Albion Monitor /Commentary

Fishing for Last Rights

by Karen Leonard

The voice on my answering machine said "I thought you might want to know -- Lake County Public Health refuses to hand out death permits to anyone that isn't a funeral director..." and then suddenly hung up.

You would probably say, "So What?" But you aren't a death rights advocate. Which, rather unexpectedly, I became ten years ago -- when morticians started charging "AIDS handling fees," and charging extra to handle third-party caskets ("Just think of it like a 'corkage' fee in a fine restaurant," a funeral director once told me).

"Grave and disastrous results would happen if they handed death certificates out to the public!" "Like what?" I asked. He couldn't answer this, but he told me he would find out and get back to me
Both those types of charges are now illegal, thanks to people who felt being ripped off in death is truly the most offensive act consumerism has to offer.

In the State of California, people still have the right to care for their own far. But it is quickly becoming just a paper policy -- it isn't truly a right if you have no ability to exercise it.

In Sonoma county, a group calling itself the Natural Death Care Project have been teaching people how to care for their own dead; which principally consists of filling out permits, building a casket or buying a lined cardboard container, and transporting the body to a crematorium that will accept a body.

This sounds simple enough, but has become increasingly difficult over the past year since the Project started. You see, they have handled more cases than some of the mortuaries in these parts, and the funeral directors don't like being robbed of their "bread and butter." Corpses are commerce. Denying them the right to charge you for services you would rather do yourself is... well, so un-American. So, like the "caring and professional" people they are, funeral directors began to pressure the crematoriums by threatening to blackball them. That is against the law, but apparently it is another one of those laws that is only "on paper."

Exercising your right to care for your own dead gets even trickier when the only place you can get the required permits (other than through a funeral director, who is issued reams of them by the Health Department) won't give them to you.

So I decided to go fishing in Lake county for a permit. A person titled "Chief Deputy" of the records department simply told me that it wasn't illegal for her to NOT hand them out, and by gum, she wasn't going to do it! Her superior -- who was titled "Deputy Chief" -- told me, "Grave and disastrous results would happen if they handed death certificates out to the public!"

"Like what?" I asked. He couldn't answer this, but he told me he would find out and get back to me. I told him he had better find out soon, since the person who called me may have a body laying around waiting to get "properly papered" for traveling. He insisted on my giving him the name of the individual. I declined. He said he couldn't very well give him a permit if he didn't know who he was. I told him that he would be the only guy not wearing black, the only guy signing "self" under the question Name of Funeral Director on the permit.

And call back he did. Twenty minutes later he had reasons why the public couldn't have these. You see, they might forge them to get Social Security Benefits!

EVEN IF... the $250 dollars Social Security provides as a death benefit (and even then only under special circumstances) would be worth a federal rap to someone, a permit used for this purpose is a copy of the original record with a certification mark on it.

After pointing this out to him he sputtered, but came back with "well, they might fake that too!"

"Well, why not just ask for a certified copy of a death certificate to begin with? You hand these out all the time. A blank document, fraudulently filled in, would still not pass scrutiny without that official certified copy seal from the health department. That's what makes it authentic."

It's hard to imagine some fool waving his "death certificate" at an immigration officer to prove his existence as a citizen
I decided this trip in Alice in Wonderland was becoming more amusing by the minute, so I decided to go fishing in deeper waters. I called the Sacramento's State Public Health Department.

I wasn't disappointed. This head honcha told me that the correct procedures called for "copies" of a blank form to be given out first. Then AFTER the person died, the survivor could bring this back, fill in a REAL permit, and take it to the doctor/coroner for cause/time of death, and THEN return it.

I pointed out that this seemed highly unnecessary, to force a public citizen to make an extra trip, taking additional time to fill it all out again, especially since they are likely to have a body in the back of the bus, waiting for that final destination. "People caring for their own dead can't embalmed, and usually have limited freezer space," I explained as delicately as I am prone to be in such circumstances.

She was not amused. "You don't understand; people are using illegal documents to fake citizenship every day!"

It's hard to imagine some fool waving his "death certificate" at an immigration officer to prove his existence as a citizen, so I decided to switch the bait before we went any further out to sea with this.

"But what's stopping them from simply walking off with the original after they have brought back the copy they have to fill out for you before being handed the original to be filled out all over again? (Groucho Marx could have written this scene).

"Well we could check it out when they returned with it by calling the doctor on the signature."

"But why couldn't you do that without making them come back with a filled out copy? " This DID make her pause, and I quickly asked to see these "procedures" she was referring to. She said "I have a position that gives me the job of creating policy and procedures." Well, it was a bit of a comfort to know she was making it all up. I'd hate to think this stuff was in a manual somewhere.

But since I felt that familiar "jerk" on the end of the line, I set the hook. "But why is it all right for funeral directors to be given huge packets of these, but a citizen can't simply be given one?" "Funeral Directors are licensed! They would have repercussions if they misused them." "Does this mean that there wouldn't be repercussions for forgery if you weren't a funeral director?"

But I really had her reeled in when I told her I have a packet of death certificates in my closet. She was gasping like a landed flounder. "YOU have these documents in your possession?"

Needless to say, she would not allow me to attend the conference being held in Napa next month on filling out public records. "It is not open to the public." When I explained that I was a consumer advocate for a regional nonprofit organization, and hardly a disinterested party, she told me they were booked. No room at the Inn...the Napa Inn, that is.

But who knows, I might show up anyway, if I don't get napped in the middle of the night for harboring death certificates. I'm even thinking about organizing a picket for the protesting of Sonoma County crematoriums. Give me a call if you would like to come along. I'll be the one with the sign reading "We shouldn't have to be burned twice!"

Karen J. Leonard is Executive Director of the Redwood Funeral Society, POB 7501, Cotati 94931

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Albion Monitor March 25, 1997 (

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