Q.What exactly is a home funeral? A. A home funeralhappens when a loved one is cared for at home or in prepared space after death, giving family and friends time to gather and participate in:
keeping the body cool with noninvasive techniques, such as ice
filing the death certificate and obtaining transport and burial permits
transporting the deceased to the place of burial or cremation
facilitating the final disposition, such as digging the grave in a natural burial
preparing the body for burial or cremation by bathing, dressing and laying out for visitation
hiring professionals for specific products or services
planning and carrying out after-death rituals or ceremonies
Q. Are home funerals legal? A. Yes. In every state and province, it is legal for families to bring or keep their loved one home until time of disposition. In ten states, a funeral director may need to be involved in some capacity, but this does not hinder the ability to have a home funeral. You can learn more about details of the laws here.
Q. Are home funerals safe? A. Yes. Dead bodies do not pose an increased health risk any more than when they were alive. With appropriate hygiene and cooling techniques, it is perfectly safe to keep a loved one home for several days. Embalming itself poses more than an eight times greater risk to embalmers of contracting myeloid leukemia than the general population. Bodies with infectious diseases are not usually candidates for embalming and are simply kept cool in a professional setting if not at home. Learn more about home funeral safety here.
Opa and his faithful home funeral companion, courtesy of Julie Lanioe, NH Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy
Q. What does a home funeral cost? A. The average professionally-directed funeral now costs $8,343 (NFDA), without casket, vault, cremation or burial costs included. A home funeral costs the price of ice, if used, copies of the death certificate as desired, gas to transport the body, and a rigid container, such as a cardboard box or pine casket, usually totaling under $200. Burial and cremation costs would be added at whatever the going rate is in your cemetery or facility.
Q. What are the benefits of home funerals? A. The many significant benefits are environmental, financial, therapeutic, and spiritual. Families who choose to care for their own report a sense of completion, a feeling of having done their best for those they love, and a stronger connection to their friends and family and community. Having something meaningful to do to help others through a crisis or sorrowful time is usually empowering for all involved. Read inspiring stories about home funerals here.
Q. What are the top reasons families choose home funeral care? A. Top reasons for electing to conduct care of the deceased include, in no particular order:
to take the time to be truly present
to avoid outsourcing the responsibilities they choose to assume themselves
to avoid professionalizing a family rite of passage
to make meaning of the death
to begin healing the family and community
to take environmental responsibility by foregoing invasive and toxic procedures
to make the funeral affordable
to find spiritual connection
to participate more fully in their own lives and in their family life
Q. Who owns the dead? A. In the language of the law, the family member who has the most direct link in the next-of-kin chain has legal custody and control of the body. If unwilling or unable to assume that responsibility, members along the chain as spelled out by state law are imbued with the authority until someone is able to act.
The fact that most families choose to relinquish that partial responsibility by signing a contract with a professional that transfers physical custody does not negate the family’s right to decide what ultimately happens to that body. Funeral directors have no medico-legal authority. The only service they are licensed to perform that a family member cannot is embalming.
Some states require that refrigeration and/or disposition occur within a certain time frame, which usually apply when being handled by a funeral firm, but home funeral families choose in most states how the body is handled, preserved, transported, and disposed of on their own timetable. Even in cases of autopsy (where the ME’s right supersedes the family’s temporarily) and organ donation, the decision remains with the next-of-kin after the process is complete, including having the body brought home. Learn more about home funeral law here.
Q. If a body is not embalmed, what must a family do to care for it? When should the body be buried? A. This is a more complex question than it sounds. Care of the deceased changes depending on whether it was an anticipated death or unanticipated, under what conditions the person died, under what regional weather conditions the period will be subject to, and whether there will be travel involved.
Unembalmed bodies (according to the CDC, CID, WHO and PANO) are not dangerous nor are they more infectious than they were in life. Simple methods of cooling the body such as using dry ice, Techni-ice, an a/c unit, or opening a window in cool weather are more than sufficient. Even without these methods, most bodies can be kept for up to 3 days in a 65 degree room. Bathing the body with simple soap and water to remove the usual surface bacteria will dispense with concerns about smell. The body is then dressed if desired or wrapped in a shroud or blanket, sheet, or quilt.
