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 Wisconsin.
In all states, it is legal to have your loved one’s body at home after they die. Wisconsin does not require you to involve a licensed funeral director in making or carrying out final arrangements. (See, for example, Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18 (2020), which permits a licensed funeral director or a “member of the decedent’s immediate family who personally prepares for and conducts the final disposition of the decedent” to move the body for purposes of burial or cremation.)
Wisconsin law determines who has the right to make final decisions about a person’s body and funeral services. This right and responsibility goes to the following people, in order:
(Wisconsin Statutes § 154.30 (2020).)
If your next of kin disagree about your final arrangements, they must go to court to resolve their dispute. (Wisconsin Statutes § 154.30(3)(c) (2020).) 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 date and sign your document in front of two witnesses or a notary public. If you choose to have your document witnessed, your witnesses must be at least 18 years old and may not be related to you by blood, marriage, or adoption. Your authorization document must list the name and last-known address of your representative, and your representative must sign the document before taking action under it. (Wisconsin Statutes § 154.30(8)(d) (2020).)
Who can serve as your representative. With limited exceptions, any adult may act as your representative. The following individuals may not serve if they have a direct professional relationship with you, unless you are related by blood, marriage, or adoption:
(Wisconsin Statutes § 154.30(8)(e) (2020).)
Where to get an authorization form. You can download a free Wisconsin “Authorization for Final Disposition” form from the website of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. If you don't want to use the official form, you are welcome to create your own form, as long as it meets all the requirements described above.
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.
Wisconsin has no embalming requirements, nor does state law specify a time frame within which you must dispose of the remains.
If the person died of a contagious disease, you should consult a doctor. In that case, a local health officer will provide guidelines for final disposition. (Wisconsin Statutes § 252.05 (2020).)
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 you will not be using a funeral director to carry out final arrangements, you must complete and file the death certificate yourself. The deceased person’s doctor, the coroner, or the medical examiner must supply the date, time, and cause of death and present the death certificate to you within six days after the death was pronounced. You must then complete the section for personal information and file the death certificate with the local registrar of vital records. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18 (2020).)
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.
You must obtain a “Report for Final Disposition” from the local registrar or a funeral director before moving the body to prepare it for final disposition. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18 (2020).) 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.
You must file the Report for Final Disposition with the local registrar and present a copy to the coroner or medical examiner within 24 hours after being notified of the death. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18 (2020).)
If the person died in a hospital, nursing home, or hospice center, you must also obtain a “Notice of Removal” form. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18 (2020).) The facility will usually have the form on hand; if not, a funeral director or the local registrar can supply the form.
There are no state laws in Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin, the coroner or medical examiner must issue a permit before a body may be cremated. There is also a required waiting period of 48 hours before cremation may occur, unless waived by the department of health due to “contagious or infectious disease.” (Wisconsin Statutes § 979.10 (2020).)
You must obtain permission from the person in charge of a cemetery before burying cremated remains on the cemetery’s property, but Wisconsin state law does not restrict how or where you may scatter the ashes. (Wisconsin Statutes § 979.10 (2020).)
For more information about cremation, including more information on scattering ashes, see Burial and Cremation Laws in Wisconsin.
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.