Caring for the remains of a loved one, and celebrating their life in your own home, through your own efforts, makes sense to a lot of people today, as it has to so many more throughout history. A successful home funeral can be a cleansing, healing event that traditionalizes the dying and grieving process, and saves you thousands of dollars in funeral expenses at the same time. That being said, if you choose to conduct natural death care you are embarking on a multi-stepped process that will include researching your state and local laws, locating support from friends and family, and conducting a cleaning and cooling regiment of your loved one’s remains.
What is natural death care? What is a home funeral? How does one facilitate a home funeral? What supplies do you need and what tasks will you have to perform? How can you ensure that the home funeral is legal? This article will attempt to answer these and other questions, and guide you, step by step, through the process.
Things to Know:
- You will need to research your state and local laws regulating after-death care, and you may wish to contact a home funeral consultant, locatable through the Home Funeral Directory.
- You should have three to six people assisting you with such tasks as gathering and replenishing supplies, seeing to the after-death care of the body, and filing a death certificate.
- Know what you’re getting into before you decide on this option: this is a highly personal process, and you may have to confront your own fears concerning your loved one’s death and your own mortality. Read this article completely, and speak with a home funeral consultant if you still have any questions.
Before Death Occurs
Natural death care and a successful home funeral will require an amount of before-death preparation. First, you will need to ensure that it is legal and applicable in your case, and, if it is, you will have to locate a relatively wide range of common supplies in order to attend to the body in a timely fashion. This is what you must do before death occurs:
Step 1: Research the home funeral process and your state and local laws, and find help/advice
Home funerals are legal in most states, the exceptions being Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and New York. In these states, funerals must be conducted through a funeral home, or at the very least require a funeral director’s signature on the death certificate and/or disposition permit. If you are conducting the funeral in one of these states, you will likely have to pay for this service, though you may still be able to transport, or have the body transported, to your home for the ceremony and visitation. You may wish to contact a home funeral consultant in your area who can help you understand the laws, and prepare you for what is ahead.
If you still want to have a home funeral, learn exactly what will be required of you. Watch the Home Funeral Directory’s helpful film, Passing Through Our Hands, a video detailing the kinds of tasks you’ll need to conduct.
Step 2: Gather Supplies
Most of the supplies that you may need to conduct natural death care should be available at local drug stores, supermarkets, and hard ware stores. For more information, see our article on Preplanning a Home Funeral, or the useful and highly comprehensive study guide, Undertaken with Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities:
Step 3: Gather Support
Reach out to a group of people that can help you, either by researching your state and local laws, assisting in planning the event, or aiding with the care for your loved one’s remains. There should be four to six people to move the body. Seek out the counsel of a family member or a respected peer who has experienced a death. Prepare yourself, and try as best as you can to accept that what is happening to you and your loved one is a natural part of every life.
After Death Has Occurred
After death has occurred, you may find yourself struck with a wide range of conflicting, tempestuous emotions. This is completely natural, and completely necessary for your own grieving process. Before we begin to prepare your home funeral event, which may help to catalyze your own moving forward, you should take a moment to…
Step 4: Process what has happened.
Death is never a wholly pleasant event. Grief can be debilitating and intensely painful, and if you have just seen a loved one through a long period of illness or suffering, it would be understandable to find yourself feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted. So have patience with yourself. Seek out the counsel of family members or friends whose advice you trust, or a respected peer who has been through a dying process. Prepare yourself for the rest of your own life, and decide how best appropriate to celebrate that of your loved one. For more information see our article on The Stages of Grief.
Note: Rigor mortis, the stiffening of the body, usually sets in about 2-4 hours after death has occurred. It is easier to move and handle the body before this happens. However, this is not absolutely necessary, as rigor mortis generally passes after 24-48 hours. The body must be cooled in accordance with the laws of your state. You may use gel packs or dry ice for this purpose.
Step 5: Notify the Attending Nurse/Last Attending Doctor
If you have a hospice nurse, notify him or her of the death, and this person should be able to complete the death certificate and notify the last attending physician. Make sure they will conduct this service beforehand. Otherwise, notify your local hospital, specifically the last attending physician, and compile the information you will need to fill out a death certificate. State laws and procedures vary in this regard; be sure to stay in accordance with legal procedure. You do not need to contact the police unless the cause of death was violent, unexpected, uncertain, or “unusual” (e.g., suicide).
