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 Tennessee.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die. Tennessee does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, Tennessee Code § 68-3-502, which permits the “funeral director, or person acting as funeral director” to file the death certificate.)
Tennessee 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 advance health care directive or durable power of attorney for health care, 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 Tennessee.
Tennessee 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. Tennessee law requires you to file the death certificate with the office of vital records within five days after the death and before final disposition. (Tennessee Code § 68-3-502.)
The deceased person’s doctor or the medical examiner must supply the date, time, and cause of death and present the death certificate to you within 48 hours after the death for completion and filing. (Tennessee Code § 68-3-502.)
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.
The deceased person’s doctor or the medical examiner will grant permission to move the body to prepare it for final disposition. (Tennessee Code § 68-3-507.) For example, if someone dies outside the home, you would need this authorization before bringing 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.
There are no state laws in Tennessee 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. You can most likely hold a home burial if you live in a rural area.
Tennessee state law protects family burial grounds from disturbance or development, as long as the deed to the property indicates the presence of gravesites. (Tennessee Code § 46-8-103.)
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 Tennessee, no special cremation permit is necessary. (See Tennessee Code § § 68-3-102 and 68-3-507.)
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Tennessee.
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.