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A home funeral is a noncommercial, family-centered response to death that involves the family and its social community in the care and preparation of the body for burial or cremation and/or in planning and carrying out related rituals or ceremonies and/or in the burial or cremation itself. A home funeral may occur entirely within the family home or not. It is differentiated from the institutional funeral by its emphasis on minimal, noninvasive care and preparation of the body, on its reliance on the family’s own social networks for assistance and support, and on the relative or total absence of commercial funeral providers in its proceedings.
The benefits of a home funeral are environmental, financial, therapeutic, and spiritual. Families who choose to care for their own report a sense of completion, a feeling of having done their best for those they love, and a stronger connection to their friends and family and community. Having something meaningful to do to help others through a crisis or sorrowful time is usually empowering for all involved. A home funeral gives family and friends more time with the departed, which may help in the often difficult, highly intimate grieving process.
During a home funeral, families take responsibility for:
- planning and carrying out after-death rituals or ceremonies
- preparing the body for burial or cremation by bathing, dressing and laying out for visitation
- keeping the body cool with noninvasive techniques, such as ice
- filing the death certificate and obtaining transport and burial permits
- transporting the deceased to the place of burial or cremation
- facilitating the final disposition, such as digging the grave in natural burial
- hiring professionals for specific services
Reasons for Choosing
- Home funerals are a loving way to say goodbye. A home funeral allows more time for closure; family and friends can gather for two or more days to prepare, memorialize, celebrate, grieve, and finally transport the body.
- Home funerals provide control over decisions. Home funerals are often more personalized than the funeral or memorial service conducted away from home by a funeral director or service provider. Arrangements for keeping the body and/or transporting the body for cremation or burial can be challenging and should be planned ahead of time whenever possible.
- Home funerals save money. By circumventing the potentially costly accoutrements of funeral home-arranged services, families can save thousands of dollars in what they might feel are unnecessary products and services.
- Home funerals can facilitate bonding, as friends and family gather and cooperate in conducting the preparations and the event, supporting one another.
- Home funerals reinforce the cycle of life. Surrounding the bereaved in the everyday life of the deceased can help to highlight this person's true nature, their accomplishments, and their loved ones' hopes.
- Home funerals promote healing and closure. A home funeral provides a comfortable place to discuss life and death, to express grief and loss.
Until the American Civil War, home funerals were the norm. When a loved one died, families washed and dressed them, combed their hair, laid them out, and lamented. While neighbors built the coffin or wound the shroud, others dug the grave, made a meal, or sat with the body to say their goodbyes.
Family and friends cared for the body and kept it laid out at home for as many days as it took to build, dig, and in some cases, wait for signs of decomposition to ensure the person was not being buried alive (a popular fear for many years). Economic resources, immigrant status, and religion all influenced what people did during the viewing, but holding a vigil was common. Death care was a personal, handcrafted endeavor, and involvement in the process was a demonstration of compassion and emotional investment in town, village or prairie life.
During the Civil War, soldiers died on battlefields far from home, and families wanted their dead children returned to them. The bodies shipped by train, and the long, slow, journeys, especially in the summer, were sometimes gruesome affair of decaying bodies and unpleasant scenes. The desire to slow decomposition in an era before refrigeration promoted the development of embalming.
Soldiers were sometimes embalmed right on the battlefields, shipped via train, then brought to their mother’s door by the local livery driver. Furniture builders and cabinetmakers started making coffins. The first mass-marketed coffins were being produced to meet the demand created by the war, and the trade of Undertaking slowly came into being. The embalmed body of assassinated President Lincoln was put on display before thousands of Americans, giving embalming its first major marketing moment.
By the end of the 19th Century, the job of Undertaker was a trade which was regularly seen on census records, even in rural areas. By 1955, the US had more than 700 casket makers, and embalming and certain caskets and grave liners were aggressively marketed as preventing decomposition (a false claim). Undertakers had successfully transformed their public image from tradesman to moral arbiter of death practices and necessary expert in the mysterious world of death care. A perception grew that there was a legal requirement to hire professionals after a death, contributing to the false narrative that it is illegal to touch a dead body, that it must be embalmed, and that families no longer had the right to care for their own dead.
In the early 1990s, home funeral educators began teaching old skills and promoting family-conceived and family-led home-based care to inform the public and to empower families to take back the responsibility and privilege of again bathing, dressing, and mourning loved ones in the privacy of their own homes. Home funerals are often associated with green burials.
More individuals, families, and care communities are rising up in the face of exorbitant professional costs, spiritually disaffected procedures, and environmental concerns in search of affordable, meaningful and authentic funerals. The National Home Funeral Alliance was founded in 2010 to further support families in keeping this deeply human and truly traditional practice available and accessible to all.
Keeping or bringing a loved one home from an institution after death is legal in every state for bathing, dressing, private viewing, and ceremony as the family chooses. Every state recognizes the next-of-kin’s custody and control of the body that allows the opportunity to hold a home vigil. Religious observations, family gatherings, memorials, and private events are not under the jurisdiction of the State or professionals in the funeral industry, who have no medico-legal authority unless it is transferred to them when they are paid for service.
Some states do require the involvement of a licensed funeral director for some portion of the process. Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York have various restrictions concerning a family’s right to after-death care, home funerals and burials. This does not affect family rights to bring/keep the body at home, but a funeral director will need to be involved in the process.
Families who hold a home funeral must still contact the authorities in order to file a death certificate and other documents.
Involvement of Home Funeral Guides
Using a home funeral guide (or end-of-life doula/midwife) is not legally required, although if a family is looking for help and advice through the death, they may choose seek out advice from a guide. Home funeral guides do not conduct after-death care as do licensed funeral directors. Guides teach, demonstrate, advise and support families and friends who then conduct their own care and make their own informed decisions.
- "Undertaken with Love" (PDF).
- "National Home Funeral Alliance - FAQ".
- "National Home Funeral Alliance- Fact Sheet".
- "Seven Ponds - Planning a Home Funeral".
- "When You Die, You'll Probably Be Embalmed. Thank Abraham Lincoln For That".
- "The History of Home Funerals".
- "Having a Funeral at Home, not at a Funeral Home".
- "State Requirements for Home Funerals".
- "Funeral Consumers Alliance: Your Funeral Rights".
- "National Home Funeral Alliance - Home Funeral Guides".
- Copeland, Libby (June 24, 2015). "Who Owns the Dead." The New Republic. Retrieved 7/30/18
- Donkin, Annemarie (January 29, 2015). "Sacred Crossings Provides Dignified Home Funerals". Topanga Messenger. Archived from the original on February 8, 2015. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- "Post-Death Care and Home Funerals". CINDEA. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
- Sealand, Irene B. (1984). "A Home Funeral Consoles The Bereaved". In Bruno Leone; Bonnie Szumski; Claudia Debner (eds.). Death/dying. 1. David Bender (publisher). St. Paul, MN: Greenhaven Press. pp. 427-. ISBN 9780899085159.
- Oregon Funeral Resources and Education – information about how one US state manages home funerals