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Many people are surprised when they hear that others opt to handle a loved one's body at home, or that they even legally can. In a society that limits exposure to death and decay, engaging with a loved one's remains at length may seem a morbid choice. However, there are many benefits to handling death at home.
Home funerals, also referred to as family-directed funerals, allow families greater control of a loved one's arrangements, reduce funeral costs, and help normalize mortality.
At-home funerals are as old as humanity. Though the term "traditional funeral" often refers to a complete burial service at a funeral home, a home funeral is the real original.
The funeral service industry did not become mainstream in the United States until nearly the 20th century. Before then, funerals were conducted at home.
"A home funeral is what used to be called “a funeral,” since all funerals took place in the family home. Nowadays it means choosing to keep a body at home after death, as opposed to having the body immediately picked up by a funeral home."
Death was a family and community responsibility. Preparing the body, conducting a ceremony, burial, and memorialization often fell to the household to arrange.
In the late 19th century, funeral homes began to boom, partially in response to the emergence and accessibility of embalming practices during the American Civil War. Families could now postpone funeral ceremonies for several days while making arrangements. They could also hand off the bulk of the planning to a funeral director, making the process of losing a loved one easier on the bereaved.
Today, funeral directors play a role in most deaths in North America and beyond. Certain religions have always kept deceased loved ones at home, but the practice isn't widely discussed outside of those communities. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of secular home funerals, as families seek a "noncommercial, family-centered response to death."
Families who undertake their own funeral arrangements enjoy many advantages:
While some families are relieved when they relinquish control of a loved one's arrangements to a funeral director, others cherish the freedom to handle the funeral in their own way.
Home funerals afford families more time with the deceased to do what they need to reach greater acceptance of the death. Moments spent with their loved one can happen on their own time. The privacy of home allows personal death rituals to occur without having to explain to a funeral director.
Washing, dressing and preparing a loved one's body before burial or cremation is an essential death ritual for many people. It gives the family a final chance to show care for their deceased loved one, and say goodbye to their physical form. Maintaining direct control of the body from the time of death to final disposition assures those who are grieving that their loved one has been afforded every respect.
There is no greater way to embrace mortality than by spending time with a corpse. Death acceptance can help people achieve a higher understanding of themselves, their community, and the world around them. It is a process of personal development that deepens and enriches a person's relationship with death, fear, love, loss, and making the most of their dash.
There may be cultural or religious death rites involved in the decision to conduct a funeral at home. At-home funerals afford more time for sacred rites.
Family-directed funerals also refers to the financial part of death. Taking on the washing, body preparation, and storage of their loved one's body, the family can save on many of the costs and fees associated with funeral homes and the services of funeral directors. The savings can be significant, depending on the extent of the at-home plans.
There are several expenses and fees that cannot be avoided. The family may be responsible for costs related to filing the death certificate and other necessary forms. If cremation or cemetery burial is to take place, funeral professionals will need to be involved to at least some extent.
At-home arrangements don't preclude the use of a cemetery or crematory, but many funerals led by the family involve natural burial. Natural burial involves laying the dead to rest in an untreated, wooden or wicker casket, or a shroud, as an alternative to metal caskets. Embalming practices forgone, natural burial practices reduce the toll of human death on the planet.
Home funerals are undoubtedly more work for those organizing a memorial, as compared to entrusting arrangements to a funeral director. For those who feel the benefit outweighs the effort, there are many things to consider.
Those who opt for a home-based funeral usually do so when the deceased dies at home. Dying at home is a comfort to many who hope to avoid a hospital room death. The space, comforts, and equipment used to create a supportive deathbed can become the temporary place of rest for the deceased, or they may be moved into a more accessible place in the home for visitations.
It is legal to keep the body of the deceased loved one at home until transported to burial or cremation in most states.
Washing and caring for a loved one's body is a final chance to say goodbye, while affording their physical form with every respect. This should be done soon after death, as stiffening of the body (Rigor mortis) can complicate the process of positioning the deceased.
"Much like giving the person a bath during his or her illness," the deceased can be washed in bed. Closing the eyes and mouth, shaving, styling the hair, and applying fragrant oil are some of the most common ways a family can care for a loved one's body at home. Once clean, loved one's can dress the deceased in clothes that best reflect their personality or values, and position them for viewing by other loved ones.
People in contact with human bodies are very unlikely to contract illness or disease from them. Unless the deceased person was known to be suffering from a highly contagious disease, such as "typhoid fever, cholera or plague" there is little risk in handling the body of a loved one. Not enough is known yet about the spread of COVID-19 from deceased people to living ones, but those handling bodies are advised to be cautious if the death was related to COVID-19:
"The risk of transmitting SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, from dead bodies is not yet known, but transmission may occur via contact with contaminated surfaces."
All cases of COVID, and related deaths, must be reported to local health authorities. COVID-19 deaths
Extended visitation privilege is the main reason many families opt for a home funeral. With several days to say goodbye, more family members may have a chance to visit and say their goodbyes as well. This is quite different from a funeral home visitation ceremony, which usually includes just a short window of time for farewells, and its own hefty line on the final funeral bill.
A personalized, meaningful ceremony helps loved ones remember and mourn together. At home, there are no time or creativity constraints on the way a funeral ceremony can be conducted. Taking the time to plan a ceremony that pays homage to all stages of the deceased's life, their relationships, passions, and beliefs makes the memorialization process all the more special for those who are involved.
Will a crematory or cemetery be used as part of the deceased's final disposition? This is one of the main questions a family must answer when planning a home funeral.
In many cases, home funerals involve keeping the deceased at home for several days, before transporting them to another location to be laid to rest. The family is responsible for washing and preparing the body, and hosting the ceremony, but not for the actual burial or cremation.
Burying a loved one on private property is possible in many areas, but regulations vary from state to state. In most rural areas, it is permitted to bury a loved one on private property. In urban jurisdictions, a cemetery or natural burial facility may be the closest option. Many family-directed funerals may also include simple cremation, with the cremated remains returning home.
Those conducting private burials must act in accordance with all local laws, including a minimum depth of burial.
The laws surrounding home funerals are not clear cut: "These laws are often complex, and sometimes even contradictory. Be prepared to defend your decision."
While home funerals, transportation of a body, and private property burial may be legal in some states, each step may require a permit. Knowing the laws and the permits required for death care are the specialty of funeral directors, and families wishing to conduct a home funeral must be as knowledgeable. Filing a death certificate is among the many responsibilities of funeral directors, and one that falls to family if the deceased is laid to rest privately.
Laws vary widely from state to state. Getting the advice of a home funeral consultant can help make the process easier.
Creating a home death experience is an important part of mourning for some people. However, this route takes more effort, planning, and research than by making death arrangements with a funeral director.
Learning the legalities, body care procedures, and paperwork required to conduct a family-directed funeral is essential to ensuring the final goodbye happens smoothly. By putting in the time and care, families can experience a deeper connection with their loss, and a greater understanding of their relationship with death.
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