Last Rites: Wisdom from a Fourth-Generation Undertaker

Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True. And I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the Sounds True Foundation. The goal of the Sounds True Foundation is to provide access and eliminate financial barriers to transformational education and resources such as teachings and trainings on mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion. If you’d like to learn more and join with us in our efforts, please visit

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is Todd Harra. Todd has over a decade of experience as a licensed funeral director and embalmer, and he’s a certified post-mortem reconstructionist and cremationist. Todd has written two nonfiction books about the profession, Mortuary Confidential and Over Our Dead Bodies. And he’s also an associate editor for Southern Calls, a renowned journal in the funeral profession.

With Sounds True, Todd has written a new book and it’s called Last Rites: The Evolution of the American Funeral. Quite honestly, I’ve never spoken before with a funeral director, and quite honestly, I’ve never even been inside a funeral home. So talking to Todd was a whole lot of new for me: new information, new insights, and new understandings about right now, where we are in the evolution of the funeral business and how we can make the experience of dealing with our dead something that we talk about, that’s aboveboard, that’s not taboo, and that’s treated as holy, as sacred, which it is. Here’s my conversation with Todd Harra.

Todd, I know you’re a fourth-generation undertaker. Tell me a little bit, and by way of introducing yourself to our listeners, what is the family lineage of being in the funeral business that you come from?


Todd Harra: Well, first off, Tami, thank you for having me on your show. And my family lineage in the profession goes back to before the Civil War, with a few stops and starts along the way. A lot of funeral directors have this kind of direct family tree: father to son, father to son, as it was for so many years prior to women becoming the predominant population in mortuary school classes.

But my great-great-great-grandfather was James White. He was a cabinetmaker in Milford, Delaware, and as such the townspeople would call on him when there was a death in the family and they would bring him a piece of knotted string for the measurements of the decedent who would’ve been laid out, washed, and anointed at home. And James would construct a custom-built coffin in his shop. And just by the nature of his vocation, he became the town’s undertaker. And this was quite common.

These folks, carpenters, joiners, upholders, chandlers, just by nature of what they did for a living, were often the town’s undertakers. James’s son, Isaac, he fought in the Civil War and right around that time, embalming came to be a common practice. And Isaac picked up the skill of embalming and became a very successful undertaker, taking the mantle from his father and running with it.

And when he died in, I want to say it was 1917, his obituary has a line in it that sticks with me and it says, “He lived and died without a known enemy.” Now, there was a break after this of several generations. Isaac and his wife, Rachel, had one daughter. And Isaac told his daughter, who would be my great-grandmother, “This business is no place for a woman,” which is just absolutely laughable in this day and age with every single graduating mortuary class is well over 50 percent, closer to 75 percent, female. So females are the future of our profession.

But anyway, Isaac told his daughter, “You can’t go into the profession.” And the family business changed hands several times. It’s still in existence in Milford as a different name, but our original family business still exists. Now my uncle, he got into the profession in the mid-70s and he now owns the firm that I work for.


TS: Now, specifically, Todd, why were you drawn? I want to keep this tradition alive. I want to work with my uncle. You could have done other things, of course. Why did you choose this?


TH: Honestly, I think the profession chose me. I had no intention, no designs of going into this. I see, with a lot of people in the profession, they’re almost pressured by their family to continue this mantle in the town, continue the family legacy. There’s no such pressure. My parents are not associated with funeral directing, the funeral profession at all.

And honestly, I thought I wanted to go into some type of medicine. And the summer after college, I needed a job and just asked my uncle, “Hey, can I work part-time at the funeral home doing some odd jobs?” So I started doing what a lot of people do, washing the cars, just holding the door at services, kind of very unskilled labor, but still needs to be done, running the vacuum cleaner, stuff like that. And really, I think the work found me.


TS: Okay, but tell me more about that. I get how you started doing it, but what was that spark that went off in you that said, “I think this is actually my path?”


TH: It’s such a helping profession, just watching the men and women in our profession who stand there. And really we stand with families and bear witness to their grief. And that’s the main thing that we’re doing. We’re walking with them in their grief journey. And families will come in after the first call is made and they’ll come in to make the funeral arrangements. And there’s so much uncertainty and anxiety. I wouldn’t say fear is a good word, but fear of the unknown. And we sit down and we talk about what we need to do to get them and their loved one, their dead loved one, to where they need to be. And when they leave that funeral arrangement, usually their relief is palpable and I formed some friendships with people.

