How to Hold a Funeral at Home
Home funeral advocates want to reclaim natural after-death care from the modern funeral industry, and more and more people are following their lead.
When Diane Savory realized she would soon die of congestive heart failure, she and her husband, Peter Stickney, decided she should return home under hospice care. They didn’t want her “hooked up to machines in the hospital,” said Peter.
During the last 21 days of Diane’s life, as the couple slowly came to terms with her impending death, they decided her funeral should be at home too. It would be a natural extension of their caretaking.
With the help of an experienced home funeral guide, Peter was ready for Diane’s passing. When she died, he washed her body, anointed it with oil, and dressed her for the vigil. Their children, grandchildren, and friends brought food, flowers, and decorations. “Her bed didn’t look like a hospital bed anymore. It was so colourful.” Outside in the yard, some painted the cardboard casket that would be used to transport her to the crematorium.
After two days of visiting, it was time for the final goodbye. With the seats folded down in Peter’s Prius, the casket just fit. “We had a wonderful drive alone down country roads and one last conversation.”
A natural end
Peter and Diane’s choice may seem radical today, but in Western culture, funerals at home used to be just the way it was done. When someone died, the community came together at the family’s home to wash, dress, and sit with the body; visit with each other; then dig the grave. Death was as natural as birth — there for all to see and experience.
Most of us don’t even know we can still have a funeral at home. The National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA), an American organization, is trying to change that. The NHFA educates families about their rights and guides them on the legalities and tasks of caring for their own after death. “We help people see how strong they are, that they can do it themselves,” says Lee Webster, former NHFA president and executive director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy.
Home funeral advocates like Webster say modern funerals are impersonal, costly, and bad for the environment. More importantly, they believe that the practice alienates us from death, exacerbating our grief and increasing our fear of life’s end. They want after-death care to feel more intimate, natural, and centred in family and community.
More people are opting for home funerals. There’s no data to show how many, but according to Webster, the number of calls to the NHFA had been increasing over the last few years, then escalated with the pandemic. “We’re in another wave of interest in self-help and independence. The pandemic has forced people to do it themselves,” she says.
I grew up on a farm with four generations of family living nearby. As a preschooler spending my days in the garden and chicken yard with my 75-year-old great-grandmother, I noticed her thinning grey hair and sagging arms. My other grandparents’ bodies looked that way too. It seemed natural, like the rhythms of our farm. And when the older generation did die, it was still painful, but there was a fitting quality to it — a sense of harmony and belonging to something larger.
And so when I encountered the “natural deathcare” movement in the 1990s as a graduate student researching end-of-life issues, it felt right to me. The people in this movement — end-of-life doulas, green burial advocates, home funeral guides — were seeking to loosen professional and institutional control over these vital experiences and allow a more personal way of letting our loved ones pass on.
The more recent “death positive” movement traces its origins to the founding of The Order of the Good Death by Los Angeles–based mortician Caitlin Doughty. Taking a cue from the culture of sex positivity, Doughty encourages us to accept our natural curiosity about the end of life and talk openly and honestly about it.
The right to mourn
Talking about death feels morbid to many, and the idea of home funerals seems particularly macabre. These attitudes trace back to the emergence of the modern funeral industry following the American Civil War, when embalming was introduced to transport soldiers who died away from home. The technique minted a new class of professionals who promoted embalming as more hygienic and who began offering visitation and ceremony services at their “funeral parlours.” Now, this approach to death has become so normalized that we have trouble imagining an alternative.
Although home funerals aren’t for everyone or every circumstance, home funeral guides find that people’s biggest fears are focused on the body, primarily the erroneous belief that it spreads disease — a falsehood that got stuck in the cultural imagination once the funeral industry began promoting embalming. “A living human is a greater source of disease than a dead body,” unless they died of a communicable disease, says Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-area home funeral educator Terry Skovronek, who’s done this work for 20 years.
First hearing of home funerals, people often wonder, is this legal? Yes. We are so removed from caring for our own after death, we easily forget that we retain legal authority over the bodies of our loved ones. According to the NHFA, families caring for their own dead at home is legal in every Canadian province and U.S. state. Only 10 states require a funeral director to be involved at all, though there are legal requirements that families must follow, and these vary by locale.
There’s no template for holding a funeral at home, but here are some principles home funeral guides recommend:
Talk it over carefully.
Gently discuss the idea of a home funeral with family members well in advance. When you bring it up, give them time to reflect on the idea. Some may immediately feel it’s right. Some may be reluctant. Caretakers could be exhausted, so be sure to consider their needs. It’s essential that the key people are on board, especially the person who has the legal authority for the one who has died. If any family member is staunchly resistant, a home funeral may not be a good choice.
Do it your way.
No home funeral is exactly like another. Each reflects the personality and values of the deceased and their family. You have the flexibility to be creative with ritual, art, poetry, music, and decorations. It can be lively or solemn, simple or elaborate. Visitors may come and go, or you can designate times for certain groups such as immediate family or community members. Often, children play. Sometimes people sit quietly; some pray or meditate. Some hug or touch the body; some don’t. You can build a pine casket or buy and decorate a cardboard one. Cremation or burial are both options. In some places, you can even bury on your own land, though you should obtain consent from your local authority.
Take your time.
Vigils at home can be brief or multi-day events. But usually no more than three days. Sometimes, all a family needs is a little extra time right after a loved one has died before calling the funeral home. The last breath is a threshold. Life has changed, and we need time to take it in. In many religious traditions, this is the time when the soul or spirit passes. Funeral directors who are also guides say death that’s expected under normal circumstances isn’t an emergency. Giving family members the space to take in what’s happened might be all the vigil that’s needed, before professionals arrive to remove the body from the home.
Ask for help.
There are many pieces in organizing a home funeral. No one can do it alone. If hospice has been involved, they can help with the death certificate. During the planning and the actual event, let everyone take an active role if they choose. In splitting up the tasks, people can do the parts that feel natural and positive to them. Some are skilled with logistics or paperwork; some with tending to the children, or music. Someone needs to get ice and other supplies. There’s a lot to do.
Keep your heart open.
Humour, lightness, and play relieve tension and help people relax. They allow flexibility to adapt as needed and let you feel what you truly feel. Allow space for the vigil to evolve spontaneously as people arrive and spend time together. Let them adapt to the unfamiliar in this familiar setting. Some will sit quietly. Some might sing or take a walk, play games or watch TV. Some people, including children, avoid the body or slowly gain comfort to view or touch it. Let ordinary life happen. Many home funeral guides and families say the experience is healing and transformative — an unforgettable gift.
Further resources: If you’d like to get a sense of the feasibility of a home funeral and what it might feel like, take a look at the NHFA website. You can also find videos of home funerals online, or watch the 2004 PBS documentary A Family Undertaking that follows several families who chose to do it themselves.
Christina Leimer is an independent writer and researcher who’s interested in consciousness, the human-natural world connection, and social innovation and change. You can find her blog, The Intuitive Sociologist, on her website and reach her there too.