"A person, their body doesn't immediately look white as a ghost, or change rapidly," Lyons says. "People think they're going to start decomposing instantly. And that's not so."
As she teaches in seminars around the country, the body can lie in state at home for up to three days, and perhaps longer, provided measures are taken within the first six to 12 hours. The body should be well washed, especially the genitals, with warm, soapy water; the abdomen should be pressed to expel any waste. After the body is dried and dressed, ice (preferably dry but regular will do), which has been wrapped in grocery bags and then cloth, should be placed beneath the torso to keep the organs cool, as these are the first parts of the body to break down. The body should be kept in a cool room. If the person dies with his mouth open, which can be disconcerting to visitors, a scarf may be looped beneath the chin and tied around the head until the mouth sets shut. Similarly, eyes may be closed by gently weighing them down with small bags filled with rice or sand. The casket can be decorated, and a memorial display set up, plain or fancy. One family Lyons helped watched a video with their departed father that he'd rented but had not had a chance to see; another put hiking boots on dad and wheeled him into the woods for a final "hiking trip to heaven."
These people were able to take a deep breath and do what needed to be done. Others need hand-holding. Lyons recently helped a family whose belief in anthroposophy (the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner) dictated that the father's body be kept at home for three days, surrounded by loved ones, read to and cared for. This frightened his teenage daughter.
"She did not come in the room as we were bathing him," Lyons says, "but eventually she came in and started asking questions, and started feeling really relaxed and comfortable." So comfortable that a while later she had her friends over. "They were in the other room, talking and being normal teenagers. It was all a part of family life."
Feeling the body lose its warmth, seeing the tension leave the face, being present for the transition from life to death, Lyons says, helps us to accept that the person is gone. "The actual doing does help, because you're moving through your grief with a process, a ritual," she says. "You're present to it not just with your mind but with your senses.... You're not escaping, or pretending it didn't happen, or getting busy doing something else."
Northern California was the site of an earlier revolt against the funeral industry, when Oakland resident Jessica Mitford wrote her scathing 1963 expose, "The American Way of Death." In updating the book for a revised edition published posthumously in 1998, Mitford found that, though consumers had put the brakes on burials, they were still being taken for a ride. "Cremation, once the best hope for a low-cost simple getaway, has become increasingly expensive," she wrote in her new introduction. "[M]orticians are fast developing techniques for upgrading this procedure into a full-fig funeral."
The "full-fig" or fancy-dress funeral in America includes embalming, whether or not one chooses cremation, so the body will have a lifelike appearance in its coffin, which will be metal. After the viewing, those who choose cremation will be transferred to a burnable container and their ashes transferred to an urn, such as the gold-plated Olympus model that Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries sells for $5,000. Those being buried will have their coffin placed in a concrete vault to ensure that the ground cover does not buckle, thus maintaining the putting-green uniformity of most cemeteries. Or vaults and urns may be placed in a mausoleum, for which there is a perpetual-care fee. These final dispositions typically cost $8,000, though can easily run to $10,000, $20,000 or more.
"If you ask people, they don't want any of this stuff," says Joe Sehee as he speed-hikes up a shady path in Mill Valley. "Half of what they spend money on is because they think they have to because it's required by law, mainly caskets and embalming fluid. That just angers me so much, because that's really some toxic stuff that no one should be exposed to, let alone put in the ground. And it doesn't serve any purpose!"
Sehee reaches a crest on the 32-acre property known as Fernwood and takes in the view: the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and a necklace of multimillion-dollar homes on a nearby ridge. This is prime Marin County real estate, for which one of Sehee's partners in Fernwood paid $495,000 in 2003, a figure that will no doubt make developers keen. But the Fernwoodians do not plan to build on the land, and couldn't even if they wanted to, because there are bodies buried beneath the grounds of this former cemetery. They plan to bury more.