Not very long ago, people in this part of the world were born in log cabins.
Later, they died in log cabins, were laid out in log cabins, and buried in family plots near log cabins.
Today we are born in, and die in, hospitals — a funeral director handles the rest. The whole business is somehow coldly impersonal, and smells of disinfectant.
And it’s expensive. The Federal Trade Commission says a basic funeral runs about $6,000. Throw in extras like flowers, limousines and some lady playing an organ, and you’re in for $10,000.
But suppose you die at home, way up the county, during an “economic downturn.” And your family figures even if they had ten grand to plant your carcass, they’d rather put on a new roof.
Suppose they want to bury you out behind the tobacco barn — keep it in the family. In the state of North Carolina, this is still an option.
According to Josh Roten of Badger Funeral Home, “the only requirement…is filing all the necessary paperwork yourself.” All official documents for certifying death are available from the Health Department.
Authorities will have to get involved, of course.
“Here in Ashe county, you’d have to contact the Sheriff’s department,” Roten says. A preliminary investigation would have to be conducted to make sure there was no foul play.
The sheriff would call the EMTs to make sure there are no vital signs. Since Ashe County has had no coroner since the General Assembly abolished that office in 1997, the attending physician or the County Medical Examiner would have to sign the Certificate of Death in triplicate for county, state and federal records.
In death, as in life: paperwork.
Badger Funeral Home, the oldest business in the county, has been operating since 1858, Roten says. Then, funeral directors were called undertakers, and made house calls, staying for several days to embalm, lay out and inter the deceased.
And it wasn’t uncommon for families to handle all arrangements themselves, including construction of the casket. Despite the fact that this can still be done, Roten says in his 16 years as a funeral director he has seen only one family-directed funeral.
But the High Country is DIY country. Whether you raise your own chickens, can your own vegetables or cook your own meth, if you live here, you likely perform some value-added service for yourself that metropolitan America is content to pay someone else to do.
Blueprints for coffins are plentiful on the Internet. If you’re handy and frugal, you can knock together a custom-fit southern yellow pine toe-pincher for under $100.
Burial vaults are good for keeping the weight of the soil from crushing your coffin, but fabricating one out of concrete, sheet metal or ABS plastic is beyond most people’s home craft skill set. Luckily, the state doesn’t require one, although cemeteries do becasue they prevent sinkholes from forming as coffins decompose.
If your dying wish is to be buried under a pile of rocks, like a supporting character in some spaghetti western killed off in the first reel, prepare to be disappointed. North Carolina G.S. 65-77 requires that “the uppermost part of the [burial encasement] shall be a minimum of 18 inches below the ground surface.”
A funeral pyre would be a sensible way to go out Viking-style, especially if you have a buddy in the firewood business. But, again, no. Home cremation is prohibited under N.C. G.S. 90-210.123, which stipulates you cannot “…cremate any human remains, except in a crematory licensed for this express purpose and operated by a crematory licensee…”
The ultimate no-bother exit strategy would be to choose a good time to go, and wander up some remote holler never to be seen again. This method — call it “climbing Mount Kevorkian” — was practiced by certain Native American tribes, and is both dramatic and practical.
But would it be legal?
Suicide, if unsuccessful, was a common-law crime in this state until 1973. North Carolina G.S. 14-17.1 abolished it as an offense.
David Boone of Boone Family Funeral Home says there would be no legal repercussions, “until they find the body. Then there would be an investigation as to who this person is, what was the cause of death.”
And, as Boone points out, timing would be all too crucial, making this the least advisable method of self-interment.
The nearly departed, feeling the clammy palm of death upon him, might wander into the wilderness, then feel some better for the walk. He might survive out there for days in holding pattern of agony.
Worse, he might have to head home and try again later.