Legal learning: Green funerals in Minnesota
By: James H. Manahan, J.D. , Lake County News Chronicle
Last week a friend told me his father died, and he had to be embalmed before the public viewing and cremation. It didn’t make sense to him to fill the body with embalming fluid and then burn it a couple of days later. He asked me if this was required by Minnesota law.
The answer, thanks to a recent change in the law, is NO. A group of citizens got behind the “Home Care of Our Deceased — Family Rights Legislation”, helped move it through the legislature, and it was signed into law by Gov. Pawlenty in 2010.
The Minnesota Threshold Network was started by four home funeral educators in the fall of 2008. Soon others interested in conscious dying, after-death care, home funerals, home vigils, and green burials were meeting regularly. They thought the Minnesota law that required embalming for a public viewing of a body, prohibited minors from being in the presence of an unembalmed body, and restricted a family’s transportation options was unreasonable.
They asked Representative Carolyn Laine and Senator Sandy Pappas to sponsor a bill. Knowing that funeral directors would raise objections based on the belief that unembalmed bodies pose a public health threat, Rep. Laine asked Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, for his support. He testified at the legislative hearings that unembalmed bodies do not normally pose a public health threat.
Another witness at the hearings was Minneapolis psychotherapist Heather Halen, who described how she had washed and dressed her deceased husband’s body at home, and, using dry ice, kept him on the cool front porch for two days in a coffin friends had made. She told how comforting it was to have her husband’s body close at hand, and to sit and talk to him during the awful, lonely first two nights after his death, something that could not have occurred had he been in a funeral parlor. Heather’s testimony was so compelling that KSTP-TV ran a feature news story on it, highlighting the psychological, environmental, and economic advantages of caring for one’s own at death.
Thanks to the change in the law, Minnesotans can now have public visitations of their unembalmed loved ones, minors may view the body, and families have more options regarding the transportation of a body. Green funerals, in which no embalming takes place and a body is buried without any toxic material being introduced to the earth, are legal. Natural burials also avoid metal and hardwood coffins, concrete burial vaults, and marble headstones.
Minnesota is also leading the way in “green cremation”, a flameless process of reducing a body to its basic elements using alkaline hydrolysis. The Mayo Clinic Medical School has been using hydrolysis in its body donor program for several years, and now the first commercial unit in the U.S. has opened in Stillwater, Minn.
Note: Rep. Carolyn Laine, along with my sister Nancy Manahan, both members of the Minnesota Threshold Network, will be speaking on this subject at the Two Harbors Library on Thursday, Sept. 26, from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m. Nancy wrote the award-winning memoir Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond. Her wife and co-author, Becky Bohan, contributed information for this article.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in and around Silver Bay, and does mediation everywhere.