They come in and it’s a new case or an intake that’s assigned to me. I don’t know these people from Adam. And by the end of the process, whether their loved one is buried or burned, and by burned I mean cremated, we become friends. We’ve connected. It’s a very intimate experience. And standing there as a young man, just out of college, washing cars—I think what initially maybe drew me towards the idea of medicine was that it’s a helping profession. And that’s what I liked about it. And not necessarily the medicine, but the idea of helping people. And this is what we do in the funeral profession. We’re helping people start that grief journey.


TS: I mentioned to you, Todd, when we were just introducing ourselves before we started recording that I’ve never spoken to a funeral director before. And I noticed that the stereotype that’s now part of the culture of somebody marking up the casket and trying to talk you into a higher price or something like that. I had bought into that myself a bit. And talking to you, I can see the holy work, the therapeutic work, the healing work of someone in your role. And it seems like it’s one of those professions that needs to be, if you will, almost rebranded in the culture or understood better at least. Wondering what you think about that?


TH: That’s, people like myself, that’s what I’m trying to do. There’s a number of podcasts by funeral service professionals, young men and women that were out there trying to evangelize what we’re doing, because funeral service is not necessarily what you or I and our parents and our grandparents think of as kind of the traditional funeral service where you must do that or you must do this.

And back in 1963, when Jessica Mitford published her scathing exposé of our profession, kind of painting us with this broad brush that we’re all these money-grubbing shyster undertakers. And that’s unfair in the way that—I think every profession has bad actors in it. And are there bad actors in the funeral profession? Absolutely. Just the same as there are bad police officers and bad doctors and bad lawyers, but to paint us all with that same brush is really unfair.

And the funeral profession was, I don’t want to say largely silent, but their response to what she published wasn’t effective enough. They should have started doing this rebranding 50 years ago, because most of us get into this profession to help people.

And I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not a business, because it absolutely also is a business. Just like a doctor’s office has a practice. He’s got to make money to stay in business. So people say, “Well, you mark up the casket.” Of course we do, but we try to do it in a reasonably fair way so we can make money and stay in business and continue to serve our community. But we’re also the ones who are putting our employees in your local Rotary clubs and your local Kiwanis clubs and sponsoring your Little League teams and sponsoring your church dinners.

So that money just isn’t going into this stockholder’s pocket, if you will. Your typical local funeral home is very invested in the community and they’re going to put that money back into the community in positive ways.


TS: Now, Todd, I want to talk to you about the theme of your new book, Last Rites, and we’ll be talking about the evolution of the American funeral. And I also want to talk to you about funeral rites in general, historically and into the future.

But before we get there, I want to know how being in this profession has changed you, as in—let’s start with spending so much time, because you’re also certified and have been trained as an embalmer and a postmortem reconstructionist. You spend a lot of time, at least this is my assumption, with dead bodies. Probably more than most of us. I’ve spent a few hours, I’ve been at two deaths and have had the privilege and honor of being at those deaths and being with the corpse, but not for very much time. 

And I was reflecting, what would it be like to have spent a lot of time with corpses and how would that impact my psyche and my view of life? So what’s your response to that?


TH: There’s something very sacred of a family entrusting you, turning over, really, their most precious possession into your hands. You think about it. We, the undertaker, show up at somebody’s house, a lot of times in the middle of the night, and we’re carting off your mother, your father, your husband, your wife, whomever. It may be somebody you have 60, 80 years of history with, and that person means so much to you.

So there’s definitely a sacredness and a responsibility to handling our community’s dead. One that I am just so honored that the community entrusts us, me, with. But then there’s also that other piece of it, where I go home at the end of the day, sometimes it’s late. Our hours can be very varied, but I’ve got a family. And at the same time, I also have to practice a little bit of emotional distance.

People die in all sorts of different ways, sometimes extremely tragic ways. And sometimes I almost have to flip an emotional switch or else I could be down in those grief trenches with that family. And if that was the case, I wouldn’t be able to help them. And maybe to give an example, when a child dies, that’s very emotionally hard on me, because I have children. And just seeing that I almost project like, oh my gosh, this could be my child. This could be my situation.

