Before the 20th century, it was common for families and communities to take care of their own dead — both before and after a death. People often died while still at home, supported by friends, faith communities, or the local midwife (who often attended both births and deaths). Doctors were sometimes present, but largely served a supportive role for the family. A home-based approach to post-death care has only really fallen out of popular practice for a few generations — many older people remember their grandmothers taking the equivalent of a ‘death midwife’ role in their family or community. Also, many non-Western ethnic or religious traditions around the world have preserved this kind of post-death care into the present day.
A home funeral (also called a family-directed or home-based funeral) allows for some or all after-death care to be conducted by the friends or family of the deceased. Typically, if you die in a hospital, your body is taken to a morgue and then to a funeral provider. If you die at home, usually a funeral service provider removes your body. However, a small and growing number of North American families have chosen to obtain the after-death documents themselves and care for the body at home until the time of burial or cremation. Friends or family prepare the body, notify the authorities, and complete some or all of the after-death paperwork. In some cases, friends or family may also transport the body for cremation or burial. All of these processes— which give primacy to the role of those familiar with the deceased in their care and remembrance— make up a home funeral.
Why choose a home funeral?
While there are many positive and unique aspects of a home funeral, it is not practical for everyone. A home funeral requires significant preparation and education. You will need to research the specific laws of your province or state, as well as the basic hygienic and preservative procedures of caring for the dead. You will have to prepare and transport the deceased to the home, as well as complete all of the necessary paperwork. You will also have to employ the efforts of a number of family members and friends.
That being said, there are a number of very positive elements and functions of a home funeral. Home funerals can be therapeutic, cleansing experiences, that enable the family and friends of the deceased to express their love and respect for them in a final act of caregiving. Home funerals also allow more time for visiting, viewing, grieving, and bringing general closure. It is also much easier for those participating in the arrangements to tailor the funeral exactly to the wishes of the deceased, as well as to their family.
On a more practical note, home funerals can also be much more cost effective for families. Funerals can cost thousands of dollars, while organizing the funeral services and after-death care processes at home can save families a great deal of money by bypassing potentially costly funeral services.
What does a home funeral entail?
Planning and carrying out a home funeral is comprised of a few main elements:
- Arranging any wakes, celebrations etc. wished for by the deceased or their family
- Preparing (building and/or decorating) the casket
- Filling out and filing required documents
- Arranging the body deposition (burial, cremation, etc.)
- Washing and dressing the body following death
In Canada for example, the use of a funeral home or funeral director is not required by law. Embalming is also not required, unless a body is to be transported over a considerable distance. In fact, many religious traditions (such as Judaism and Islam) require that the body not be embalmed; and that family and community be directly involved in the post-death care and burial, with minimal, if any, intervention from a funeral home.
A dead body can be kept at home for 3-5 days, without significant deterioration
The body can be brought directly home from the hospital or residential care facility, but the transfer must be authorized by the executor or next-of-kin (if an executor has not been named). As such, you may need a Permit for Burial or Cremation, and possibly a Permit to Transport the Body, with you.
The primary aspect of a home funeral that many people grapple with is the process of handling the dead body. Many, unfamiliar with these processes, fear that the body will significantly decompose immediately after death. This is not the case, and decomposition can be easily delayed by reducing the body temperature. A dead body can be kept at home for 3-5 days, without significant deterioration, with the use of fans and dry ice or Techni-Ice packs (which can be ordered online here). Post-death care (washing and dressing the body before rigor mortis sets in) is not significantly different from pre-death care, especially if you have been caring for our loved one throughout their final days. Washing and dressing the body is actually fairly simple. See this PDF for detailed instructions about post-death physical care.
All arrangements for visitations, final farewells, funeral and memorial services can be planned by the family and friends of the deceased, with or without the leadership of clergy, spiritual advisors or funeral professionals. When organizing a funeral at home, you really have absolute freedom when planning the nature of the services to be held. You are not limited to a funeral home's casket selection, which means you can even make your own. This also makes it easier to adopt more eco-friendly body deposition methods, such as using biodegradable caskets and shrouds.
Want more information?
- CINDEA (Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives) maintains a website with all of the necessary information and resources (including legal paperwork) to handle post-death care, arrangements in each Canadian province and territory. The website also provides listings of Canadian alternative death-care practitioners who are able to offer help throughout the home funeral process.
- Based in the U.S., the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) and the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) have provide extensive information on how to direct post-death care and funerals at home. The Home Funeral Directory and Natural End (also both based in the U.S.) include Canadian alternative death-care practitioners.