Home Funeral Q & A
Are home funeral vigils legal?
Yes. In all but eight states, families have the legal right to care for their loved ones after death. (In Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York, a licensed funeral director must be involved and sign the death certificate.) A Sacred Moment is a licensed funeral service that supports families to care for their own if they wish. In fact, we are the first in Washington state and one of the first funeral services in the country to do so!
It is legal in the state of Washington to keep the deceased at home or another vigil space as long as the body is “refrigerated” (placed on dry ice) after 24 hours. Home funeral vigils last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. (72 hours is often chosen.) You can legally act as your own funeral director and we encourage you to do so (though we recommend consulting with us to be fully informed). You can have us act as licensed funeral director; however, our bias is always to empower families to fulfill this role themselves. See Home Funeral Choices.
See Washington State Laws: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/WAC/default.aspx?cite=246-500-010 and http://apps.leg.wa.gov/WAC/default.aspx?cite=246-500-030
What if someone doesn’t die at home? Can families transport a body legally?
Washington state law requires that a burial transit permit accompany a body if it is being transported, unless it is under the care of a licensed funeral home. Therefore if the death occurred in a place other than the home, a licensed funeral service is usually needed to transport the body. For a family, obtaining the burial transit permit typically takes a minimum of one to two days. If the deceased can remain at the place of death for the time it takes a family to file the death certificate and obtain the burial transit permit, it is possible for families to legally transport their loved one’s body.
Why are home funerals gaining favor with families and communities?
- Those who have participated in home funeral vigils are often so transformed by the experience that they frequently want to share it with others. Finally, death is recognized as a part of life again, not relegated to the “closet” of denial and fear.
- Baby boomers, who had good experiences with home births in the seventies, now want to bring death “home” as they face their parent’s mortality and increasingly their own.
- Spiritual communities who want to honor their traditions and customs can do so in the days following a death.
- Concerned about rising funeral costs and environmental concerns, people look to home funerals as a viable and sustainable alternative.
- In choosing a home funeral vigil, families and communities are reclaiming their right to be in control of the circumstances surrounding a loved one’s passing. This is a natural and very empowering choice to make.
Why are home funerals considered “new” or “pioneering?”
In truth, home funeral vigils are simply returning to the old days, when people (often the women) cared for their own dead and had them lie in state in the front parlor so that everyone could come and pay their respects and love. However, people today believe you have to call a licensed funeral home the minute someone dies, and have them come and get the body--a body that then needs embalming in order to be viewed, and so on. This is the modern-day funeral industry way of doing things. So, in order to re-establish the right for families to keep their loved ones at home, we find ourselves “pioneering” this movement and calling it “new,” even though, in reality, we are reclaiming the simpler, more fulfilling, and sustainable practices of the past.
What about embalming? I thought that was a legal requirement, especially if a body is being viewed?
Embalming is not a legal requirement, though it is strongly recommended in most funeral homes, and even required as policy at times if the body is going to be viewed publicly. It is not necessary to embalm someone, especially if the person is kept at home and dry ice is used for refrigeration purposes. If a family requests embalming, we can of course provide that service, and we also do so if we feel the body needs such restoration and repair. But it is not, as a general rule, necessary or desirable in most home funeral situations. Home funerals are a good choice for those who do not want their bodies disturbed after death (embalming is invasive to the body) and for those who wish to experience death naturally.
What is behind the “three-day” vigil? Why three days?
First of all, a vigil can be a few hours or a few days. It is up to you. We think that the traditional three-day vigil has several origins. One theory is that, before modern medicine, people waited three days before burying or cremating someone to insure the person was actually dead. The other reasons are more spiritual or cultural in nature. Many traditions believe that the soul or consciousness needs at least three days to fully disengage from the body. In that time, prayers and spiritual practice can aid the deceased on their journey, and support the family and community left behind. In our work, we have experienced that mourners often feel a true sense of closure after three days, but this, of course, varies with each individual and situation.
When is a home funeral a “good fit” and when is it less so?
- Good Fit:
- The death is anticipated and there is time for planning
- Dying loved one is cared for at home, typically with hospice
- Dying person asks for this kind of care for personal or spiritual reasons and can work with others to make it happen
- Family and community want to participate as an act of closure and goodbye
- There is enough support in place to make it possible
- The home can accommodate a vigil or there is another space available
- Less of a Fit:
- Tragic or sudden death (sometimes home funeral is still possible)
- Body needs autopsy or repair/restoration
- There are more than three days before final disposition (cremation or burial) can take place
- There is no suitable home or place for the vigil
- Family has conflicting wishes or not enough support or planning
- Extending care beyond death is too much for everyone involved
What are the benefits of home funeral vigils?
1. Home funerals can be healing, offering a safe, loving space where emotions can be expressed and held, and where death’s mysteries can be experienced with others.
2. Family, friends, and community can gather together in a private setting for support, shared grieving, and life celebration.
3. A home funeral allows those grieving more time and spaciousness to come to terms with the death, find a sense of closure, and create personal and meaningful rituals of farewell with others.
4. Freedom of spiritual expression is available in a home funeral vigil. Whether it is a Christian family singing “Amazing Grace” over their mother’s body, or a Buddhist community chanting prayers to accompany their friend’s consciousness after death, vigils provide the space and time to create exactly what the departed person, and those left behind, really need.
5. Home funeral vigils create an environment where children can experience death as a natural part of life. Often children lead the way in this endeavor, especially if parents are comfortable with the process themselves. Fears are often replaced by a healing sense of participation in a loved one’s departure.
6. Home funeral vigils encourage creative expression, such as building or decorating the casket, or creating special rituals of remembrance. Such direct physical and spiritual connection to the reality of death can deeply aid a person’s journey through the stages of grief. Those who participate in home funeral vigils often go on to prepare their own end of life arrangements, knowing how helpful this is to those left behind.
7. Home funeral vigils can be more cost-effective than conventional funeral options, and can be shaped to fit a family’s lifestyle and budget.
8. Home funeral vigils are a natural and sustainable death practice very needed today.