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Life Stories: Lisa Carlson 'Was a Truth Teller'


Published June 28, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Elizabeth "Lisa" Carlson - COURTESY
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  • Elizabeth "Lisa" Carlson

Shortly after Lisa Carlson (February 18, 1938-June 4, 2023 ) died on June 4 at her home in Hinesburg, her longtime work colleague, mentee and family friend Joshua Slocum phoned the University of Vermont's Anatomical Gift Program to confirm that the 86-year-old's body would soon be donated for study to the Larner College of Medicine.

"Lisa Carlson? I know her!" the woman at UVM replied. An author, teacher and funeral consumer advocate, Lisa was a national celebrity, of sorts, in the death industry, having resurrected the long-forgotten practice of DIY home funerals. For years, Lisa gave guest lectures at the medical school about what happened to bodies upon death, and she worked with the Anatomical Gift Program to research the trafficking of human body parts.

"'Do you remember when she went to Tucson and climbed into the dumpster to get that outfit's price list for body parts?'" Slocum recalled the woman saying about a body and tissue donation facility in Arizona. "Did I ever!" he replied. "Lisa wouldn't stop crowing about it for weeks." Ultimately, it was her work that forced the for-profit company to clean up its act.

Hardheaded, fiery and mercurial, Lisa spoke with the raspy voice of a longtime four-pack-a-day smoker. The diminutive woman challenged anyone — morticians, crematory owners, cemetery directors and government bureaucrats — who, through their own incompetence, greed or deceptive business practices, tried to exploit bereaved families.

"She was a truth teller. When Lisa was on the case, you could not get away with any bullshit," Slocum said. "But underneath that ball-busting exterior ... she was very tenderhearted and easily emotionally moved by people in situations of extremeness who thought they could not help themselves."

Lisa was born Elizabeth Blount Shippen on February 18, 1938, in Melrose, Mass., the oldest of five children. According to Steve Carlson, Lisa's husband of four decades, her father was a U.S. Navy man and homeopathic doctor who moved the family often. Her mother died when Lisa was 13.

After earning her bachelor's degree at Antioch College in Ohio, Lisa moved back to Massachusetts, where she taught special education. She migrated to Vermont in the 1960s and took other teaching jobs, including one as principal of the school inside the now-closed Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.

In the '60s, Lisa was also the proprietor of the Hungry Pig and I, once a popular eatery in Plainfield.

Lisa with her daughter Joie Brackett-Reeves - COURTESY
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  • Lisa with her daughter Joie Brackett-Reeves

"It was pretty well-known in my community of hippies at the time," recalled Steve, whose family lived in the nearby New Hamburger Commune in Plainfield. The restaurant's cardboard menu listed such offerings as an onion-and-cucumber sandwich for 35 cents and a peanut butter-and-bacon sandwich for 50 cents, with 10 cents extra for "dark breads."

"Lisa tried to make it respectable," Steve said of the restaurant, "but most of the customers had long hair."

Lisa's involvement with funeral ethics and consumer advocacy began not as a career move but as an act of financial desperation. In March 1981, her first husband, John Brackett, took his own life at age 31 with a hunting rifle; Lisa found him dead in his pickup truck in their driveway.

The couple, both schoolteachers of modest means, had virtually no savings, so Lisa couldn't afford the $500 cremation fee that a local funeral director quoted her. Left widowed with a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, she had few options for her husband's final disposition.

As Lisa recounted her story to Seven Days in January 2007, someone from the state called her after Brackett's autopsy to ask which funeral home would be picking up the deceased. Lisa informed him that none would do so and instructed him to deliver the body to her house.

"I'm sure he thought I'd gone off my squash," she recalled with a gravelly laugh.

Once Brackett's body came home, Lisa said, she felt an overwhelming need to stay with him. She asked a friend — a janitor at the school where Brackett had taught — to help her drive the body to a crematory in St. Johnsbury. In those years, it was virtually unheard of for anyone to transport a deceased loved one on their own, without the use of a medical examiner, coroner or funeral director. In essence, she helped revive a practice that had disappeared in this country for more than a century: having family members tend to their own dead. All totaled, Brackett's funeral cost less than $200.

After the Burlington Free Press reported her story, Lisa became a local celebrity. "For a year later, a week rarely went by without a phone call or letter from people wanting to know what to do and how to do it," Lisa told Seven Days. "I felt so grateful that I'd had the information when I needed it, I felt obliged to share."

In 1987, Lisa published her first book, Caring for Your Own Dead, a how-to manual for families, which quickly earned her national acclaim. That year, the New York Times reviewed her book, and she appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America," "CBS This Morning" and "The Phil Donahue Show" twice.

