DIY Funeral Care: Family – directed Funerals

Arranging a basic cremation, or natural burial, and conducting your own memorial service

Only a century ago death care was largely a ritual performed in the domain of the family. A greater number of people died at home, and family generally cared for, and prepared their deceased, without the intervention of funeral directors. The introduction of embalming into everyday funeral practices after the civil war started to change the funeral profession into what we know today. As the business of the professional funeral director grew, so the ancillary products and services expanded in range and price. Now we have reached a point where a funeral can be one of the largest single purchases you make in a lifetime.

But times are changing, and home death care, home funerals, family-directed funerals, natural burials, green burials, life celebrations and simple ash scattering ceremonies are all becoming an intrinsic aspect of today’s funeral industry. They say everything goes full circle, and death care is now witnessing this change, as families begin to demand more affordable services and more control and involvement in the death care ritual.

Why does a funeral cost so much?

For half a century or so, the costs of a funeral have been going up. In 1960 a funeral cost just $708, and just over 50 years later a funeral will cost you 10 times this. The National Association of Funeral Directors (NFDA) now estimates that the average funeral costs $7,360 and this does not include a cemetery plot. Why does it cost so much? All the services you render from a funeral establishment are at a cost, and you also have the overhead for the funeral director to maintain his premises, equipment and staff. So this overhead is built into the basic service charge, plus then you pay separately for all ancillary services such as vehicles, embalming, refrigerated storage, etc. Any funeral merchandise you purchase will also have a mark-up fee. In fact the commission made on selling caskets and urns can significantly add to the funeral home’s revenue. Funeral homes are businesses so they do need to operate at a profit, but the question is how much should they profiteer from their services? In contrast a simple home burial or cremation should not cost much more than $2,000 and can probably be done for less.

Do I have to use a funeral director?

The laws pertaining to whether you legally must employ the services of a funeral director do vary by state. In most states you do not legally have to use the services of a funeral director, and you can entirely conduct your own funeral services. However the following states DO require you to employ the services of a funeral director to complete the filing of the death certificate and the burial/cremation and transit permits:

State Legislation
ALABAMARecently introduced new legislation that requires a licensed funeral director be in charge of every funeral service, memorial or interment or “part thereof”.
CONNECTICUTRequires a funeral director to sign on the death certificate and that only a licensed funeral director (or embalmer) can remove or transport
a body.
ILLINOISDefines that a “funeral director or person acting as such” can only include funeral directors and their employees.
IOWARecently changed its law to disallow local registrars from providing burial transit permits, forcing a family to employ a funeral director or engage a Medical Examiner to file for them.
INDIANALaw states that burial permits can only be issued to funeral directors. (Although other statutes refer to a “person in charge” of the disposition which could apply to the next of kin.
LOUISIANARequires a funeral director’s involvement in obtaining all permits plus the attendance of a funeral director at the final disposition of the body.
MICHIGANA death certificate must be certified by a funeral director. Probate & Will law dictates that all body dispositions must be conducted by a licensed funeral director.
NEBRASKARequires a funeral director to supervise all dispositions. Funeral directors also have the authority to issue a transit permit to move a body out of state.
NEW JERSEYA death certificate must be certified by a funeral director plus the attendance of a funeral director at the final disposition of the body.
NEW YORKRequires a funeral director’s involvement in obtaining all permits plus the attendance of a funeral director at the final disposition of the body. Only a licensed funeral director can collect & transport a body.

You may still conduct your own funeral services in some of these states but you will need the assistance of a funeral director to complete the necessary permits and certificates. The funeral director may also wish to supervise the burial/cremation to ensure the disposition is conducted as per the permit.

What help or advice is there on how to care for the deceased yourself?

There are a number of organizations that provide guidance and support on how to care for the deceased yourself, and how to conduct a home funeral. The National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) is a non-profit organization that has members across the United States that help educate and advocate for the rights for families to care for their own dead. The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) also supports families in their rights to conduct their own funeral services. The FCA has a useful resource page with links to all the organizations that can support families with a home funeral or family-directed funeral. The Home Funeral Directory also provides a directory of funeral professionals and organizations listed by state that can assist with a home funeral in your city. They also provide information about how to conduct a home funeral. The Natural Burial Co-operative provides a directory of all natural burial cemeteries in North America.