So while I reverently care for that dead child, I also have to practice a sense of emotional distance for my own self-preservation, a little bit of professionalism, but certainly that doesn’t diminish the amount of care I give to that family.


TS: I mentioned that I’ve been with corpses just twice in my life. And I know in other cultures where there’s an opportunity to be with corpses for longer periods of time after a death, you can sit with the corpse for days sometimes, or in other countries at other times you would encounter a corpse. And that there’s a way in our culture death has been turned, it’s been so medicalized that many people don’t even have that experience. And I’m wondering what you think about that?


TH: In our culture, early on in the colonial period, it was very common for the families to have a very close and frequent relationship with death. Meaning the families would wash and anoint their dead and sit with them and literally wake them—make sure it wasn’t a false death—and sit with them until signs of decomposition started and they knew it was safe to bury their dead.

Now at the turn of the 20th century, you’re absolutely right. Americans started turning over the care of their sick and their dead to institutions, i.e., hospitals and the newly formed funeral parlors. And throughout the 20th century, you see Americans starting to, I don’t want to say distance themselves, but they certainly turned over the care to professionals.

And that’s why we see almost this fear or perverseness—people saying, “Oh, I can’t go into that viewing. I can’t see a dead body.” It’s because we’ve become out of touch with the sight, the sounds, the smells of our dead, which are still very prevalent in other cultures. But I’m seeing that start to turn around.

In researching this book, home funerals are becoming more and more frequent now, where family members will do the washing, the dressing themselves. And sometimes they will work in conjunction with the funeral home to help them with maybe the paperwork that needs to be done, or some of the other logistical things, as simple as, hey, bring your hearse over. We’re going to transport so and so from the house to the cemetery or the crematorium at this time. So maybe that family doesn’t have a vehicle large enough. So we are seeing almost this throwback to an earlier time, this movement starting in America.


TS: And from your perspective, what is underneath the rise of this interest in people changing the profession from what it’s come to today to what people are wanting it to be now and moving forward, what’s underneath that?


TH: I honestly think people want to get back in touch. There are certain situations where ceremonies can be very sterile. And people, especially with the internet and having more information available, they’re realizing, hey, I feel like this is something I want to do. And so they look on the internet and all of a sudden they’re like, this is something I can do. Whereas maybe before they had that feeling 20, 30 years ago, and without the internet, they had no means of making that feeling, that vision they had a reality, because they just didn’t have the information to properly execute it.


TS: OK. So, Todd, let’s say I come to you and I say, my family is asking me to get clear on how I want my corpse to be handled at the time of my death, and I’d like to know what all of my options are?


TH: Sure, sure.


TS: I want to know what all my options are. I don’t want to look on the internet. I want you, the professional expert, to tell me, what are all my options?


TH: As far as final disposition or what you can do?


TS: What will come of my corpse and how I want my family to handle it?


TH: Well, this is a national podcast. So any of your listeners that have these questions, 50 states, there’s 50 different set of rules. So speaking in very general terms, I would say if you or one of your listeners had that question, then either go to your local funeral home and see if you can find a funeral director that will be able to walk you through, state-specifically, what exactly you can do. Or there are the guides that kind of go through state by state, what is permissible for a home funeral.


TS: Now in your new book, Last Rites, we go back into history and then we also talk about this time that we’re in and some of these new trends moving forward. But let’s go back into history a bit. And even before embalming, what were some of the ways that, across the whole world, people started treating their dead that was different than just throw the body into the ground?


TH: Well, honestly I did focus on the American funeral rite, touching on its origins in where they came from in Western civilization, Rome and Egypt. So it wasn’t really a cross-cultural kind of global look, I didn’t research any other cultures that didn’t, I would say, largely contribute to the American funeral rite. So I don’t know if I can answer that specifically. But interestingly, cremation was the favored form of disposition until Constantine took over. And really after that you see this kind of large rise in inhumation.

