“Care of the body after death engages our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits in a compassionate way and usually helps to facilitate healthy grief processes.” —Donna Belk, Undertaken With Love
From Families First: Home Funerals and the National Home Funeral Alliance
by Lee Webster
The Fundamental Premise: Home Funerals are Family-Centered At the root of the home funeral movement is the primal need—and right—of families to care for their own dead. The close network of individuals who make up their social constellation, whether related by blood or by experience, will comprise the community of care that will bear witness and form the experience, led by the legally appointed next-of-kin or designated agent. This community has an important job to do in supporting the family who is, to all intents and purposes, in charge from the moment of death to disposition.
“A home funeral happens when a loved one is cared for at home or sacred space after death, giving family and friends time to prepare the body, file legal paperwork, and gather and grieve in private. Home funerals can be held at the family home or not. Some nursing homes, church community care groups and funeral homes may allow the family to care for the deceased after death. The emphasis is on minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally friendly care of the body. Support and assistance to carry out after-death care may come from home funeral educators or guides, but their goal is to facilitate maximum involvement of the family in charge of the funeral process, and their social network.” —From NHFA Code of Ethics, Conduct and Practice
Home funerals are an organic response to the intimate process and aftermath of death, and are as different as the people whose lives they honor. Once families are confident that they are acting within the law, their imaginations and hearts become their guide in how to best proceed. The missing piece is often the practical how-to of providing care: how to process paperwork, how to best care for the body, how to make arrangements for services and disposition. With the right tools, families innately sense what is needed next: ways to bring meaning to the experience by all within the larger community.
“…[T]hose who have participated in home funerals confirm their healing benefits…With each passing year, more people choose to reconnect with this sacred tradition and welcome the funeral back into the intimacy of the home.
“Although family-directed home funerals take more effort to arrange and carry out, many families feel they are more meaningful and healing than those arranged for them by a funeral director. A home funeral can help people gently integrate the death into their lives…
“A home funeral offers mourners a sense of control and helps them feel useful. It also enables families to create the ambience, to decide how the body is to be treated, to choose—without pressure—how to facilitate the most meaningful gathering for their loved one’s farewell…
“Ultimately, there is no one right way to hold a funeral. Every family is unique, and there are many options available to reflect that individuality. The family-directed home funeral offers a final, loving, hands-on opportunity to honor our dead and send them on their way–in their home, surrounded by the people who love them.” —From Undertaken With Love
The prime directive of home funeral guidance is this: home funerals are created and conducted by and for families.
Home funeral guides empower and educate families to conduct after-death care themselves as their state law allows. They may charge for educational and consultative services only; all voluntary services are performed free of charge and at the request of the family.
Home funeral guides do not arrange funerals; they support the family in their own efforts to plan and make connections to goods and services.
Photo courtesy of Esmerelda Kent, Kinkaraco Shrouds
Red Hat Funeral, courtesy of Ed Bixby, Steelmantown Natural Preserve
Why Home Funerals Matter The rapid rise in family-directed after-death care in America is signaling a cultural shift that may change the course of funeral practices forever. For the past century, professionals have shouldered the care that many willingly sought at the outset, and others subsequently—and falsely—assumed was legally required. They are often surprised to learn that it is their right to exercise and simultaneously dismayed at learning that it is their right to lose if we are not diligent in its protection.
An increasingly savvy public is looking for less invasive, less expensive, and less environmentally damaging ways to conduct funerals, and in the process, is rediscovering the right and privilege to care for their own dead at home that was there all along. And they are waking up to this opportunity to engage in this life passage in a new and empowering way.
But home funeral families and advocates contend that it’s not just the right to care for our own dead that we are fighting for, to bathe them, to bury them. We are seeking the kinship and meaning that doing these simple, mindful things brings us. And the home funeral experience is, first and foremost, mindful. Instead of handing off the inconvenient responsibilities and uncomfortable details, we immerse ourselves in them—we want to be fully present with and for our loved ones, living and dead; we choose deliberately to not let this tender time speed by at a distance, in a blur.
A death in our lives requires reorganization. Just as the dying one is actively detaching, it’s the job of everyone who has been on this journey with the dying to re-form our own attachments, and to find a way to make meaning as we do so. As the dying person is disengaging from his or her community, the community itself is rebuilding by connecting intimately with those who matter most.
We believe that the more genuine, more invested, more present we are, the more authentic our personal and community experience will be. We see family-led after-death care in all its potential expressions as a conduit for clarity and shared experience at the deepest level—at a time when we are as close to mortality and mystery and human connection as we can possibly fathom.
A Word About Social Justice and Home Funerals The right to care or our own dead is deeply rooted in common human experience, and American constitutional family and privacy law. We, as individuals and as members of families, choose who we will marry, where we go to school, what type of medical care we wish to obtain, how we raise our children, and the list of personal choice goes on.
Inherent in the presumption of these family rights is the right to care for our own dead without interference or restriction. Yet, we are in a position to consider that innate right threatened by laws at the state level that curtail the ability of families.
Those that claim public health and safety as a reason for imposing restrictive laws are misled. These laws do not serve the interests of the country or its citizens. It is a well-established fact that the WHO, CDC, CID, and PAHO all agree that dead bodies do not pose increased health risks.
Compelling families to hire professionals to hire someone to supervise doing something the state has allowed one to do is unconstitutional. Further, restrictive laws have often force families to incur significant unwanted and unnecessary expenses, creating unnecessary hardship.
The truth is that even if most American families continue to choose to hire out the care of their deceased loved ones, the preservation of our rights is crucial to maintaining our national identity. Laws that restrict citizens from exercising fundamental rights or set limits, either high or low, that place undue burdens on select populations damage the social conscience and cultural fabric of our lives.
Home funerals in this sense present an opportunity to level the playing field. If death is the great equalizer, then home funerals are the opportunity to contribute with the best of our humanity, open to all.
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.