If you are interested in holding a home funeral for a loved one who has died, you’ll need to be aware of the laws that apply. Here is an overview of the rules that govern home funerals in the District of Columbia.
By law, a licensed funeral director must oversee the final disposition of a body in D.C. For example, state law requires that the "funeral director who first assumes custody of a dead body" file the death certificate. (See D.C. Code § 7-231.12 (2019).)
Although a funeral director must carry out disposition arrangements, District of Columbia law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person’s body and funeral services. This right and responsibility goes to the following people, in order:
D.C. Code § 3-413 (2019).)
Making your own document. To make a valid document appointing someone to carry out your final wishes, you need only write down what you want, then sign and date your document. (D.C. Code § 3-413 (b) and (c) (2019).)
Making a durable power of attorney. One smart way to name your representative is to complete a durable power of attorney for health care naming a health care agent. In your document, you can give your agent explicit power to carry out your final arrangements. (You must make this authority clear in your power of attorney document; otherwise your agent’s decision-making power ends upon your death.) This saves the trouble of making separate documents for health care decisions and final wishes.
For information about making a power of attorney, see Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney.
Note that, if you are in the military, you may name the person who will carry out your final wishes in the Record of Emergency Data provided by the Department of Defense.
Who pays for your funeral arrangements? You can either pay for your plans before you die, or you can set aside money for your survivors to use for this purpose. If you don’t do either of these things, and there’s not enough money in your estate to pay for funeral goods and services, your survivors must cover the costs.
The District of Columbia has no embalming requirements, but final disposition of the body must occur within one week after death. (D.C. Code § 43-120 (2019).)
Refrigeration or dry ice can usually preserve a body for a short time. There are resources available to help you learn to prepare a body at home for burial or cremation. The website of the National Home Funeral Alliance is a good place to start.
If the person died of a contagious disease, you should consult a doctor.
District of Columbia law requires the funeral director to electronically submit a report of death to the local vital records office within five days of the death and before you dispose of the remains. (D.C. Code § 7-231.12 (2019).)
The deceased person’s doctor, the chief medical officer of the institution where the person died, or another approved medical provider must complete the medical portion of the death certificate within 48 hours. (D.C. Code § 7-231.12 (2019).)
The District of Columbia now uses an electronic death registration system, but you can still obtain paper death certificates from the attending physician or a medical examiner. This person will supply the date, time, and cause of death before returning the certificate for completion and filing.
You will need certified copies of the death certificate to carry out other tasks after the death, such as arranging for the disposition of the body and transferring the deceased person’s property to inheritors. The funeral director who files the death certificate should be able to order copies for you.
After filing the death certificate, the funeral director will obtain the necessary permits for transporting the body, and for burial or cremation. D. C. Code § 7-231-17 (2019).)
In the District of Columbia, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. (D.C. Code § 43-121 (2019).) Because of D.C.’s urban environment, home burial -- which would require establishing a new family cemetery -- probably won’t be possible. For more on D.C.’s cemetery and burial laws, see Title 43 of the D.C. Code.
The funeral director will need to obtain a permit before transporting the body. Additionally, the funeral director must obtain a separate permit from the medical examiner before a body can be cremated. D. C. Code § 7-231-17 (2019).) However, there are no laws in D.C. restricting the disposition of the ashes. (D.C. Municipal Regulations § 29-2815 (2019).)
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial & Cremation Laws in the District of Columbia.
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 the process. You can find local guides, consultants, and other resources by visiting the National Home Funeral Alliance website. The book Final Rights, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson, also offers extensive information on the subject.
For more information about final arrangements and documenting your final wishes in advance, see Nolo’s section on Getting Your Affairs in Order.