And the thing that interested me was, I always was under the impression that had specifically to do with Christianity and Christian, the kind of Christian dogma of burying the dead. But I read something that it may have had to do with a military, a strategic move, in that these cremations, they’d have to fell these huge timbers and build these huge pyres to completely combust somebody, and they were threatening the wood resources needed. So the theory is it was partially this Christian dogma and partially due to a military strategic move in conserving wood resources that Constantine then decreed that everyone had to be buried.


TS: And in terms of your book, Last Rites, tracing the roots of our current Western funeral. What are those roots?


TH: I would say that the main roots, everyone goes back to Egypt where mummification started, which—mummification and embalming are similar. They’re not the same. The goals are different with mummification. The goal was preservation forever of the remains. Whereas embalming, the primary goal is disinfection and then temporary preservation. Enough time so you can conduct the funeral rites. Embalming is not meant for eternal preservation.

But the roots of modern embalming certainly are in mummification because the anatomists in Western Europe at the time were studying texts of people that had traveled to Egypt to observe this cadre of people who were performing the mummification. Folks like Herodotus. So I would say one of the big pieces of the American funeral rite is embalming and how it came to be. And part of the “standard” funeral rite in America.

And the other thing is coffin burial. In England, at the time that the Puritans came over, they would call it chested burial. This was not standard in Great Britain. Chested burial was reserved for the royalty and the landed gentry. Everyone else was shrouded, placed in a parish coffin, so the parish had one coffin and they would transport the remains from the home to the graveyard and bury the shrouded form.

Now, again, this was a resource issue, in that you have a mature population on a finite land mass. And wood was being used for building and also fuel and a number of other things. They couldn’t “waste it” on burying the dead.

The Puritans come over to America and they find a seemingly limitless supply of wood here in America. So from the earliest days in America, in-coffin burial was the norm, even for enslaved people. And that’s something that has carried forward. So I would say the two big pieces that defined the American death ritual early on would be in-coffin burial and embalming.

Now just to differentiate for your listeners, coffins and caskets are different vessels. Coffins are no longer manufactured on a large scale in America. Sometimes you can get these artisanal craftsmen who are still making coffins, but the difference is the number of sides. I tell people to think kind of like a Dracula, what Dracula went in. So a coffin has six sides plus a top and a bottom and a casket has four.

We see this shift from coffins to caskets in the late 19th century in conjunction with the Victorian funeral, when there was this softening of death. Victorians viewed death as, “people had gone to their sleep.” And so they moved from this kind of grim sounding and anthropomorphic shaped coffin to a softer, nicer sounding vessel called the casket.


TS: About how many people, what percentage of people in America, choose embalming for their dead?


TH: To break that down, I’m also going to quickly break down the cremation statistics, because that’s very important for this. Right now in America, we’re at about 60 percent nationally, the cremation rate. So six out of 10 Americans are choosing to be cremated rather than buried. Now of that 60 percent, I’ve seen different figures. Also speaking from experience, the one that, I think, rings true is 25 to 30 percent of Americans that are choosing to be cremated are also choosing to have the more traditional funeral prior to the cremation. So cremation, burial, alkaline, hydrolysis, these are all simply modes of disposition, final disposition. What’s happening to the body at the end of the funeral services?

So a lot of people that come in and speak with me during the funeral arrangement conference are surprised to say, “Oh, you mean we can embalm my mom or my dad and lay them out in a cremation casket that’s constructed all of wood and have a regular nighttime viewing and take them into church and then go cremate them?” I said, “Yes, of course we can.” So if you add those two numbers together, somewhere around 60 percent of Americans are choosing embalming these days.


TS: Now, if my concern is ecological, in terms of my final disposition, I want to do what’s best for the earth. What would I choose?


TH: There are a lot of arguments about this, pros and cons. You hear the people that say X number of swimming pools of embalming fluid are buried in the earth every year. And once the embalming fluid reacts with the protein, it’s no longer formaldehyde. OK? It becomes inert. It has changed. The protein has changed. So that is not technically true.

And as you break down, your remains break down, you’re giving off toxic chemicals anyway. Of course they’re natural, but you’re giving off acids and these other nasty chemicals that the earth can break down. But the most ecologically friendly method would probably be some sort of shrouded burial in a green cemetery that would probably create the smallest carbon footprint.


