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 Virginia.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one's body at home after they die. Virginia does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, Virginia Code § 32.1-263 (2020), which permits a "licensed funeral director, funeral service licensee, office of the state anatomical program, or next of kin" to file the death certificate.)
Virginia law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person's body and funeral services. This right and responsibility goes either to a person you name in a signed, notarized document or your next of kin. (Virginia Code § § 54.1-2825 and 54.1-2807(B) (2018).) "Next of kin" includes the following people:
(See Virginia Code § 54.1-2800 (2018).)
In the absence of any of these relatives, a designation in your signed, notarized document, or a personal guardian who has been appointed over you, any other person aged 18 or older who can provide positive identification of you and is willing to pay for the costs of your final arrangements can be given this power. (See Virginia Code § 54.1-2807.02 (2018).)
If your next of kin disagree about your final arrangements, they must go to court to resolve their dispute. (Virginia Code § 54.1-2807.01.) To avoid such an outcome, it's wise to name your representative in advance.
How to appoint a representative. To name someone to carry out your funeral arrangements, you must write down what you want, then sign your document in front of a notary public. Before taking action under the document, the representative you name must sign it, too.
For more information about making an advance directive in Virginia, see Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney.
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.
Embalming is almost never required. Virginia law requires a body to be embalmed or refrigerated only if final disposition will not occur within 48 hours. A body may not be embalmed without the express permission of the next of kin or a court order. (Virginia Code § 54.1-2811.1 (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. Virginia law requires you to file the death certificate with the local registrar within three days after the death and before final disposition or removal of the body from the state. (Virginia Code § 32.1-263 (2020).)
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 24 hours of the death so you can complete the certificate and file it on time. (Virginia Code § 32.1-263 (2020).)
Virginia now uses an electronic death registration system, but you can still file a paper death certificate. The medical certifier will electronically complete the medical portion of the death certificate and print it for you. You will then need to fill in the section for personal information and file the death certificate.
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.
Unlike many other states, you do not need a special permit to move a body in Virginia, as long as final disposition will occur within the state. However, if you plan to remove the body from the state for final disposition, you must obtain an "out-of-state transit permit" from the local registrar after filing the death certificate. (Virginia Code § 32.1-265 (2018).)
There are no state laws in Virginia 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.
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 Virginia, you must obtain a permit from the medical examiner before cremation may occur. (Virginia Code § 32.1-309.3 (2018).)
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Virginia.
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.