You never see photos of a home funeral that depict someone doing paperwork; it is not the part of a DIY funeral that is visualized or sentimentalized in education. In a completely DIY home funeral, somebody close to the family must obtain the death certificate, fill it out properly, track down a physician to sign it, and file it manually with the county clerk, among other things. If the person died in a care facility or hospital, paperwork must be completed before the body can be released to the family and taken home. Equipment, several strong people, and a large vehicle are required to transport the body to a home, and to final disposition. Very few families will be able to do all of these tasks. If they don’t, is it still a home funeral?
Many natural death care educators emphasize a completely DIY home funeral. I believe that we need to broaden our scope and simplify our message. Most people benefit from spending time with the body of their deceased loved one after death, even if they do not take on the other aspects of death care, and do not call it a ‘home funeral.’ (The problem is, there is no catchy name for it.) Let’s educate people that they can simply be with the body in the early hours after death in many circumstances*, even if they do not do anything else in the care. Let’s not just educate about home funeral. Our message needs to be broader.
For example, in the care facility where she died, my husband sat with the body of his mother for four hours after her death, during which time he prayed, cried, sang, anointed her and held her. No-one would call this a home funeral, but he did what he needed to do and benefitted greatly by it. It was a precious, sacred time of which I was privileged to be a part. Other family members were invited but did not attend.
When my uncle died, close family members gathered in his room in assisted living. The hospice nurse invited us all to help wash and dress him. It was a cool November evening and we were told that for the next 24 hours we did not need to do anything beyond opening the windows and keeping the room cool. Without having planned ahead of time, one thing just led to another. We gathered the following morning to pray, sing, tell stories and comfort each other. We invited a larger circle of friends for an afternoon “open house” where we served coffee and cookies. Twenty-four hours after he died his body was removed for cremation.
I don’t think anyone would call either of these situations a home funeral, per se. But they were very meaningful; nothing else was desired or needed. How can we encourage others to know about choices such as these? By emphasizing DIY home funerals, are we making it too complicated for most families? Yes, everyone should have the option to do as much as they want when a loved one dies, but many do not want or need to do it all and can similarly benefit from simply being with the body for a while. Yet most people do not know they can do this, do not know to ask for it, and do not understand how it can benefit them. I believe it is unnatural to have to hastily say good-bye to the body, yet we have come to believe that that is the only option.
Many will benefit from simply spending time with the body for a little while, even if they don’t do the other aspects of the funeral care. It does not appeal to, nor is it practical for, everyone to file paperwork, obtain dry ice, wash, dress and cool the body, have a days-long visitation, take the body to the crematory or cemetery, etc. For those who want to do these things, it should be possible, but not doing these things is also very beneficial. Let’s find a way to also educate people about the benefits of being with the body, without calling it a home funeral.
"Home funeral" = Beautiful, beneficial, difficult, requires planning and resources, not practical for many families.
"Spending time with the body" = Uncomplicated, spontaneous, simple, practical, beneficial.
*This article speaks about deaths that are expected and that occur from an illness, such as the death of someone in hospice care or someone who lives in a nursing home or was cared for in a hospital. In the case of an unexpected, sudden, accidental or violent death, the circumstances are quite different; it can be very difficult to spend time with the body immediately after death. Often emergency personnel are involved and the family does not have immediate access to the body of their loved one, which adds to the tragedy. Death care educators should address this in education and help prepare students to be available to the family, liaise with officials, increase communication, and assist where possible, such as by viewing the body and reporting to the family, obtaining personal effects, or being a witness to or helping in the loving care of the body. In these tragic circumstances, we can be creative in assisting the family in other ways, such as gathering mementos, creating memorialization opportunities and ceremony, and being a helpful presence in grief and bereavement.