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 Pennsylvania.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die. Pennsylvania does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, 35 Pennsylvania Statutes § 450.504 (2018), which permits a “funeral director or the person in charge of interment” to file the death certificate.)
Pennsylvania law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person’s body and funeral services. This right goes first to any person named by the deceased person in “an explicit and sincere expression, either verbal or written,” 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 Pennsylvania.
Embalming is almost never required. In Pennsylvania, a body must be embalmed, refrigerated, or placed in a sealed container if disposition will not occur within 24 hours after death. (49 Pennsylvania Administrative Code § 13.201 (2018).)
Furthermore, if the death was due to a noncontagious disease and the body will be transported by common carrier -- such as an airplane or train -- and it will not reach its destination within 24 hours after death, the body must be embalmed or placed in a “metal or metal-lined, hermetically sealed container.” (28 Pennsylvania Administrative Code § 1.23 (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. Pennsylvania law requires you to file the death certificate with the state or local registrar of vital statistics within four days after the death and before final disposition. (35 Pennsylvania Statutes §§ 450.501 and 450.504 (2018).)
The deceased person’s doctor, certified nurse practitioner, or the coroner will complete the medical portion of the death certificate, which contains such information as date, time, and cause of death. You will then need to fill in the rest of the information and file the death certificate. (35 Pennsylvania Statutes § 450.502 (2018).) For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Bureau of Health Statistics.
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.
After the death certificate has been filed, the registrar will issue a “permit for disposal.” This permit will allow you to move the body for purposes of burial or cremation. (35 Pennsylvania Statutes § 450.504 (2018).)
There are no state laws in Pennsylvania prohibiting home burial, but local governments may have rules governing private burials. Before burying a body on private property or establishing a family cemetery, you should check with the county or town clerk for any zoning laws you must follow.
Pennsylvania law prohibits burials on any land that drains into a stream supplying water to a city, unless the burial ground sits at least one mile from the city. (9 Pennsylvania Statutes § 10 (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 Pennsylvania, the deceased person’s doctor or the coroner will issue and sign a form containing the deceased person’s identifying information and details of the cremation. This form must also be signed by the crematory operator. You will then need to file the form with the local department of health, which will issue the cremation permit. (35 Pennsylvania Statutes §§ 1121 and 1122 (2018).)
There is a required waiting period of 24 hours before cremation may occur. (49 Pennsylvania Administrative Code § 13.212 (2018).)
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Pennsylvania.
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.