An expected death can be a painful, even traumatic, experience. SevenPonds always encourages emotional accommodation, with oneself as much as anybody else, in as many aspects of the end-of-life process as necessary. In keeping with your own, your family’s, and the dying person’s feelings and wishes, you might find that preplanning a home funeral is the right choice for you, bypassing impersonal state and funeral industry intrusion into this extraordinarily personal event. What is a home funeral? How do you legally and logistically execute a home funeral? What are a home funeral’s benefits? What are your options in conducting a home funeral? Read this section of Seven Ponds to better answer these questions.
Things to Know:
- A home funeral, sometimes called a family-directed funeral or home-based funeral, allows for some or all after-death care to be conducted by friends or family.
- In most states, it is legal to keep the deceased at home until the time of transport for burial or cremation. With very few exceptions, you are not required to use a funeral provider for embalming or other funeral services.
- Some state laws make it difficult to transport a body yourself. Be sure to research the laws of your state!
- A home funeral allows friends and family more time for ceremony, grieving, and closure.
- Choosing a home funeral, and bypassing costly arrangements developed at a funeral home, can save the family thousands of dollars in funeral expenses.
- You can make a coffin, purchase a coffin directly from a manufacturer or retailer, buy a cardboard box, or, if you are conducting a rural burial or a green burial, simply use a body shroud.
What is a home funeral?
If you die in a hospital, your body is typically taken to a morgue and then to a funeral provider. But, if you die at home, a funeral service provider typically removes your body for embalming and or cremation. In an attempt to make dying less impersonal, there is a small but growing trend in North America toward keeping the body at home until the time of burial or cremation. Friends or family prepare the body, complete some or all of the paperwork to attain death certificates and other after-death documents, and in some cases may also transport the body for cremation or burial.
How do I claim the body?
In most cases, if death occurred in a hospital, the family has the right to claim the body by making sure that a report of death and a certificate of death have been completed. The family can then transfer the body from the hospital to their home for preparation. In some cases, a burial transit permit may be necessary. First, make sure that the report of death and certificate of death are being completed, either by your family or by the hospital, and then consider contacting a home funeral consultant near you who can assist you with understanding your local laws.
Is a home funeral legal?
First of all, when a death seems imminent, be sure to contact a medical professional before it actually occurs. The authorities need to determine whether or not an autopsy is necessary (in most natural deaths, it is not). If a hospice nurse was seeing to the decedent, this person can take care of the necessary medical arrangements. If an autopsy is necessary, the family is usually liable for the expense, and in these cases, home funerals can be difficult.
However, in most states, if there is no question as to the cause of death, a family member or a designated agent can act in lieu of a funeral director and legally keep the deceased at home until the time of transport for burial or cremation. However, there are a few states that require the designated agent to hold a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. California law, for example, requires a signed and valid death certificate and a disposition permit, both signed by an MD. Currently, Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Utah have laws making it difficult for families to perform a home funeral without the involvement of a funeral director. Residents can still often conduct a home funeral, as long as they pay a funeral director to obtain burial transit permits, disposition permits, and other after-death documents. Laws and required documents vary considerably state to state: for example, some states require a report of death in addition to a death certificate; in some states, a body can be moved with medical permission, while in other states, a burial transit permit is required. It’s extremely important to educate yourself on your state’s laws. Sometimes these laws are contradictory: for instance, Connecticut law specifically states that the custody and care of the remains will pass to the next of kin, but at the same time a funeral director’s signature is required on the death certificate, and only a funeral director or embalmer may transport the body. Thorough research is absolutely necessary, and in some cases seeking legal counsel might be as well. For further information, see the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance page on “Caring for Your Own Dead,” or contact a home funeral consultant near you. You can also purchase the chapter in Joshua Slocum’s book, Final Rights, which details the laws of your state.
Is a home funeral always a good choice?
A home funeral may require the efforts of a number of family and friends to care for the remains, wash the body, and employ preservative materials such as dry ice or frozen gel packs. Then, they must prepare and transport the deceased, being sure to meet all necessary legal and documentation requirements. For this reason, home funerals are not practical choices for everyone. You can reference this highly comprehensive and informative study guide prepared by Undertaken With Love for step-by-step details on the supplies you’ll need and tasks you’ll conduct.
Furthermore, if there is any question as to the cause of death, an autopsy may be necessary, in which case the body must be taken to the local coroner. In these cases, a home funeral might not be the best choice.
Why choose a home funeral?