Lisa wasn't very interested in milking her celebrity status. According to Steve, who'd published her book, she declined interview requests from ABC's "20/20" because she was mad at one of the hosts, and she turned down another from the TV show "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" because she found it "unsophisticated."

"She didn't realize that that would be really good publicity," Steve said. "She was kind of a nightmare for publishers ... because she would never mention her book."

Steve and Lisa met in the early '80s while both were in "difficult situations," he said. Lisa's first husband had just died, and Steve was in the midst of a painful divorce. The New York Times book review says the Carlsons were married in 1985, but neither Steve nor her kids remember the actual date — or even year.

"We've been trying to figure it out," Lisa's daughter Joie Brackett-Reeves said with a chuckle.

"One thing that we liked about each other is, we didn't have to remember our anniversary," Steve added.

Steve does remember that the couple built their house themselves in 1983, while he was still working as a legislative aide to then-U.S. House representative Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.). Lisa was skilled in plumbing and electrical work, and she worked on other people's homes, too. As her sister-in-law, Laura Brackett, recalled, "She built a two-story fireplace at one of the houses when she was eight months pregnant."

Growing up in the Carlsons' home was a unique experience. "As a teenager, we had coffins upstairs, so my friends wouldn't come over," Joie said.

"If someone didn't want to spend $1,000 on a box," Steve explained, "we had some cardboard ones they could use."

From left to right: Lisa Carlson, her son Shawn Brackett (in front), sister-in-law Laura Brackett and husband Steve Carlson - COURTESY
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  • From left to right: Lisa Carlson, her son Shawn Brackett (in front), sister-in-law Laura Brackett and husband Steve Carlson

Still, the Carlsons' home, which they often opened to foster kids in need of emergency housing, could also feel like a playground. It had a pool table in an outbuilding, a hanging rope bridge out back and a firefighter's pole that ran from the second floor of the house to the first. According to Joie, her notoriously frugal mother once described the pole as her best $20 junkyard purchase.

"I grew up with a trapeze in the living room," she added. "My mom was all about fun."

In 1997, Lisa revised and expanded her book into a second edition, titled Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love. The previous year, she was hired as executive director of a national nonprofit that later became the Funeral Consumers Alliance. But after a falling-out with her board, Lisa left the nonprofit in 2003 and formed her own: the Funeral Ethics Organization.

Slocum, whom Lisa hired in 2002 as her successor at FCA, said her impact on the national funeral industry cannot be overstated. When she published the book's second edition, she was the first person in the country to analyze and critique the funeral laws of all 50 states, then translate them into language that the average consumer could understand. Slocum, who coauthored the third edition, noted that Lisa wasn't just trying to find consumers the cheapest cremation available. She recognized that families who wanted a traditional, full-service funeral were the ones who most needed her help.

Given the nature of her work as a funeral industry watchdog, it's unsurprising that Lisa cultivated a healthy sense of humor. In 2001, she published I Died Laughing: Funeral Education With a Light Touch, a collection of death-themed jokes, cartoons, quotations and humorous last words. According to Slocum, Lisa often summed up her attitude about death and dying with a quote from Dolly Parton's character in the film Steel Magnolias: "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."

As someone who worked hard, played hard and enjoyed bawdy humor, Lisa often could be found at her kitchen table drinking, smoking, and playing cards with family and friends. (Slocum wrote that when Lisa picked him up at the airport during his move to Vermont for his job in 2002, she handed him an ashtray and a travel mug filled with red wine, and "I knew I'd made the right decision.") Though Lisa quit cigarettes 15 years ago — it was emphysema that ultimately took her life — she remained an unapologetic drinker "all the way to the end," Laura said.

Lisa spent three years in hospice starting at the beginning of the pandemic. Describing his wife's final days, Steve called her death "as good as it could be," surrounded by family and close friends. Joie, who in her younger years once told her mother that she was "running from anything [related to] death and dying," went on to become a hospice nurse. While her mother was dying, she attended to her needs, keeping her comfortable and out of pain. "I dipped her mouth swabs in vodka," she said. Joie was lying by her mother's side, with Steve in a chair next to the bed, when Lisa took her final breath.

Lisa is also survived by her son Stuart Mercer and daughter-in-law Mary Keller Mercer, son Shawn Brackett, stepson Joshua Carlson, stepdaughter Rosalie Carlson, brothers Edward and Eugene Shippen, and six grandchildren.

As Slocum wrote in an online remembrance, Lisa once described her life thus: "We've never been rich, and we buy everything secondhand, but I have a home and a family and a rewarding life. I feel rich."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'She Was a Truth Teller' | Elizabeth "Lisa" Carlson"

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