What is a green burial or natural burial?

A green burial or natural burial refers to a burial where no artificial processes are employed, and the deceased is buried into natural woodland or meadowland. The deceased is buried in natural products such as a shroud, or a wicker or wooden casket. No unnatural headstones or grave markers are allowed. Instead simple, natural flat stone markers may mark a gravesite and modern survey techniques are employed to record gravesites such as GIS (geographic information system).

A green burial site will often be a conservation site, with no irrigation, pesticides or herbicides used, so restoring the area to a natural state. Sometimes native trees or shrubs can be planted over a burial site to create a natural and beautiful organic memorial. A natural burial is more aligned with a natural life cycle approach and is very appropriate for those who are ecologically minded.

Do-it-yourself: A family-directed funeral

These days we are all familiar with the role of the funeral director. Just like a film director, he is there to direct and orchestrate an event, but this is the movie of a life. Sometimes families can feel that a funeral director has not fully embraced or reflected the legacy of the person deceased. In the days when we all lived in small communities and the local undertaker knew everyone, this may have been different. Today a modern funeral director may have never met the deceased, and have no knowledge other than that gleaned from distressed family. This is where a family-directed funeral can seem so much more meaningful. The family, who knew the deceased well, is best placed to direct the event.

What receptacle can be used for a green burial?

As mentioned above, a green burial requires for the deceased to be buried into the earth as naturally as possible. For this purpose any natural products can be used. A linen shroud can wrap the deceased, or you can use a wicker basket, woollen casket or a simple wooden box. A nice touch if you build a wooden box is that family and friends can all write their goodbye messages on the box before the burial, making it extremely personal.

Arranging a simple cremation

If you are not opting for a burial, but instead have chosen to have a basic cremation performed, you can arrange this yourself and at a minimal cost. Arranging a direct cremation, which is when the deceased is collected and transported directly to be cremated, is a means by which the family can direct the disposition. Once the deceased has been cremated and the cremated remains returned to the family, a memorial service can be arranged. The family can conduct this as, and when, is convenient for family and friends.

Direct cremation

Conducting your own memorial service or funeral ceremony

A great aspect of a do-it-yourself funeral is being able to conduct your own memorial service or funeral ceremony. You can make this event as befitting to the deceased as you choose. Why pay a stranger to deliver a funeral service about your loved one, when you can prepare and deliver something personalized and unique? Whether you arrange a basic cremation and then conduct your own memorial service, or whether you arrange a natural burial and conduct your own funeral service – you are in control, and you can arrange the tribute you desire.

Ideas for arranging a commemorative memorial service

There are so many wonderful ideas for how you can arrange a special and personalized memorial service these days. Whether you decide on a religious service or just a commemorative service, there are a multitude of options open to you.

You can choose a special location, be it a church, community center, or favorite haunt of the deceased. You could even hold an outdoor event or BBQ. The possibilities really are endless. The more you can get family and friends involved, the more special and personalized the event will be. You can hold a themed service in memory of something important to the deceased, requesting that all guests participate in the theme. You can prepare your own memory board, table or box; or ask all guests to bring along something that symbolizes their memory of the deceased.

Activities such as lighting candles, even Chinese lanterns, releasing butterflies or doves, are all relatively inexpensive symbolic gestures that can be inspirational at a memorial service. Eulogies can be written and delivered by family and friends. Basically there is no set format, you are free to arrange a service that best reflects your loved one with no limitations on time, number of attendees or location.

The growth in home funerals and family-directed funerals will most likely continue to grow. Especially as the Baby Boomers move into their retirement years, we all become more ecologically-minded citizens, and the impact of the recession forces many to cut costs.

1 Compiled from the 2010 NFDA survey of 3,000 member funeral homes.

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Written by

Sara is the Editor in Chief for US Funerals Online and has been researching and writing about the death care industry in the US for the last 15 years.