In a home funeral, friends and family work together to provide more personalized, and often inexpensive, after-death care than that provided by a funeral home. The deceased’s life is celebrated in the comfort of the home, giving family and friends more time with the departed, and a stronger sense of community during the remembrance services or celebrations. Other benefits of a home funeral are as follows:
- Home funerals are a more loving way to say goodbye. A home funeral allows more time for closure; family and friends can gather for two or more days to prepare, memorialize, celebrate, grieve, and finally transport the body.
- Home funerals provide control over decisions: A coffin can be constructed in advance or purchased directly from a manufacturer or retailer. A body shroud or biodegradable coffin can be pre-selected for rural burial or burial in a green cemetery. The details of the funeral can be completely or partially preplanned by the deceased, and the family can decide any remaining details during the home funeral. For more information, see Preplanning a Funeral or Memorial Service.
- Home funerals save money. Arranging a home funeral, independent of the potentially costly accoutrements attendant in funeral home-arranged services, can save families thousands of dollars in expenses on services, such as embalming, transportation, and event planning, and products such as flowers, invitations, and building reservations.
- Home funerals allow more time. Because family and friends may gather together for two or more days to prepare, memorialize, and transport the body, a home funeral allows more time to say goodbye.
- Home funerals can be therapeutic and help to foster togetherness, as friends and family gather and join in conducting the home funeral and supporting one another.
- Home funerals provide healing and closure, by offering a welcoming place where life and death can be discussed and grief and loss expressed. By preplanning your own home funeral, you can engage in a healthy discussion about death with friends and family while there’s still time.
- Home funerals traditionalize death care. Before the late 19th century, American families typically prepared the bodies of their loved ones at home, held services at home, and transported the body from the home. Keeping a deceased loved one at home was a natural part of the cycle of life.
To preplan part or all of a home funeral
- Open a funeral trust account in your own name to pay for expenses, but be wary about prepaying for services.
- Investigate the laws governing home funerals in your state. Keep good records of the information you gather. Start at the state level to find out who can attain a death certificate, burial transit permits, and any other after-death documents that may be required. Find out where and how to attain the required forms. For example, the local health department may have your county’s form for transporting a body. Insist on facts rather than opinions.
- Consider taking a home funeral planning course and/or speak with a home funeral consultant. It is relatively simple to conduct after-death care; nevertheless, you should still educate yourself on the tasks you’ll need to conduct, such as washing and diapering the body and preserving it with dry ice or gel packs. You can also attain home funeral planning documents from Crossings or Final Passages, and find a home funeral consultant who will be familiar with your state’s laws, through the Home Funeral Directory. Be prepared: you may be told, by hospital workers or civic authorities, you must use a funeral home, even if no laws explicitly require this. In that case you should.
- Organize a group to advocate for last rights/rites. Even with extensive preplanning, hospice workers, the family doctor, and or local officials may be resistant to your holding a home funeral. Don’t despair. Identify a small group of relatives and friends who will advocate for legal rights and assist with the necessary paperwork. Reference the website Undertaken With Love for a step-by-step process.
- Educate yourself on caring for the dead. Caring for the dead is relatively simple. However, it is also an involved process, and you should know what you’re getting into beforehand. Be sure to compile the necessary materials. Reference this study guide prepared by Undertaken With Love for a detailed, step-by-step approach to after-death care.
- If you choose cremation, identify a crematorium willing to deal directly with the family. Some crematoriums provide cremation services directly to the family of the deceased, but others will only deal with a funeral director. You may want to make sure you find a crematorium that will deal with you directly.
- Learn about ecologically harmonious, green burial and green cemeteries. Green burial can be affordable, elegant, and environmentally sound. For more information, see Choosing Green Burial and Environmental and Social Impact of Flowers.
Are there variations on conducting the entire funeral at home?
Yes. You can choose to conduct a partial home funeral, in which the family cares for the body and conducts a funeral or memorial service at home, while a funeral director completes end-of-life paperwork and transports the body for cremation or burial. There is also a simplified funeral, which may include completing paperwork related to obtaining a death certificate and transporting the body directly from a coroner’s office or medical facility morgue to a cemetery or crematorium.
For more information:
A Family Undertaking: POV. A film by Elizabeth Westrate (2003). Available for rental or video streaming from Netflix.
Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love
by Lisa Carlson
Upper Access, 1997
"The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral" by Max Alexander
Crossings: Caring for Your Own at Death
Home Funeral Directory