A return to family-managed death care
Although it is common in this era in America for all handling of dead bodies to be done by institutions of some sort—hospitals, funeral homes—it is nevertheless possible, and legal in California, for the deceased’s family to manage most aspects of death care. The assistance of a mortuary (funeral home) is not required. Family-managed death care and funerals held at home—activities that very much resemble how death was handled in the early days of this country--are a growing trend in 21st century America.
A family desiring a home funeral in California is allowed to
- Transport the body from the place of death. Note that there are California State regulations for which family members may control disposition of the remains. (Sometimes the hospital or hospice will insist that they can only release the body to a funeral home rather than to the family, even though there is no law requiring this. Here is some helpful information on how to handle this situation.)
- Prepare the body at home for burial or cremation.
- Provide any desired container or covering for the body
- Conduct funeral or memorial services, wakes, visitation, viewing, or vigils.
- Fill out and file the Death Certificate form, being sure to include the part that must be filled out by the attending physician. See instructions for death certificates and other regulatory paperwork .
- Some cemeteries may allow the family to assist digging the grave
*Note that burial on private land is NOT allowed in California unless
the land is licensed as a cemetery. See details.
The decision for a home funeral is something for the survivors to decide. When planning your own death care, you should try to make things as easy as possible for your survivors. Often people who are grieving have difficulty making decisions and managing things, and they may welcome the help of a funeral director, so we would urge you to select a mortuary and the type of death care you prefer, but without prepaying.
However if someone you love very much has died, there is often great comfort in personally tending to their last needs. We provide some information and resources here to help you do this. You may handle everything yourself or you may request (and pay for) the assistance of a funeral director or home funeral consultant or celebrant. If the deceased is a member of the FCA, there may already be some information about what mortuary has been chosen.
Things to consider and plan for:
Lifting and handling the body. How will you lift and carry the body? If the body is in the hospital morgue, how will you get it to a vehicle and into the vehicle? If the body is at home, how will you get it from the bed into the burial/cremation container? You will need to plan to have several people help with this.
Transport vehicle. Do you have access to a vehicle for transporting the body? The vehicle needs to be big enough to accommodate a coffin-sized box, so probably a pickup truck or large SUV. Although you may be burying the body without a coffin, it will be easier to carry and transport it in some sort of sturdy container.
Where to place the body. Do you have some surface or container in/on which to lay out the body? Do you have a well-ventilated room in which it may lie?
Cooling the body. California law does not require refrigeration for home funerals (**see footnote). However, to help reduce odors, it is useful to keep the body very cool. Dry ice or frozen (re-freezable) gel packs are recommended, since they are not as messy as water ice. Note that dry ice will sublimate directly to gaseous carbon dioxide, and while this is not poisonous, it will displace oxygen in the air which can be a problem in a closed room. So for odor mangement and to prevent the build-up of carbon dioxide, keeping the body near an open window is recommended.
Preparing the Body
- Wash the body with warm water and soap; clean and trim nails; shampoo and arrange the hair; close eyes and mouth; use cosmetics if desired; some liquid might come through orifices after death and pads may be necessary.
- Massaging with oil is an option. Dress the body or wrap in a shroud.
- Decide whether you want some lining and pillow in the container; arrange body, paying attention to hair, face, and hands.
- Use dry ice or frozen gel packs to keep the body fresh for several days. Cover the dry ice with a blanket, sheet or tarpaulin and then place the body on top of the covering.
- For cremation, make sure all contents of box are combustible. Pacemakers have to be removed because batteries would explode and damage the retort, but you can leave the artificial joints and other surgery miscellany.
Home Death Care
The law does not prohibit consumers from preparing their own dead for disposition. If you choose to do this, you must:
•File a properly completed Certificate of Death, signed by the attending physician or coroner, with the local registrar of births and deaths •Obtain a Permit for Disposition from the local registrar of births and deaths •Provide a casket or suitable container •Make arrangements directly with the cemetery or crematory
(NOTE: Human remains may be kept at home until disposition without embalming or refrigeration. Generally, decomposition will proceed more rapidly without refrigeration or embalming.)