Iowa Home Funeral Laws

Learn the rules that govern funerals in Iowa.

Updated by , Attorney (University of Arkansas School of Law)

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.

Do You Need a Funeral Director 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.)

Who's Has the Right to Make Funeral Arrangements in Iowa?

Iowa 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:

  • a person you name in a declaration document made before your death
  • your surviving spouse, unless you are legally separated
  • your child, or a majority of your children if you have more than one
  • your parents
  • your grandchild, or a majority of your grandchildren if you have more than one
  • your sibling, or a majority of your siblings if you have more than one
  • your grandparent, or a majority of your grandparents if you have more than one
  • your next of kin
  • a person who knows you and is willing to assume the right and responsibility, or
  • the county medical examiner.

(Iowa Code § 144C.5 (2018).)

Making a declaration. To make a document appointing someone to carry out your final wishes, you must use Iowa's official declaration or a form that is substantially similar to it. Your declaration must be contained in -- or attached to -- a durable power of attorney for health care. You are also required to sign and date the declaration in front of two witnesses or a notary public. If you choose to have your declaration witnessed, neither of the witnesses may be the representative you named to handle your final arrangements. (Iowa Code § 144C.6 (2018).)

For information about making your health care power of attorney, see Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney.

To make a durable power of attorney for health care that automatically includes an official Iowa funeral arrangements declaration, you can use Nolo's Quicken WillMaker.

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.

Must the Body Be Embalmed?

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.

Getting a Death Certificate in Iowa

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 515-281-7689.

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.

Getting a Permit to Transport the Body

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).)

Can You Bury a Body at Home in Iowa?

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.

What About Cremation?

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.

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 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.

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