Mission The National Home Funeral Alliance’s mission is to educate the public regarding their natural and legal rights to care for their own deceased loved ones. The primary focus of this document is to provide guidelines and give encouragement to those who choose to care for their own dead. The NHFA believes that it is one’s privilege and responsibility to take charge when it comes to managing death care within our own communities. In this document we can't offer every instruction for every circumstance, nor can we make any promises, other than this: a home funeral might be the best and hardest thing you'll ever do. Oftentimes, we must ﬁgure it out as we go along. If you know the basics and have the desire to create a truly special and transformative event, you can do it. What is a Home Funeral? A traditional home funeral, also known as family directed after-death care:
is a family centered response to death;
allows time to honor the life of the departed and may involve:
family doing the necessary paperwork
making caskets, urns, shrouds, etc.
disposition of the body
having them lay in honor in the home for one, two or three days
Why have a Home Funeral?
emphasizes the family maintaining control in the days following a death
offers a beautiful and healing experience for loved ones
is often more affordable and respectful to the environment than contemporary funeral industry-led funerals
Home Funerals —Yesterday and Today People from all cultures have been caring for their dead regardless of the climate, type of illness, age of deceased, or traumatic circumstance surrounding the death for millennia. In the United States, this practice continued until the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it has become a common belief that individuals are no longer able to care for their own deceased loved ones and hired funeral professionals must provide the care. This is not the case. At present time, families can take care of everything that is necessary on their own without hiring a funeral director in 41 states. In the other nine states (NY, NJ, NE, IL, FL, LA, MI, IN, CT, IA), the law impedes families from completing all tasks and may require hiring a funeral director to provide speciﬁc services. These usually include ﬁlling out paperwork and transportation, but hands-on care is still an option for families if that is desired. Regardless of where you live, you have the right to provide much, if not all, of the care necessary. Other than the legal requirements in your region, there is no right or wrong way to do things. Caring for the body of a loved one is safe and possible.
Claire Turnham of Only With Love demonstrating how to wrap a shroud
Claire Turnham's students learning how to properly carry
How to Care for the Body
How to Care for the Body Care of the body engages our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits in a compassionate fashion and usually helps to facilitate healthy grief processes. There is no right or wrong way. The purpose of preparing the body is to prevent any sights and odors that the family/community might wish to avoid during the vigil, and as a symbolic gesture of loving, hands-on care that is usually the last physical contact the family has with the deceased.
The idea of providing body care may be uncomfortable for many people. Because we have become so culturally alienated from caring for our dead, this is understandable. Those who do elect to participate in body care often see their fears disappear. Rather than the mysterious and technically challenging undertaking it is made out to be, body care, like many aspects of home-based post-death care, is a simple, practical task that might be compared to caring for an infant or bed bound patient.
Eyes — If the eyes remain open after death and you wish that they be closed, gently bring lids down over eyes and place small bags of rice or sand (or other substance that can provide a little weight) over the eyes and keep in place until lids remain closed. This usually takes a couple hours.
Mouth — If the mouth is open and you wish it to be closed, use a necktie or long thin piece of non-slippery material (an ace bandage works well), bring it under the jaw and tie a knot on top of the head. A second person is necessary in order for the mouth to stay closed while the knot is being tied. Keep in place until mouth remains closed without a tie. The time varies on this, though it usually takes 1-2 hours. In some cases, it may be impossible to completely close the mouth in this way.
Rigor mortis (stiffening of the joints and muscles) — generally sets in within the ﬁrst few hours, so having the body bathed and dressed soon after death is recommended. However, if rigor mortis has already set in by time bathing occurs (or if the body, prior to death was already stiff), all of the above is possible but may be slightly more challenging. In this situation, an option for dressing the deceased (if regular dressing proves to be too difﬁcult) is to cut the garment(s) up the back and tuck the sides under the body. Sometimes massaging joints will help loosen them enough to make dressing easier.
Bathing and Dressing The bathing of the deceased can be an elaborate ritual using essential oils, prayers, candles, music or whatever is desired or it can be a simple act using soap and water. It can take place on a bed or a table, indoors or outdoors. It is important to remember that once the bathing is complete the body will need to be carried to wherever it will be while laying in honor. If prior to death the person was bathed thoroughly, minimal bathing may be necessary.
Bathing area — If the bath occurs on a bed or table, cover the area with a plastic sheet or incontinence pads. Items you need for bathing and dressing may include:
fresh sheets and pillowcases
Essential areas to be washed Genital and rectal areas are washed well due to the fact that after a death has occurred the bladder and intestines relax and urine and feces can be excreted. Wash and dry these areas thoroughly. We recommend putting on an adult diaper after washing.
Open wounds — Clean and bandage as in life.
Skin folds and creases where skin is touching skin — Wash and dry well.
Mouth hygiene — Thorough oral care should be done. This may need to be repeated at the end of the bath after the body has been turned back and forth several times.
Wash from head to toe (back, front and sides)
Provide nail care
Once bathing is complete, clear area of wet items and replace with clean, dry sheets if staying in place.
Condition of the body — The appearance of the body may change slightly over time. Whether the vigil is 12 hours or 3 days, you will probably notice subtle changes, such as increased paleness, facial changes, and rigor mortis (as stated above). The amount of change largely depends on many factors, including: condition of the body prior to death, cause of death, whether or not the body was autopsied, and temperature of body and environment.
Cooling the body — If keeping the body at home for less than 24 hours, turning on the air conditioner or opening windows to let cold air in may sufﬁce. However, if the home funeral is to last for a number of days, other means may be necessary to keep the body cool in order to slow down the process of decomposition. Embalming is not required. Click here for more information about cooling techniques.
