What is a home funeral? We can think of it as “a home vigil immediately after the death, when friends and family would come to help, visit and share” This is often for 2 or 3 days, and it can be as private or public as you like.
Why choose a home funeral rather than a conventional funeral? “We are seeking the kinship and meaning that doing these simple, mindful things brings us. And the home funeral experience is, first and foremost, mindful. Instead of handing off the inconvenient responsibilities and uncomfortable details, we immerse ourselves in them—we want to be fully present with and for our loved ones, living and dead; we choose deliberately to not let this tender time speed by at a distance, in a blur.”
Both of these quotes are from the nonprofit organization called the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA). This website is just the start of the support you can receive from home funeral guides (sometimes referring to themselves with other descriptions such as Home Funeral Educators or death midwives). Nowadays most of us haven’t experienced caring for our own at home. If you choose to work with a home funeral guide they can help walk you through this, not doing things themselves but providing guidance.
In the same summer that I first had the yearning to find more beautiful caskets, hoping for some small measure of comfort and beauty, I was completely surprised to learn about home funerals through happening upon A Family Undertaking, a documentary aired on the PBS tv series POV on Aug 3, 2004. (You can find it online)
Home funerals are the traditional way we’ve cared for our dead – and this hasn’t changed as long ago as we tend to think. After the Civil War things started to change dramatically (see this history in the book Grave Matters. Still – here’s information from the history of the 6 generations (!) of family funeral directors at the Lynch-Cantillon Funeral Home, shared by their current funeral director Jean Cantillon: “[Ned Cantillon] built the addition, which is the current funeral home, in 1956. Prior to that time, many wakes were held in family homes, often for two or three full days, but modern times necessitated a central location for services to be held.”
Home funerals are legal. In addition to a section affirming this on the NHFA website , the Funeral Consumers Alliance can help clarify requirements for each state. An overview of each state is included in the book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson. In fact, you can often find regulations for home funerals on state government websites, right alongside the regulations for funeral directors.
In 42 states you may care for your loved one just by yourself or with the help of a home funeral guide. In 8 states you must hire a funeral director to assist with care after a death, but even in those states funeral directors can choose to support a family in caring for their loved one at home. The NHFA website includes a list of supportive funeral directors and you can ask any funeral director you are thinking of hiring.
Home funerals are also a way of choosing natural burial, because the body is not embalmed. In addition, many home funerals include helpful ways of grieving such as decorating the coffin to say goodbye.
National media coverage attests to the way home funerals can be helpful with saying goodbye and with healing from a tremendous loss. This Smithsonian article compares and contrasts the deaths of his father and father-in-law, who died within a few days of each other and chose very different approaches to their after-death care. You can read the story of one specific home funeral in this local article: Cape families find comfort in hands-on caring for their dead.
Here’s an experience of someone in my area: a woman bought one of our cardboard coffins and decorated it with her husband’s artwork (he was not a professional artist). She had a funeral director handle the paperwork related to his death. The widow held a vigil at home, assisted by a home funeral guide, then had the funeral director transport her husband’s body to their church for a funeral. After the service the funeral director brought his body to a crematorium.
If you are choosing cremation you should know that there is a waiting period (48 hours in Massachusetts) in case the suspicion of foul play arises. Instead of having the body refrigerated at a funeral home, you might choose to have your loved one stay at home. Rather than having only a designated time to spend at a funeral, when you will be interacting with others, this gives you flexibility and personal time to start coming to grips with the momentous change that has happened. If you wake up in the middle of the night you might choose to go sit beside your loved one, for example, or you can go take a nap during the day and not miss your chance to say goodbye.
My father died unexpectedly and it was 3 days before we could hold visiting hours and his funeral. In those 3 days I was at loose ends, in shock and not knowing what to do with myself. What a difference it would have made to be able to sit with him.
I meet people who tell me who tell me they’ve been part of a home funeral in the past. After a presentation I gave to hospice volunteers on natural burial I learned that 8 out of the 10 had participated in a home funeral during their childhoods. In response to my question they agreed that this experience may have been part of them choosing to volunteer with hospice.
And this is something that we all may wish for: A friend brought her 10 year old daughter to pay respects on the 3rd day of a home funeral. They spent 30 minutes alone in the room with their friend David’s body. As they were leaving, her daughter told her “Mommy, I’m not as afraid of death anymore”
In the next few days, look at information about home funerals and consider what type of after-death care you want to choose.
Step #1 STRUCTURE IT IN
Step #2 find and use a PLANNING GUIDE
Step #3 learn from the FUNERAL CONSUMERS ALLIANCE
Step #4 draw upon INSIGHTS from bereavement research
Step #5 Find RITUALS that resonate with you
Step #6 Consider NATURAL BURIAL choices
Step #7 Consider HOME FUNERAL choices
Sunday: funeral poems, quotes and truth-telling