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.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die. The District of Columbia does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, D.C. Code § 7-211 (2018), which allows the “funeral director or person acting as such” to file the death certificate.)
District of Columbia law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person’s body and funeral services. 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 Making Funeral Arrangements in the District of Columbia.
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 (2018).)
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.
If you will not be using a funeral director to carry out final arrangements, you must complete and file the death certificate yourself. District of Columbia law requires you to file the death certificate with the local vital records office within five days of the death and before you dispose of the remains. (D.C. Code § 7-211 (2018).)
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 § 7-211 (2018).)
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 to you 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. You may be able to file the death certificate and get certified copies 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.
You must obtain permission from the medical examiner or the doctor who signs the death certificate before moving the body to prepare it for final disposition. (D. C. Code § 7-214 (2018).) For example, if someone dies outside the home, this authorization would be necessary to bring the body home for care. Or, if someone dies at home, permission is necessary to move the body to a location away from home for burial or cremation.
In the District of Columbia, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. (D.C. Code § 7-121 (2018).) 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.
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. A medical examiner must issue a permit before a body can be cremated, but there are no laws in D.C. restricting the disposition of the ashes. (D.C. Municipal Regulations § 29-2815 (2018).)
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.