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Local non-profit provides at-home funerals

Funerals are a $15-billion-a-year industry in the United States. The average one costs about $10,000. But there's a movement taking shape right here in San Diego County to make funerals less expensive, more environmentally friendly and something families can do themselves at home. A non-profit funeral home in Lakeside, called Thresholds, is at the forefront of this movement. KPBS reporter Beth Ford Roth has more.

Thresholds founder Barbara Kernan calls herself a death midwife.

Kernan: I act more as a guide, a companion, through the experience as a funeral, and even the imminent death.

There are no black suits or somber faces in the small ranch house where the non-profit Thresholds is based. Kernan wears a cranberry colored cardigan and long floral skirt. Her colleague Eric Putt wears khakis and hiking boots. Both have a warm, relaxed air about them.

Thresholds doesn't sell caskets or cemetery plots, and it doesn't embalm bodies. Instead, Kernan and Putt help families conduct their own funerals at home. When a family member dies, Kernan is called to that person's house. She helps the family bathe and clothe the body and places dry ice underneath to cool it. Candles and incense are burned. The body lies on a vigil table or bed. The family can then mourn at its own pace, and invite visitors over to celebrate the life of their loved one. Kernan says it's an incredible experience.

Kernan: Somebody has convinced us that the body is so morbid and so scary but I can tell you it's anything but morbid, it is just so beautiful, so healing.

It's also completely legal in California, and most states. Embalming and refrigeration are not required by law.
When the vigil is over, Kernan and Putt transport the body to a cemetery or crematory. Thresholds charges between $1,000 and $3,000.

There are just a handful of at-home funeral providers in the United States. Kernan believes Thresholds is the only one that's licensed in California.
About 15 families have hired Thresholds since it began operating three years ago. One of those was the Moyer family.

Jeanne Loudon Bailey Moyer died last year at the age of 92. But her daughter Marsha still feels her mother's presence in the backyard of the family home in Coronado. The flowers Jeanne planted still bloom. And the fountain she helped design still flows.

Marsha: That bubbling noise is a reminder of my mother's spirit.

Marsha is fiercely proud of her mother. When planning her funeral, she knew she didn't want strangers coming in and taking her mother away before she was ready.

Kernan and Putt met with Marsha and her family several times before her mother died at their Coronado home. Soon afterward, Kernan came by to help bathe and dress her mother's body. Marsha says her mother looked peaceful for the first time in years. She sat for hours by the bed where her mother lay.

Marsha: I spent a lot of time talking to her and chatting with her, and making jokes, which I hadn't done in weeks, it was this lightheartedness that came over me.

There was no schedule that day that had to be kept. When Marsha's father wanted the body removed, Kernan and Putt returned and took her away.

Marsha and her sister had a short ceremony for their mother before she was cremated. Marsha's own emotions towards losing her mother surprised her.

Marsha: Instead of sobbing I reached out to hug her, and I just hugged my mom one more time, and I'll never forget this sense of peace that came over me, it was just an amazing feeling.

Marsha says grief is tricky. It's hard to know how you'll feel from one moment to the next. She says the at-home funeral process, with its lack of schedule or structure, opens up a space for the family to feel whatever emotions comes up.

Marsha: To be our mother's children, and to remember her the way we wanted to remember her, and not some way maybe society tells you you should, be somber or more grown up.

And that's one of the main reasons Barbara Kernan founded Thresholds, to give people a chance to grieve on their own timetable, and to honor death as a sacred event that belongs to the family. She wants to reclaim traditions and rituals of generations ago, when it was the norm for families to care for and honor their dead at home.

She believes we as a society can only live fully if we accept that there's nothing unnatural about death.

Kernan: There's just no way out but through, you know you got to go there, it's exactly what you need to do, and it's not scary and it's not hard, it's beautiful and transformative.

Kernan hopes to expand Thresholds one day to include a nature preserve that will serve as a green cemetery, where bodies are buried right into the earth, without chemicals or caskets. But even if that dream is realized one day, Barbara Kernan says she'll always remain in her role as death midwife. Beth Ford Roth, KPBS News.

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