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 Massachusetts.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one's body at home after they die. Massachusetts does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, Massachusetts General Laws 46 § 9 (2018), which allows the medical provider who signs the death certificate to return it to "an undertaker or other authorized person or a member of the family of the deceased" for filing.)
Massachusetts 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:
Appointing your decision maker. To name someone to carry out your final wishes, you need only write down what you want and sign the document in front of a witness. (239 C.M.R. § 3.09(b).) You can use any form you like, but one smart method is to make a Massachusetts health care proxy. In your proxy document, you can give your health care agent explicit power to carry out your final arrangements. This saves the trouble of making separate documents for health care decisions and final wishes.
For information about making a health care proxy, see Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney.
To make a Massachusetts health care proxy that appoints your agent to carry out your final plans, 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.
Massachusetts has no embalming requirements, nor does state law specify a time frame within which you must dispose of the remains.
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. Massachusetts law requires you to register the death with the local board of health within five days of the death. (Massachusetts General Laws 46 § 6 (2018).)
The deceased person's doctor or the medical examiner must "immediately" supply and complete the medical portion of the death certificate. (Massachusetts General Laws 46 § 9 (2018).)
Massachusetts now uses an electronic death registration system for all deaths occurring in the state. Families who choose not to use a funeral director must work directly with the medical provider who signs the death certificate, the city or town clerk, and the burial agent to complete and file the electronic death certificate. For more information on this process, see the website of the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services.
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.
In Massachusetts, you must obtain a burial permit from the local board of health before removing the body from the place of death and before final disposition. (Massachusetts General Laws 114 § 45 (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.
The cemetery manager, crematory manager, or other person in charge of final disposition must sign and file the permit with the board of health after disposal of the remains. (Massachusetts General Laws 114 § 47 (2018).)
It may be possible to bury a body on private property in Massachusetts, but you should check with the town board of health before burying a body on private land or establishing a family cemetery. (See Massachusetts General Laws 114 § 34 (2018).)
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. In Massachusetts, the medical examiner must grant permission before a body can be cremated. Furthermore, there is a required waiting period of 48 hours before cremation may occur, unless the person died of a "contagious or infectious disease." (Massachusetts General Laws 114 § 44 (2018).)
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Massachusetts.
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.