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 Iowa.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die. Iowa does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, Iowa Code § 156.2 (2018), which excludes “persons who, without compensation, bury their own dead” from the laws and regulations governing funeral directors.)
Iowa law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person’s body and funeral services. This right goes first to a person named by the deceased person before 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 Iowa.
Embalming is almost never required. In Iowa, a body must be embalmed only if disposition will not occur within 72 hours after death, or within 24 hours of taking possession of the body if the remains were in the custody of someone else -- whichever is longer. However, if the body is refrigerated and kept at a temperature between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be held for three additional days without embalming. (See Iowa Administrative Code 645-100.6(3) (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. Iowa law requires you to file the death certificate with the county registrar within three days of the death and before final disposition. (Iowa Code § 144.26 (2018).)
The deceased person’s doctor, physician’s assistant, advanced registered nurse practitioner, or a medical examiner must complete the medical portion of the death certificate within 72 hours. (Iowa Code § 144.28 (2018).) The medical certification contains such information as the date, time, and cause of death.
Iowa now uses an electronic death registration system, but you can still use a paper death certificate. You can obtain a death certificate worksheet and guidance from the Iowa Bureau of Health Statistics by calling 515-281-4944.
You will need certified copies of the death certificate to carry out certain 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 a burial transit permit from a medical examiner, funeral director, or the state registrar before removing the body from the place of death to prepare it for final disposition. (Iowa Code § 144.32 (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.
Iowa statutes prohibit anyone other than a funeral director from obtaining a burial transit permit when the deceased person’s cause of death “is or is suspected to be a communicable disease.” (Iowa Code § 144.32 (2018).)
There are no state laws in Iowa prohibiting home burial, but local governments may have rules governing private burials. Before burying a body on private land or establishing a family cemetery, you should check with the county or town clerk for any zoning laws you must follow.
In Iowa, you are required to use a funeral director to arrange cremation -- crematories will not accept a body directly from the family. (Iowa Administrative Code 645-100.10(2) (2018).) Furthermore, a medical examiner must issue a cremation permit before a body can be cremated. (Iowa Code § 331.805 (2018).)
Iowa regulations state that scattering of ashes is subject to any local ordinances or applicable cemetery rules. You’re also prohibited from disposing of cremated remains on private or public property without first obtaining the owner’s permission. (Iowa Administrative Code 641-97.13(3) (2018).)
For more information about cremation, including more information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Iowa.
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.