Not so many years ago, it was commonplace to experience the death of a loved one at home. Caring for someone after death has historically been the duty and privilege of friends and families, with the families washing and dressing their loved one’s body in a home setting, placing the body in a shroud or coffin for burial, and sitting in vigil with the deceased for a couple of days. The funeral ritual was also held in the home—a time of family participation and reflection—followed by accompanying the body to a grave site for burial. Embalming was uncommon. (Embalming became a necessity during the Civil War, when it was used to prevent decomposition while the soldier’s remains waited to be transported home by horse cart or train to his family for funeral rites and burial.)
Over time, however, this once sacred and spiritual experience has been substantially relinquished to the funeral industry. The current prevalent lack of direct involvement in the funeral process has, for many people, contributed to family’s loss of connectedness to their own rites of passage.
It is every individual’s natural and legal right, even today, to be cared for after death by family members, friends, and members of their community. They allow the deceased person to stay at home, as opposed to having the body immediately picked up by a funeral home. At a time of intense grief, it can be immensely comforting to have the loved one’s body resting near at hand in a familiar and comfortable setting, instead of being stored alone in an impersonal and antiseptic mortuary.
Body care and preparation within the home requires the loved ones to confront the realities of grief and loss, which many find to be a valuable part of the healing process. In contrast, allowing a funeral home to take control of the deceased’s care can prolong that process since funeral directors are so talented at shielding people from the reality of death that after some funerals it seems almost as if the death hadn’t happened at all.
Viewing of the deceased’s body can occur at the bedside just as someone has died. It does not have to occur at casket side. With home funerals, visitation can occur over a longer period of time, offering each family member the option to participate individually, in small groups, or not at all, depending on their personal choice.
Home-based funerals often allow for more flexibility, personalization, and naturalness. Home funerals don’t need to take place within the family home. Some nursing homes, for example, may allow the family to care for the deceased after death, and more church committees are housing and caring for the dead. The emphasis is on minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally friendly care of the body.
Home funerals are safe, affordable, and environmentally friendly. But home funerals are not for everyone. Holding a home funeral is a family decision and should be considered thoughtfully by everyone involved. It is an event that will require planning and delegation of responsibilities, such as:
- preparing the body for burial or cremation by bathing, dressing, and laying out for visitation
- keeping the body cool with noninvasive techniques (open windows, dry ice, Techni Ice® and/or air conditioning) for up to three days
- planning and carrying out a vigil and/or ceremony
- filing the death certificate and obtaining transport and burial permits
- arranging for a casket, shroud, or cremation receptacle
- transporting the deceased to the place of burial or cremation (as long as the deceased person is transported in a dignified manner, most states will allow a family to transport their own dead; check with local laws)
- facilitating the final disposition, such as digging the grave in a natural burial
Many friends would be delighted to help with various tasks if asked. Church or other community groups may offer their support or a location for a vigil or memorial. A funeral director can perform part of the process, for instance preparing the body, filing paperwork, or transporting the body. Or a home funeral guide or end-of-life doula could train you in proper body care, offer support, and connect you to helpful local resources. The National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA) has directories to help find an end-of-life doula (EOLD) prior to the death. Go to nedalliance.org.