Learning logistics from Olivia Bareham, Sacred Crossings
Photo courtesy of Olivia Bareham, Sacred Crossings
Q&As for Body Care
Is a home funeral the right option for you? Here are some questions that will help you better gauge whether or not a home funeral is your best choice. Q. Who makes these decisions? A. It’s your choice. Legally, custody and control rest in the hands of the closest of kin as defined by your state law. Our loved one’s remains are not the property of any commercial or governmental entity. Families have been caring for their own for thousands of years. With this information and support, you and your loved ones can have control over this profound moment in your family’s life and receive enormous personal beneﬁts that come with making these important decisions for yourselves. Q. How would your loved one want his or her body cared for? A. This may inform how you decide to move forward. By having such information in writing in an advanced directive or other such document you can feel assured that you are acting on a loved one’s known wishes. Many bereaved people take great comfort and pride in fulﬁlling their loved ones’ last wishes. Q. What are the regulations in your region? A. It is important that you learn the laws of your state regarding caring for your own. You can obtain this information from a local Funeral Consumers Alliance affiliate, by downloading your state’s chapter from the book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, or by obtaining a brochure specific to your state from the Funeral Ethics Organization (see Resources). More information can be found in the Resources section at the end of this document. You should know which documents you need and the timeline related to each. These include the death certiﬁcate, and transport/burial permit/authorization to cremate. The Ofﬁce of Vital Statistics, Ofﬁce of Public Health or the County Registrar in your area should be able to tell you where to obtain such documents. Keep in mind when contacting these ofﬁces that the person you speak with may not know the laws regarding home funerals, so be prepared! Q. What’s your plan? A. If time permits, having a plan will help you decide what aspects you would like to do yourself and what you would like others, including funeral directors, to do. Preplanning will allow for others, directly or indirectly involved, to be aware of your intentions and have time to ask questions. Here is a short list of some of the people who may need to know your plan and with whom you will want to coordinate aspects of after-death care.
Family and friends
Medical examiner (ME)
Registry/permit staff/Town Clerk
Bereavement Support providers
Q. Who is available to help? A. Make a list of tasks that will be needed and see if you have a group of people available to help you carry them out. It helps to have a team. Some prefer to hire a funeral director to take care of such things as the paperwork or the transportation, while others prefer to do it all themselves. Some of the tasks are as follows:
Body care — (see Caring for the Body above)
Moving/transporting deceased — Keep in mind that you will need strong individuals able to lift and carry the body safely. Also, you need to know the regulations regarding how a body can be transported (e.g., open or closed vehicle, rigid container, simple cover).
Paperwork — Obtain it, ﬁll it out and deliver it to the designated ofﬁce in a timely fashion. Get extra copies of the death certiﬁcate for later use. Copies will be needed for Military/Vet Beneﬁts, banks, Social Security Beneﬁts, insurance, credit cards and other purposes.
Make disposition arrangements — Make sure that the cemetery or crematorium will accept a body delivered by a family. If you choose to use the services of a funeral director, discuss what you would like for them to do ahead of time. Ask the funeral director for a General Price List (GPL). They should not force you to purchase more than you require or desire, and they should be willing to work with you. If the deceased has a pacemaker and is to be cremated, the pacemaker must be removed prior to cremation.
Make or purchase casket, urn or shroud — Ask the crematory or cemetery about their container dimension and materials requirements.
Arrange servicesif a formal or religious service is desired — Contact clergy or another celebrant or invent a ritual yourself. Do you want to have a service in a church or a facility other than your home?
Notify the community — Call friends, family, co-workers. Contact newspapers if obituaries or memorial notices are desired.
Create a memorial — Is there some kind of ongoing legacy to be organized? Donating a park bench, implementing a scholarship, or some other meaningful legacy?
Some of these tasks may not be pertinent to your situation, but knowing which ones are and who will be responsible for them in advance can be extremely beneﬁcial. Q. What to do at the time of death? A.If the death was unanticipated, the police or medical examiner’s ofﬁce must be notiﬁed. Be sure to have Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) information available if Emergency Medical Services (EMS), police or medical examiner is sent out. If death was expected and the person was on hospice, follow the procedures given you by hospice staff. Some hospices require a nurse or doctor to pronounce the time of death; others request that the family report the time. In this situation, there is no emergency that needs to be attended to. Instead of rushing to the phone, you may take time to sit and be present. Once all calls have been made, the body has been released by the medical examiner’s ofﬁce (if ME is involved) and has been brought home from the hospital, nursing home, ME’s ofﬁce or other facility, the home funeral (aka home vigil) can begin. Q. What kind of ritual and/or ceremony should be performed? A. The choice is yours. Families may choose rituals that have special meaning for them, and can include special words, poems, prayers, chants, and/or activities like singing, painting a casket, or meditation. For some, the whole process of caring for the deceased becomes a ritual; for some, a designated time is set aside for a ceremony; while for others, a service in a church or other house of worship is arranged. Q. What are the choices for final disposition? A. Burial in cemeteries and cremation are the most common practices for ﬁnal disposition. Depending on where you live and the regulations in your area, other alternatives such as burial at sea or natural burial on your own land (aka home burial), outdoor pyre, alkaline hydrolysis (a water-based chemical process for decomposition), body composting, body donation to medical or forensic facility, promession (human remain disposal by freeze drying), or using cremated remains in various ways may be possible. If choosing to have a cemetery burial or a cremation, knowing whether or not a cemetery or crematorium will accept a body directly from a family should be found out sooner than later. Be sure to inquire about cost and inform crematoriums if deceased has a pacemaker. Once arrangements for the ﬁnal disposition are settled, initiate a plan for transportation of the body. In most states, a family can transport the deceased with the necessary permit and a rigid container. Some states require the casket be transported in an enclosed space. Note:the family may have already transported the body from place of death to another location.
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.