By Rose Hoban

John Jull has worked as a truck driver, a reporter, in insurance claims and now his day job is working as a maintenance guy at a garden center. 

The Roxboro resident finds the most meaning in his sidegig. He makes plain pine coffins.

“‘Calling’ is the word I’ve used,” Jull said. “Right now this is what I’m drawn to do.”

Jull has always been a hobbyist woodworker, but after a family tragedy in 2015, he made his first coffin. That hooked him. He treasures the way his family and his customers’ families use his handiwork to create meaning in a difficult time. 

“What’s your ceremony need to be?” Jull asked while showing off his coffins at a Death Expo on Oct. 15 at Elon University. “With a opioid death, I got pictures back and they had put handprints, all her friends had put hand prints in different rainbow colors on the outside of the casket.

“It tears your heart out, right? But that’s what they needed. And it gave them this license to touch,” Jull said. 

Jull was among 30 exhibitors at the expo, a daylong event sponsored by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of North Carolina, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping people know their rights around planning and paying for a funeral. 

Sara Williams, head of the alliance, said she wants her organization to be like “the Consumer Reports of the death industry.” 

“We want to ensure that every single person knows their rights when it comes to purchasing funeral goods and services,” Williams said. “That may include not purchasing any funeral goods and services at all.”

To that end, the organization gathered vendors hawking everything from funeral shrouds to a tiny portable funeral home tucked in the back of a van to Jull’s plain pine boxes. Death doulas, who help guide the dying and their families through the process, were at the event, which also included a thought-provoking panel discussion on “What Will I Do With My Body When I Die.” 

Know your rights

The organization shared a 52-page report from a 2021 survey of funeral homes and their pricing lists for direct cremation, immediate burial and basic services fees. Those basic services, which range from a couple of hundred bucks to well over $4,000, most often don’t include the cost of a coffin, which can run thousands of dollars alone. 

People end up, “going in the earth in better furniture sometimes than they lived on when they were alive,” Williams said.

Williams also said that her organization tries to debunk myths about funerals, such as the belief that embalming is required or that a vault or grave liner is required by law. 

Neither is true. 

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The parameters for what is and isn’t required and what should be disclosed to consumers were  laid out in a set of guidelines published by the Federal Trade Commission in 1984 and revised a decade later. 

For instance, the federal Funeral Rule notes that consumers cannot be required to purchase anything beyond the “basic services fee and any item required by law.” But families in duress often don’t read the fine print and can find themselves footing a bill that’s as much as $20,000 when it’s all said and done.

“If you go to Ikea or Walmart and buy a casket and take it to the ABC funeral home, they can’t charge you a handling fee,” Williams said. “There’s a list of must-do’s for funeral homes, including, if you go to a funeral home, the first thing they have to do is give you a price list when you enter the door. If you call them on the phone, they’re supposed to tell you how much a direct cremation is. Did you buy a casket at IKEA? They’ve got to use it and they can’t charge you a handling fee.”

People are too used to not talking about and planning for death, she said, and then handing it over to the funeral industry when the time comes.

“It’s a crying shame,” Williams added. 

Growing list of alternatives

Pat Scheible lovingly handled a linen sheet folded up on her exhibit table for her business, Remains to be Seen Burial Shrouds. Along with names were two dates, 1818 and 1861, written on the cloth in faded India ink. The dates, she explained, marked when the antique sheets first entered the trousseau of a mother, in 1818, and then were passed along to be part of her daughter’s trousseau in 1861. 

Someone donated the sheets to Scheible to make burial shrouds from them. The fiber artist didn’t start out making shrouds, but one day Williams showed up on her porch. 

a gray haired woman bends over to display an old white linen cloth with writing on it. The cloth will become a shroud for a person after death
Pat Scheible shows off some antique linen sheets that she’ll turn into a funeral shroud. Credit: Rose Hoban

“I barely knew her. And I answered the door and she said, ‘You’re the person I want to make my shroud,’” Scheible said. 

The artist paints and embroiders on shrouds that look like a thin sleeping bag and sews appliques and ribbons on them. All of the materials need to be biodegradable.

“I interview the client or the person, like the daughter, and find out their interests… their hobbies, whatever, and design artwork to reflect that,” she said. 

