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 (2018), 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 goes first to any person named by the deceased person in a signed, notarized document, and after that to deceased person’s next of kin.
To learn the rules and the exact order of priority, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Virginia.
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 (2018).)
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 (2018).)
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.