TS: Can you explain to me a green cemetery, what’s that? And a shrouded burial just means that I’m wrapped in a cloth of some kind?


TH: Yes. Yes. Wrapped in a cloth. In the old times, it was called a winding sheet or a cerecloth. Kind of a useless, but fun little piece of trivia is a lot of times, these winding sheets were given as wedding gifts because cloth was so expensive. Can you imagine getting a winding sheet as a wedding gift?

But anyhow, I digress. Green cemeteries, there are three different kinds. The first kind is the hybrid kind. And that kind is, I would say, the most prevalent today. That’s a regular, I’m going to say regular cemetery, so a corporate cemetery with upright monuments and burial vaults, they open up a section that takes green burials. And this is a way a lot of these older, ailing cemeteries are revitalizing themselves is by opening up a green burial section in their cemetery.


TS: And then tell me what a green burial, what happens during a green burial?


TH: I tell people there are different shades of green. So green burial means a different thing to each family you serve. So for some people, a green burial means you wrap the remains in a sheet and take them to a conservation green cemetery, which is kind of the most rigorous of the green cemeteries in terms of what’s allowed, what’s not, least amount of carbon footprint.

And for other people they’re saying, well, a green burial, to me, is to embalm my loved one with an ecologically friendly embalming fluid, have them laid out for a viewing, put them in a wicker or a bamboo casket, something that’s readily—ecologically friendly to grow and renew—and bury them maybe in a hybrid section of an existing cemetery.

So there are definitely different shades of green. There’s no one definition of green burial and I tell people it’s whatever you’re comfortable with.


TS: OK, Todd, here you are. You’re an insider. Doesn’t get to be any more of an insider when it comes to all things, burial, funereal, cremation related. What are your stated wishes for yourself?


TH: Frankly, I’d like to be buried in the traditional manner. And again, when I say traditional, the tradition that was our parents and our grandparents. I’d like the nighttime viewing. I see value in viewing the dead and affirming that they’re dead and letting the family members process that by sight. And I’d like to be buried in a casket in a cemetery.

TS: Very clearly stated.


TH: Yes. And the other reason for that is permanent memorialization. And maybe that’s a little bit of my own sentiment creeping in, because once my kids and grandkids die, that’s just a name on a headstone. But looking back, doing research for this book, and talking to genealogists and stuff, if there’s no permanent memorialization, what happens to that name? What happens to the record of that person’s life?

Sure. It’s just a headstone sitting there, but if you go on, you can find all these different people from hundreds of years ago. And a lot of times there’s a little bio there. And again, I’m not kind of denigrating anyone’s choice, but that’s my choice. I see value in having that permanent memorialization. I think partly because of the research I had to do for this book, you know—find all these people who had been dead hundreds of years.


TS: What of the research that you did for Last Rites surprised you the most?


TH: I think the cost in funerals. The cost, if you look at the cost of a funeral today and people say, “Oh my gosh, they’re so expensive.” And I’m not going to lie to you and say they’re not, it is a big purchase that families should be planning ahead for. Absolutely. But overall compare…


TS: How much money do I need to set aside?


TH: It depends on what you want to do.


TS: I know, but approximately.


TH: I would say $10,000 to $15,000.




TH: And again, of course, it’s probably going to be [more expensive] to have a funeral in Manhattan than it is down somewhere in Mississippi. So you also have to look at geographically where you’re located when you’re financially planning for your funeral.

But that being said, compared to the total of somebody’s net worth, funerals have gone down in cost. In colonial times, it was not unusual for a funeral to suck up an entire fifth of somebody’s estate because of the costly mourning gifts and the repast they were expected to give everyone who came to the funeral.

Roads were bad. Travel was more difficult back then. So when people made the effort to come to a funeral, they expected not only the finest fare to be laid out for them—people were slaughtering their hogs, their chickens, basically these fine foods that were reserved for special occasions—but also it was one of the few occasions when drinking was condoned. People were expected to get lubricated at a funeral.

And there’s this colonial colloquialism, and that’s kind of fun to say, but it went, “When a child was born, the parents would start saving wine for their wedding or funeral.” It was very much true. I read a lot of accounts where, and some of them made it into the book, where the families would crack open these great kegs of wine. In a couple of instances, they would crack open what was called a pipe of wine, and a pipe held 126 gallons.