Removal for final disposition — either burial or cremation — is at the discretion of the family, either themselves or by hiring that service. Some states require that a funeral director file the death certificate or witness a burial, but in most states the family can file any necessary paperwork and make any other additional arrangements themselves, such as calling Social Security or filing obituaries. There is no time limit in most states for burial or cremation unless cause of death requires it, and only a handful of states have mandatory waiting periods before cremation. To learn how to take care of a loved one after death, click here. For more on the legal mandates by state, go here.
Photo courtesy of Jerrigrace Lyons, Final Passages
Photo courtesy of Jerrigrace
Lyons. Final Passages
Saying Goodbye courtesy of Jennifer Downs, Pivot Point
Q. What, other than legal requirements, impede families from exercising their right to care for their own dead? A. Because the funeral industry is a tight-knit community, often crematories, cemeteries, and newspapers refuse to accept bodies or information directly from the family by policy or business practice. Even when families have the right to this according to law, they are still being obstructed from handling the entire process without being forced to hire an intermediary.
Some hospitals and hospices also require removal by a professional without regard for policy compliance with the law. Care facilities and hospitals often have limits on how long a body can be sheltered, forcing the family to hire a funeral director to file the death certificate quickly, especially on holidays and weekends when the local offices are not open, in order to obtain the transport permit needed to remove the body to the home.
The process is becoming more, not less, cumbersome for families with the implementation of state Electronic Death Registration Systems, or EDRS. Funeral directors have a direct link to Vital Statistics software, as do town or city clerks, though they are infrequently well-trained. Some states empower doctors and even state police to file death certificates but few have proved willing. Learn more about EDRS and other legal requirements here.
Q. How many home funerals occur in the US every year? A. Families choosing to do all or part of after death care in the US is on the rise if we measure by interest, but definite figures are unavailable as vital statistics offices do not distinguish between funeral directors and families "acting as their own funeral director" who may sign the death certificate themselves. Some home funeral families hire someone to file death certificates for them and do everything else themselves, so who signs does not provide definitive proof. best we can do is acknowledge the cultural shift from one of fear to one of increasing openness around all things death related.
We do know that more people are interested in supporting families choosing home funerals for their increased intimacy and privacy. Because of that, they are unlikely to report their activity even if there were a medium for doing so. There has always been an uninterrupted faith tradition for Jewish Muslim and Quaker communities, but as more people begin to understand that caring for our own is a fundamental human right regardless of religion, the more they are expressing a longing to go back to simpler ways, though with some new twists. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter funerals — home funeral families take from traditions what has meaning for them and they make up the rest as they go along, sometimes coming up with new traditions in the making.
Regional influence is also a factor in trying to determine how many home funerals occur. Northern California, where the practice has been in effect for a good 20 years and the culture supports it as the norm, has a high volume of family-directed funerals. Appalachian states have reported that the tradition continued underground in small communities as a matter of course, never taking up expensive professional services. Southern Bible belt states have the highest incidence of purchasing full funerals complete with embalming, church services, grave committals, processionals, conventional burials—and the debt to pay for them in what is also the lowest median income areas of the country. New Englanders vary between 70 - 80% no-frills Direct Cremation purchases and burial on rural family property, both with and without hiring a funeral firm. Any guess about who is having home funerals and where is just that — a guess.
Contributing to the uncertainty of counting numbers is the fact the definition of a home funeral varies widely. Keeping a loved one home for an hour or for a week might be considered a home funeral. Hiring a professional to file paperwork or handle transportation only after a three-day vigil is still a home funeral. It comes down to how many families self-identify as home funeral families, and they aren’t required to report it to anyone.
Hospices and hospitals may be aware of the choice to bring or keep a loved one home, but neither is equipped or interested in documenting what happens after the patient is no longer on their service.
NHFA members are educators and individuals interested in ensuring that the right to family-directed home care be protected. They are not necessarily present during other people’s home funerals, as families have the full authority to complete the process without anyone, including guides.
Educators who speak to groups or to individuals over the phone by and large do not know what happens after they have answered questions. It may be years before anyone present has the opportunity or desire to implement what he or she learned.
The NHFA is a nonprofit 501c3 organization committed to supporting home funeral education. The NHFA does not offer certification opportunities. Membership in the NHFA and participation in its activities does not constitute endorsement of any kind.