Step 6: Complete the death certificate
A death certificate, stating the cause of death and signed by a doctor, must be completed in all deaths. If you choose to fill out a death certificate yourself, rather than employ a hospice nurse or funeral director to do so, you should have the following information available (death certificate’s are state specific, so the required information will vary slightly):
- Full name of deceased
- Time, date, and place of death
- Date and place of birth
- Social Security number
- The deceased’s veteran status in any branch of the US Armed Forces
- Marital status, and spouse’s name/maiden name if applicable
- Residence address
- Names of parents, including mother’s maiden name
- Level of education
- Place of burial or disposition (specific establishment)
- Date of burial or disposition
- Time and place of death
- Name, address, and phone number of certifying physician
- Name, address, and phone number of person with right to control disposition.
Take great care in completing the death certificate, as whiteout or other corrections are not usually permitted. Use black ink. Ask your local health department or your state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics (or equivalent) about the requirements and where to file the completed paperwork. Do not expect to receive any assistance from public employees in this regard — if there are problems with the death certificate they will kick it back to you, sometimes without explanation.
Step 7: Purchase dry ice and/or frozen gel packs
In order to best preserve the body, you will need dry ice, available for purchase at many grocery stores for about $1 a pound, and/or frozen gel packs. Specialty vendors, such as ice cream stores, may also have dry ice for sale. You will need a Styrofoam container to hold the dry ice, and leather gloves with which to handle it. Clear a space to store the ice, but do not set the container directly on the floor, as it may damage floorboards, tile, or linoleum. As dry ice evaporates it emits carbon dioxide, so leave the lid of the container slightly open. For an average size body, you will need about 30 pounds of dry ice to start with, and about 10-20 pounds a day after that. Have the dry ice cut into one-inch thick sheets, about the length and width of an average size paperback book — the vendors may do this for you, if not, you can use a hammer to shatter the ice. Wrap the pieces in cloth or plastic sheeting. You will need to replenish your supply daily as the dry ice evaporates. Frozen gel packs may be sufficient as well, especially for a diminutive person or a small child — you want to avoid freezing the body entirely.
Step 8: Prepare the workspace
To avoid unnecessary effort, you will probably want to conduct the natural death care in the room where the death occurred. Remove all medical equipment and unnecessary furniture or appliances in order to give yourself as much space as possible. Make sure you have all of your supplies readily at hand. You may wish to place extra cloth or plastic sheeting underneath the body. You can do this by having several of your helpers roll the body onto its side, while you lay down the sheet next to it. Roll the body over onto the sheeting, now resting on its other side. Spread the sheeting out completely, and then lay the body back down, face up.
Step 9: Prepare the Body
Remove the clothing, cutting where necessary. Use a towel or sheet, placed over the body, to preserve modesty. Place a folded towel or other absorbent material under the bottom, and gently press the pubic area to expel any remaining fluids or urine onto the sheet. Discard the damp towel.
Step 10: Clean the Mouth and Eyes (optional)
You may use disinfecting mouthwash or mouth swabs to clean the mouth and teeth, and to dry out the mouth. Close the mouth by tying a scarf wrapped from under the chin to the top of the head. Close the eyes. If they will not remain closed, you can place a bag of rice or beans or other soft weight over them. Closing the mouth and eyes should be done before rigor mortis occurs, so that they will more easily stay this way throughout the cleaning and visitation. You can remove the scarf and the weights from the eyes in about an hour.
Step 11: Rinse the Body
To rinse the body, fill a large bowl with warm water, perhaps treated with a few drops of your loved one’s favorite scent, rose petals, or essential oils. If you are concerned about the cleaning surface, place a plastic sheet under the body until washing is complete.
i. Begin with the face and neck area, using short, gentle polishing strokes, and then pat dry (do not scrub, as skin may tear).
ii. Wash hair if desired, using dry shampoo or regular shampoo, by supporting the head over the side of the table with a bowl held beneath, then dry with a towel.
iii. Wash arms, hands, and nails, then pat dry.
iv. Wash the upper body, front, and then roll the body onto its side in order to wash the backside, then pat dry (If you need to change water at this juncture, do so).
v. While the body is on its side, wash the genital area. If this makes you uncomfortable you can request that a hospice nurse conduct this task, or you can merely wash between the legs and pat dry. If the decedent bathed shortly before death this step may be overlooked.
vi. Wash the legs and feet, and pat dry.
vii. Once washing is complete, if you are concerned about leakage you can dress the body in an adult diaper. Usually, this isn’t a significant problem.