So the mourners would come and drink 120. That’s a lot of wine. And think about the immense cost of this. And then couple that with the funeral gifts, the mourning gifts that the families were expected to provide, and these weren’t just simple prayer cards or memorial folders or a packet of seeds like the family will give out at a modern funeral.

We’re talking about gold rings, gloves, scarves, books. So again, luxury items back in colonial America that would cost the family an immense amount of money. The coffin may have cost three to five percent of the total funeral bill. The entire cost was in the post-funeral meal, the repast, or the funeral gifts.


TS: And was the notion that this was a way of honoring the deceased, this was a way of celebrating the glory of their life, by having such a resource-intensive celebration?


TH: It was. And the funeral gifts were very practical in they were supposed to be a remembrance of the dead. So you wear that ring, every time you look at that ring you remember so and so. The scarves, especially for the men, were expected to be sewn into their jackets as a lining so every time you put your jacket on, you see that scarf and you remember so and so.

Again, gloves were a luxury item back then. And so you get a nice pair of gloves, every time you put those gloves on you remember so and so. And so it was very much this culture of remembering the dead and honoring and venerating their dead.


TS: What do you think is the core today, Todd? When it comes to making a ceremony sacred, truly filled with honoring, and not just like something people are crossing off a list or something like that. What’s the key to that?


TH: So, Tami, that’s a great question because I would say over 50 percent of the families that come down and sit across the desk from me are unchurched. So in the past, it was very easy for funeral directors. You have a Catholic sit down, they’re going to have a Catholic mass. You have a Lutheran sit down, they’re going to their Lutheran church, they’re going to use those religious tried-and-true religious rubrics.

Whereas now, with the unchurched, it’s a bit trickier in that we’re starting from scratch every time. And I think to answer your question, the key is to find meaning for that family. And the meaning may be different, and it is different, for every family.

Some families will highly value this aspect—songs. And other families will highly value a slide show during the show. And I’ve had families that the grandchildren have done an interpretive dance, and that’s been… So the meaning, I think, comes from what that person, the decedent, meant to you and how you’re going to express it to your family members and the community.


TS: What do you think of this notion of we’re not going to have a funeral, we’re going to have a celebration of life, and the renaming in that way?


TH: To quote author Thomas Lynch, who is a fantastic author and also a Michigan funeral director, he cautions us about throwing the baby out with the bath water. And again, you go to a barber and ask them if you need a haircut, what’s the answer you’re going to get? If you’re asking me, a funeral director, does somebody need a funeral? Of course, I’m going to say, yes, this is what I subscribe to. This is what I see value in.

And I am not against a celebration of life, but I think it needs to be remembered that this is a time of mourning. And there’s a reason the funeral ritual is in place, because it has served us for so long. And it helps us start that grief journey. And if we gloss over it, if we gloss over it with a party where we’re just laughing and drinking and doing whatever, I’m afraid that maybe we’ll become a society of perpetual mourners, because we haven’t grieved properly for the loss of that person. But don’t get me wrong. I am not against going out and having a celebration of life as long as it allows folks to express their grief in a proper form. So they can get all that out, mourn publicly, and start to take the first steps on their grief journey.


TS: Now, you definitely mentioned that meaning is personal. It’s personal to the people who are involved, especially when people identify as spiritual, but not religious. They have to do their own inner journey of finding what’s meaningful for me, for our family. But what in your experience have you found supports mourning, supports it, allows it, facilitates it?


TH: Showing up. It’s as simple as that. Just show up. Community support is incredibly powerful. In this day and age, we’re all too quick to send a text, “Hey, I’m sorry your dad died.” Ah, I’m sorry. Maybe I’m a little old fashioned, but that doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t take the place of you taking the time out of your work schedule to just show up for 15 minutes, stand in the receiving line, sign the guest book and face-to-face say, “Hey buddy, really sorry, your mom, your dad died.” People remember if you show up. They remember that. And it means something to them.

Just texting them saying, “Hey, if you need something, call me.” Those are, I’m sorry, but a lot of times they’re kind of hollow promises and the family never takes people up on that. But if you take time out of your day to go to a funeral, memorial service, wake visitation, whatever it may be, I can promise you, that means something to that family. And that is the most important thing.


