There was a time when most funerals were held at home. Though it’s no longer the norm, some people still prefer the intimacy and practicality of caring for their own dead, preferring to avoid the complications and costs of professional funeral services.
Unfortunately, because it’s now common for industry professionals to take care of most or all aspects of funerals and body disposition, it can be difficult for those who want to take a different path to know where to begin.
If you’re interested in handling final arrangements at home, you’ll need to be aware of the laws that apply. The specifics can vary greatly from state to state, but here is an overview of the primary issues.
Do You Need a Funeral Director?
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die, and most states don’t require you to use a licensed funeral director for final arrangements. The states that do mandate a funeral director’s involvement -- from signing the death certificate to overseeing burial or cremation -- include Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Utah.
Who’s In Charge of Body Disposition and Funeral Arrangements?
Your state’s law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person’s body and funeral services. Usually, this right goes first to the deceased person, if they wrote down instructions before their death, and after that to family members in an established order.
To learn the rules and the exact order of priority, see Planning and Paying for a Funeral in Your State.
Must the Body Be Embalmed?
Embalming is almost never required. In some states, a body must be embalmed or refrigerated if final disposition will not occur within a specified time -- such as 24 or 48 hours. And sometimes embalming is required if a body is to be transported out of state or by a common carrier -- such as by plane or train.
When a body is not embalmed, refrigeration or dry ice can usually preserve a body for a short time. There are publications available to help you learn to prepare a body at home for burial or cremation. One such manual, called Undertaken With Love, is available as a free download from the Home Funeral Directory website.
If the person died of a contagious disease, you should consult a doctor.
Getting a Death Certificate
If you will not be using a funeral director, you must complete and file the death certificate yourself. State law usually sets out the number of days within which the death certificate must be filed.
Usually, a doctor or other medical professional must complete the medical certification portion of the death certificate, including details such as the date, time, and cause of death.
You will need certified copies of the death certificate to carry out other tasks after the death, such as getting a permit to transport the body to the place of burial or cremation and transferring property to inheritors. You may be able to file the death certificate and get certified copies on the same day. If not, you will have to make a return trip to pick up the copies. Be prepared to pay a small fee for each copy.
For help with the death certificate, contact your state or local office of vital records. (This office is often part of the health department.)
Getting a Permit to Transport the Body
In most states, you must obtain a permit before disposing of human remains. This permit is often called a disposition permit or burial permit. To find out what permits are required in your state, contact the state or local office of vital records.
Can You Bury a Body at Home?
Many states have no laws prohibiting home burial. In other states, the law requires bodies to be buried only in established cemeteries. In those states, it may be possible to establish a family cemetery on your land, particularly if you live in a rural area.
In all cases, you should check local zoning laws and find out whether there are other requirements that apply. Some states require family cemeteries to be registered with the county before a burial can occur.
What About Cremation?
Some crematories require that you use a funeral director to arrange cremation. If you don’t want to use a funeral director, make sure the crematory is willing to accept the body directly from the family.
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see the website of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Getting Help With Home Funerals
Even the most staunch home funeral advocates know that learning to care for one’s own dead can be difficult, especially during a time of grief. If you need help, there are people available to coach you through this process. You can find local guides, consultants, and other resources by visiting the Home Funeral Directory website. The book Final Rights, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson, also offers extensive information on the subject, including a state-by-state overview.
For more information about final arrangements and documenting your final wishes in advance, see Nolo’s section on Getting Your Affairs in Order.
If your state is listed below, you can click the link to learn more about the laws in your state.