son in the backyard of Liberty Baptist Church in North Union. The county said the 5-acre church property was not zoned for cemetery use.
Experts say the majority of families are taking the traditional route when it comes to burials.
“Every few years we get a call asking if it's legal,” said John W. Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Director's Association in Harrisburg. “It's so rare that this happens.”
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.