Step 12: Dress and prepare the body for visitation
If you are holding a visitation, prepare the body by dressing it how you feel the decedent would have wished to be dressed. Pants are relatively easy to put on. A shirt can be cut up the back, slipped over the arms, and then tucked under the body.
Step 13: Prepare the visitation room
If you plan to lay the body out in a casket, make sure that you have it prepared so that you can easily place the body inside, without undue lifting, for example. If you will place the body on a table or other piece of furniture, you should lay out whatever cloths or fabrics you plan to have underneath before attempting to move the body. A bed, table, massage table, or casket are all ideal for a visitation.
Step 14: Move the body
It usually takes at least four to six people to move a body. The easiest way to do so is to use the sheet or bedding your loved one may have passed away on. Roll the sheet up until it is near the body, forming a handle to grab hold of. Space yourselves at equal distances to best re-distribute the weight, count to three, and lift at once. Move sideways in order to clear the bed. It may be helpful to count your steps out loud in order to stay in unison. A wooden board or box may also be helpful. If you choose this option, it may be a good idea to conduct a trial run with your helpers in order to locate the difficult angles in moving the box or board through your home. When you have reached the visitation site, you can lay the body down with the sheet still beneath it, or you can gently lift the box or board into place. You will want to remove the sheets or bedding on which you conducted your cleaning, by rolling the body onto its side, pushing the linen underneath, then rolling the body back onto its other side, and spreading out the linen.
Note: You may not want to use these sheets and towels again after this process has been completed, so choose accordingly.
Step 15: Cool Body with Dry Ice or Frozen Gel Packs
Once the body is laid out and dressed, cool the body with dry ice or frozen gel packs in order to slow the natural degradation process. Be sure you are in accordance with the laws of your state concerning the amount of time following death before body needs cooling. If you are using dry ice, wrap your 1-inch thick sheets in cloth, muslin, or plastic wrap before placing them under the body (dry ice emits carbon dioxide while it evaporates, and it can cause “ice burns” on exposed skin). Place one such bundle or frozen gel pack under each shoulder blade, the lower back, and each hip. The goal is to keep the internal organs cool, which is why the torso and lower abdomen are the most important areas to focus on — if your decedent is a small child or a diminutive person, frozen gel packs will probably be sufficient. You can use cloth scarves or pillows to hide the cooling materials from view during the visitation. Remember to keep tabs on the dry ice or gel packs, and replace when necessary. Plan on purchasing dry ice daily. Keep a washcloth and towel close at hand, and take care when repositioning the body in order to place more ice beneath it, in case bodily fluids escape from the mouth or nose (this rarely happens).
Step 16: Prepare the Body, Location, and Visitation Room
You can now adorn the body as you see fit, with jewelry, flowers, or family mementos. Prepare your home or chosen location how your loved one may have wished it or how you feel is most appropriate. Remove any medical equipment, respirators or cleaning supplies to an out of the way place. You can adorn your space with flowers, Christmas lights, candles, or torches if out doors. You may wish to play music while the viewing takes place, or you may wish to set up chairs and a podium from which guests can speak. Of course, this part is entirely up to you, your family, and your loved one. If your loved one left any recorded or written wishes, this is a good time to review them. For more information, see our article on Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service.
17. Before Your Event Begins, Take a Few Moments For Yourself
Now, with a little time before your guests arrive and your event begins, you should take a few minutes to be with yourself, your friends who have helped this process, and your close family who have leant their support. Acknowledge that you have just persevered through one of the most trying times in any human life, and have managed to prepare an event that is atypical in this day and age and comparatively taxing next to the expensive and excessive packages offered by many funeral homes. This is a major accomplishment. Perhaps you and your close circle may wish to share stories, jokes, or anecdotes about the deceased, or perhaps you will prefer to simply rest in silence. Allow yourself to feel pride. Allow yourself to feel your loved one’s presence, and allow yourself to grieve. Remember, death is a journey, just as life is, and from now on, you will always be able to say that you undertook this one to the best of your abilities.
For Further Information:
Home Funeral Directory
Undertaken With Love
Funeral Consumers Alliance
The Green Burial Council
Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death