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 Washington.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die. Washington does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, R.C.W. § 70.58.170, which permits the “funeral director or person having the right to control the disposition of the human remains” to file the death certificate.)
Washington law determines who can make decisions about funerals and body disposition -- that is, burial or cremation -- after someone dies. This right and responsibility goes to the following people, in order:
(R.C.W. § 68.50.160(3) (2018).)
How to appoint an agent. To name someone to carry out your funeral arrangements, you must write down what you want, then date and sign your document in front of a witness. (R.C.W. § 68.50.160(3)(b).) You should ask the witness to sign the document, too.
Naming your agent in a durable power of attorney for health care. One smart way to appoint a representative is to make a power of attorney naming a health care agent. In your document, you can give your agent explicit power to carry out your final arrangements. (You must make this authority clear in the power of attorney document; otherwise your agent’s decision-making power ends when you die.) This saves the trouble of making separate documents for final arrangements and health care decisions.
For information about making a durable power of attorney for health care, see Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney.
To make a Washington health care power of attorney that appoints your health care agent to carry out your final plans, you can use Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker & Trust software.
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. If you are using a funeral director, the funeral director must embalm or refrigerate the body until the time of burial or cremation. However, a body may not be embalmed without the authorization of the person having the right to control disposition. The funeral director must inform family members or the representative of the deceased that embalming is not required by state law, unless the state board of health determines embalming is necessary. (R.C.W. § 18.39.215.)
If you are not using a funeral director, Washington regulations permit “washing, anointing, clothing, praying over, reading to, singing to, sitting with, guarding, viewing, or otherwise accompanying the deceased” for up to 24 hours, or as otherwise approved by a local health officer. (Washington Administrative Code § 246-500-030.)
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. Washington law requires you to file the death certificate with the local registrar within three business days after the death and before final disposition. (R.C.W. § 70.58.160.)
The deceased person’s doctor, physician’s assistant, advanced registered nurse practitioner, or the medical examiner must supply the date, time, and cause of death and present the death certificate to you within two business days after receiving it so you can complete the certificate and file it on time. (R.C.W. § 70.58.170.)
Washington has implemented an electronic system for registering deaths, but you can still file a paper death certificate. You can obtain a blank death certificate and guidance from the local health department.
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 local registrar will issue a burial-transit permit that allows you to move the body for purposes of burial or cremation. You must obtain this permit within three business days after the death and before final disposition. (R.C.W. § 70.58.230.)
In Washington, all bodies must be buried in established cemeteries, which must be run by cemetery corporations. You can find all the rules governing cemeteries in Chapter 68.20 of the Revised Code of Washington.
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 Washington, the burial-transit permit also authorizes cremation. (R.C.W. § 70.58.230.) However, some counties in Washington require local cremation permits. Be sure to check with the local health department or medical examiner to find out whether your county requires additional authorization.
For more information about cremation, including information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Washington.
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.