Her table was next to the table for Bluestem, a new “green burial” park in Orange County, one of the places in North Carolina that welcomes burial in a shroud, a pine box or nothing. 

Across from those tables was a display advertising the “aquamation” process for the disposal of the dead.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose aquamation, which involves immersing the body in water plus a strong alkali for several hours in a heated and pressurized metal cylinder, over cremation. That brought worldwide attention earlier this year to so-called “green cremation” processes.

“Today, cremation is making up over 50 percent of the choice of the public today,” said Eric Bester, the proprietor of the Clay-Barnette Funeral Home in Kings Mountain which offers aquamation. “So if there’s a better process not to have to burn a human body that utilizes 95 percent water, this is a total green process and it’s a more dignified process.”

Bester is the only funeral director in the state currently offering aquamation, which, in about 8 hours, decomposes all of the soft materials of a corpse leaving behind a clean skeleton. 

“It’s a very clean, gentle process and anything that’s in or on your body that’s not natural comes back with your bones,” Bester said. “If I miss a Band-Aid on someone’s arm, the Band-Aid comes back. So anything inorganic to your body, any implant, a port for chemo, all of that comes back. Acrylic fingernails come back.”

Then what’s left — in this case, the bones — are ground up for return to the family (the grinding process also takes place post-cremation).

The process uses about a tenth of the energy that cremation uses and actually returns more volume to the family, Bester said. 

A man in a dress shirt and jacket stands in front of a banner that reads: "Aquamation" and shows a picture of the equipment used to process a body after death.
Eric Bester opened the first freestanding aquamation facility in Wilmington. “It’s not natural to lay in a firebox and 2000 degrees,” he said. “Water is natural to all of us… you know we are water.” Credit: Rose Hoban

Bester has two locations where he can do the process —  at his main funeral home in Cleveland County and at a freestanding facility in Wilmington. Bester said he has received “huge” demand for the service, which costs $1,995, once you get the body to either of his facilities.

“I’ve had families come far away from Florida, Alabama, Tennessee,” Bester said. “As far as Houston, Texas, there are providers that are closer to what would have been to them, but they wanted to come to us. If someone passed in, let’s say Virginia – we get a lot of families from Virginia – they will be in refrigeration until we have a death certificate and transit permits in place to bring them across state lines.”

Time to talk about it

The U.S. is rapidly aging. Right now, about 17 percent of the population is over the age of 65 and the U.S. Census projects that by 2030, one in five people —  more than 73 million people — will be over the age of 65.

That’s a lot of people who will be dying, but too many of them aren’t making plans ahead of time.

Fewer than half of hospice patients are in a program for more than 30 days. About a quarter of hospice patients are in a program for less than a week.

five women ranging in age are stading and answering questions from a group of people.
Death doulas Dana Brinson (in mask), Holly Menard and Jane Dornemann (both seated) took questions from about a gathering of about a hundred people at the Elon University event. Credit: Rose Hoban

That’s not a lot of time to plan, noted Jane Dornemann, who is an end-of-life doula, someone who helps dying people and their families transition to death in a meaningful way. 

“People are entering hospice too late and at that point, they simply do not have the energy to do something like a legacy project, nor do they have the time,” Dornemann told the gathering during a panel discussion with about a hundred people in the audience. 

“When the doula model first really started getting traction, the narrative was, we should be engaging patients at the hospice level,” Dornemann said. “I think that’s changing, I’m going to say we should be engaging them at the palliative care level because people are so afraid of hospice,” she said. 

Death doula work includes helping people prepare advanced directives, helping people think through the type of medical treatment they want at the end of life, how much medication they want, things they want their loved ones to know, along with their wishes for what happens to their remains.

They can also sit with people who are dying or help guide families on how to be present for their loved ones as their lives end. 

“It’s just like hospice, it’s so good to get involved as early as you feel comfortable, while you have the energy and the intention and the capacity,” said Dana Brinson, another death doula, who encouraged people to make their plans years before they expect to die.

“Caregiving, and more, dying is a really intensive process, and you might not have the space to reflect and memorialize and plan,” Brinson concluded.

Correction: This story originally called Bluestem, the burial park, by the name Greenstem.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...