TS: Now we talked some about green burial, and in terms of the place we are right now and how our funeral practices are evolving, tell me some about something you write about in the book. Mushroom suits, what are mushroom suits?


TH: So the mushroom suit is very controversial in that there’s naysayers saying that it’s junk science. And I’m not taking a position that it’s junk science or it’s not. Having a science background, certainly the theory behind it sounds sound, to me, in that you take a shroud or a linen suit and it’s impregnated with mushroom spores. And the thought being that when you bury the decedent in this shroud, the mushrooms will then assist in breaking down those toxic chemicals and returning your body to the earth quicker.

And this all gained a lot of fanfare when the actor, Luke Perry from 90210, died and chose to be buried in one of these mushroom suits. And I put it in just as a way so people could see that there are choices. You’re not limited to just burial or cremation. It’s been very binary for the past 50 years, and before that it wasn’t even binary. It was singular. You had a choice of burial or burial, but there there’s starting to be different choices in what happens to your body after you die. And this is one of them.


TS: And then also, how is composting different than what you’ve described to us as a green burial?


TH: So natural organic reduction is what human composting is called, and it was legalized when I was writing this book. It was legalized in May of 2020 in Washington State, and it’s very new. The idea behind natural organic reduction is that you put the remains, the human remains, in a vessel, a sealed chamber with wood chips or alfalfa or some other type of organic material. And the different providers have kind of a different starter mixture, it seems. Each one has a little bit different kind of “recipe” they’re using.

And then what they do is they inject oxygen and rotate this vessel for a period. It’s usually about 30 days. Some, and again, it depends on the provider, some a little bit longer than 30 days and they have to maintain the heat at a certain temperature. And then at the end of the 30 days, the bones are removed from the vessel much like flame cremation.

A lot of people, I don’t think realized when the cremation’s finished, the bones are taken out and then pulverized into this uniform kind of fluffy ash mixture that everyone’s aware of. Well, same thing in NOR, and then they’re returned to the compost.

So what the family actually gets is about a cubic yard of sterile soil, not sterile in the sense that you can’t grow anything, in the sense that there’s nothing harmful. There’s no harmful chemicals in the soil and the family can take all of that soil back to their land and plant a tree or do whatever they want with it. Or some families will opt to take a token amount, because a cubic yard’s a good amount of soil, take a token amount. And then these NOR providers, a lot of them, have some sort of agreement with an area of a forest or something where then they will go spread the remainder of that soil.

With NOR, you’re not burying somebody like you would in a mushroom suit in a grave plot. That’s very green burial. This is you are getting something that you can then have the flexibility to memorialize, almost like cremation.


TS: OK, Todd, here we go. Here’s the question I’d like to know, inside of me. It’s a little odd, but what I’m curious about is here, you’ve been around so many bodies after someone has died. Have you had the sense that the animating soul, if you will, was present and distinct from the physical body and have you had experiences where it’s like, whoa, oh my goodness.

Have you had any personal experiences like that? Where you encountered what, I don’t know how else to call it, but the soul of the person that was not any longer in their body, it’s corpse and a soul and you could say, “Oh look, oh wow, that’s a presence of some kind and I can feel or sense or hear it.” Or something like that?


TH: I grew up in a house that definitely had a spirit presence. So I am a believer that something exists.


TS: What do you mean? What happened in the house you were growing up?


TH: We would hear footsteps on the second floor when nobody was up there. A lot of times, we’d come down in the morning, all the lights in the house would be on. Or in the middle of the night, the stereo would come on or the shutters would inexplicably open and shut. And I think you can explain away a lot of these, especially for the non-believers of, oh, you had faulty wiring or this or that. But you add it up and you come to the logical conclusion that it’s probably something else, something more.

And I am open to anything. As well as certainly believing that there’s something out there, an energy. Where does our soul go? That electricity, that fires our brain, what happens to that energy when we die? And it can’t just disappear. So it’s got to go somewhere and people say, “Oh my gosh, is the funeral home haunted? Are you scared when you’re in there alone?”

