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.)
In Washington, the “the right to control the disposition of the human remains” goes to the following people, in order:
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 is in the process of instituting 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.