As they had been for countless generations prior to the Civil War, when people died they were generally kept and mourned at home before they were buried. With the war and the desire to send the fallen soldiers back home, the practice of embalming was developed and people were trained to provide it. Thus the funeral industry was born. After the war our cultural practice shifted, and we turned the care of our dead over to funeral directors and funeral homes. In the process, we’ve largely cut ourselves off from and removed ourselves from end-of-life experience, from the most basic and universal aspect of life.
Home funerals, and more intimate and personal care of our own dead, can help us to better understand, cope, and accept the death of others, and possibly to better understand and accept our own mortality. A home funeral usually involves keeping your loved one at home after they’ve died, or bringing them back home, cleaning and dressing them, getting and keeping them cool, taking up to a few days to grieve for and honor them, holding private or public vigil for them, perhaps conducting a more formal service for them at home, religious center, or other space, and then finally taking them to their burial ground or crematorium. Like home births, home funerals are traditional ways of caring for our own. We can reclaim those traditions.
Why have a home funeral?
There are several reasons to consider having a home funeral for your loved one:
- Do it for them. It’s the most intimate, personal, and caring thing you can do for them. Who better to lovingly care for them? What more personal and fitting place for them to lie-in-honor than home? And it’s the last thing you can ever do for them.
- Do it for yourself. The process of you personally caring for your loved one will perhaps give you a little more peace and help you find a little more comfort and closure. The overwhelming response of people who’ve had a home funeral for their loved one was how helpful it was for them.
- Do it for others. Conducting a vigil for your loved one at home will give their family and friends a more personal and intimate opportunity to grieve, to honor and to say goodbye. If you want to use a cardboard casket, many people, old and young, find decorating and personalizing a loved one’s casket to be a cathartic experience.
- On the prosaic side, it’s a lot less expensive. A conventional funeral can easily cost several thousand dollars and up. A traditional (home) funeral will cost a fraction of that.
- You can! Home funerals are legal with varying restrictions in all 50 states. In Wisconsin, family members (spouses, parents, children and siblings) can care for their dead. More so, prior to death, a person can fill out a legally binding State form giving someone who is not a family member the authority to care for their remains.
Home funerals are not always permissible or desirable:
- If the deceased, prior to their death, didn’t designate someone to care for their remains and if there is no other legal family member willing to conduct a home funeral, you’ll have to employ a licensed funeral director. Even if you’ve been living with someone for the last 20 years, if you’re not married and they haven’t designated you to care for their remains, you can’t. Non-family member can’t conduct a home funeral unless they’ve been so designated.
- If you wish or a body needs to be embalmed or restored because of decay, contagion or injury, you will need the services of a funeral director who then takes legal responsibility for the body. As such most funeral directors will not allow the body to leave their care. Even if the body doesn’t need to be embalmed or restored but there are still concerns about some degree of decay, contagion or injury, it may not be reasonable to prepare and keep them at home. A good funeral director can help you assess the conditions and options at hand, and help you decide upon care for your loved one. We may be able to help you find a funeral director who can advise you.
Please note that it’s still possible to have a home funeral for someone whose had an autopsy, although it requires that extra care be given to the incisions.
Given how isolated and detached our culture has become from death, it’s understandable that the prospect of a home funeral, and handling and caring for your beloved, may seem emotionally or culturally challenging. We understand and can help.
We can help you conduct a home funeral
Our primary role and mission is to encourage, teach and enable you to conduct a home funeral for your loved one, to help you fill out the paperwork, and to provide you with what you will need to do both.
- We can consult with you before or at the time of death, to explain what’s involved and help you prepare. Most critically, we can help you step through the several forms that you’ll need to fill out. There is no charge for our services.
- We have DVDs and/or booklets that you can borrow which teach you how to handle and prepare (cleanse and dress) a body.
- To make body care easier for you, we have a home funeral kit that contains all of the items that you’ll likely need to prepare a body, including re-freezable ice packs needed to cool the body.
- We can help you find transportation for the body, that is, a vehicle large enough to hold a casket.
- Finally we can help you find either a simple cardboard casket or burial shrouds. For more information, see Resources.
Please understand that our role is educational and advisory. We are not funeral director’s and are therefore not able to do the “hands-on” tasks involved, even if we are present while “you” do the work.
Note: Bodies are heavy and not real easy to handle (hence the term “dead weight”). You’ll likely need at least four able-bodied people, and preferably six, to carry and handle the deceased. If you ask friends of the deceased to help, they may accept it as an honor and blessing to be able to provide the ultimate care for their departed friend.