Personally, my belief is the people that come back and are with us, choose a place, maybe even a person that’s meaningful to them. So the funeral home’s not going to have any meaning to anyone, except probably my uncle is going to haunt the you-know-what out of the funeral home once he goes, but everyone else we’re bringing back, they have no connection to our funeral home.

Their soul or their presence is more likely to inhabit their house, the baseball diamond, I don’t know, their car, their boat, somewhere that is meaningful to them.


TS: Well, that explains it in terms of what’s happening when you go to the funeral home and know you’re not afraid that you’re going to encounter various spirits, because you had that experience in your home. But what I’m talking about is while you’re embalming, as a professional or something like that, have you had any, “Well, I got a story for you, Tami. Here’s what happened.” Something like that?


TH: All these stories of bodies sitting up and moving.


TS: Yes. Things like that.


TH: They’re just that. They’re stories. And the people that tell them, I always just kind of chuckle. I’ve been doing this 18 years and I’ve never seen anything like that happen. And we handle a lot of death calls a year. So I would think if that were happening, I would’ve seen it. And hey, I might be proven wrong. Maybe I’ll go into work tomorrow and see something that just blows my mind.

But I’ve never felt a presence of somebody that I’ve gone to the house or the hospital or a nursing home or wherever. By the time we get there, that person has passed and I think their soul, or whatever it is, has moved on to wherever it goes. I have never felt that sensation in the 18 years I’ve been doing this.


TS: Todd, I can’t help myself. I’m going to continue on my slightly odd questioning vein. You mentioned how important it was for you personally to have some kind of gravestone marker, a place where people could memorialize you. Is there room on planet Earth for all of us to have gravestone markers? Is that practical?


TH: If everyone on Earth died tomorrow, we all could be buried in a cemetery the size of, I think it’s Rhode Island. You figure you can fit a thousand burials into an acre of land. These people that say running out of land, again, that’s just not true.

Now, granted, we’re taking up a lot of land with houses and office buildings and roads and this, that, and the other thing. So land is becoming more precious, but there’s plenty of space to continue doing burials. And a lot of these older cemeteries can be revitalized and there’s plenty of burial spaces in some of these old cemeteries.


TS: Todd, as we come to a conclusion here, what do you want readers to take away from Last Rites: The Evolution of the American Funeral? What do you hope is their takeaway after reading the book?


TH: When people ask me who I wrote this book for, I tell them my mom. And by that, I mean the lay person, this book is not written for funeral professionals. It was written, my idea, was so I could unpack the ideas behind these kind of mysterious rites and rituals and make funerals a less intimidating experience, because I think for a lot of people, and I’m like this, if you understand something, it’s not scary, it’s not intimidating.

So in reading this you’ll say, oh yeah, well, this makes sense. And this makes sense. And suddenly, hopefully, funerals will be less scary. And again, evangelizing what we do, funeral professionals, maybe we can change the narrative and funeral professionals can be a bit less seen as Lurch-like almost, or as kind of this stereotype that we’ve been branded as for so long.


TS: And then finally, let’s just say, someone’s listening to this and they’re like, I think I could go into this profession. And it would be a way for me to be a healing force, a loving force in my community. What would be your advice to them, such that they are a healing force, they are a loving force. What would you say? Keep this in mind….


TH: First of all, if this is you, the listener, if you’re thinking about doing this, I would say 100 percent, do it. This is such a rewarding and fulfilling career, helping people through some of the darkest times in their lives and making a real difference in somebody’s life. And if you have any interest in this, the first step would be maybe do some online research, but call your local funeral home and see if you can come in and meet with a funeral director and just ask them. Say, “Hey, can I follow you around for a couple days and see what you do?”

And a lot of funeral directors would be thrilled to share what they’re doing with you and show you how great funeral service is. And from there then make the decision, should I go to mortuary school or not? But try it a little bit and see what happens. And if you’re like me, maybe the profession will choose you.


TS: I’ve been speaking with Todd Harra. He’s the author of a new book with Sounds True, Last Rites: The Evolution of the American Funeral.

Todd, thank you for your sincerity and that super-good noggin of yours that has done so much terrific research to put our current situation with the American funeral in a historical context. Thank you.


TH: Oh, you’re welcome. Again, thank you for having me on Tami.


TS: Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at That’s If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.

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