Can you bury your loved one at home? Is it legal?

A Step-By-Step Guide To Home Burial

After a family member or loved one dies, it can feel like there is no room or time for grieving. Right away the executor or executrix is charged with funeral costs and estate allotment.

Meanwhile, a hole has opened in your family's life. You need time to heal and part with your loved one in a way that makes sense to you and your family.

Home burial could be an inexpensive alternative to the impersonal process of a graveyard funeral and would allow your family a more intimate form of dealing with grief.

Is Home Burial Right For You?

Depending on where you live, your spiritual beliefs, and your comfort level with the deceased a home burial could be the perfect option for you and your family.

Home burials were commonplace until the 1860s, according to the home funeral alliance. Death and grieving are often a highly personalized experience and before the 1860s the common practice was for a family to prepare the deceased body of their loved one and to bury the body in a church or farmyard.

The service itself was held in the family home.

Home Burials Can Help Families Grieve

In 2013, Elizabeth Knox the founder of Crossings, a Maryland based home funeral company, told the Huffington Post that home funerals can, “be the first step to healing and acceptance of death.” It forces people to become intimate with the process as the family handles the body’s care, the casket, and saying goodbye to the deceased.

In 2009, The New York Times reported that home funerals were becoming increasingly more popular. One woman who buried her father at his family home in New Jersey told the New York Times that a home buried seemed like the dignified, “natural, loving way to do things.”

By having the body buried at home the family has a way to visit the site of their loved one. And hold their own memorial.

Home Burials Can Save Families Money

Home burials and funerals are also significantly less expensive than handling the body at a funeral home. The average cost of a traditional funeral is $7,360 according to a Choice Mutual report on funeral services.

Among those fees are memorial services, embalming and body preparation, a hearse, and casket. For a funeral plot and headstone, the price goes up to $2,000. Home burial, even devoid of a home funeral, becomes a practical way for families to lessen the financial burdens associated with death.

Does My State Allow Home Burial?

Most states allow you to bury your loved one on your property but there are zoning regulations and certifications to consider. All but 13 states have no laws forbidding home burials - 8 states allow home burials but require the use of a licensed funeral director for at least part of the burial process, and 5 states require that bodies be buried in an established cemetery. See below to see the 3 states requiring a licensed funeral director and a cemetery burial.

No matter your state, check with the local zoning laws of your municipality before burying someone at home or holding a home funeral.

Home Burial With Licensed Funeral Director

  • Alabama
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • Nebraska
  • New York

Cemetery Burial Only

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Washington

How To Apply For A Special Permit For A Home Burial

If you live in a state that requires burials to be done at established cemeteries, you may still be able to bury your loved one on your property by establishing a family cemetery. You may do this by checking the zoning laws of your municipality, contacting your health department and registering with the graveyard with your local family clerk before burial.

For more information about specific burial regulations in your state go to Nolo.com, a legal encyclopedia.

What Happens If My Family Moves?

A home burial site may not be ideal if you’re still on your starter home. Depending on your geographic location and the age of your estate it may make selling your property difficult. A New York Times article from 2010 interviewed various real estate agents in the North East about their experiences selling homes with burial grounds. Some home buyers appreciated the link to the estate’s history while others were creeped out.

Then what happens when the property you buried Grandma on no longer belongs to you? Generally speaking, the land that your loved one was buried on still belongs to you after you move. According to the same New York Times article, to zone for a burial ground, the deed of your property will make the burial grounds existence known and will restrict the burial ground itself from new ownership.

It is, however, possible for new owners to move the burial plot with permission from the family or through a lengthy legal process.

It is also possible to move your loved one to a different site, however, all of the deceased heirs must be in agreement about the move and you’ll want to consider the state of the casket and grave liner before the move. For more information check out this article by wikihow on how to move a gravesite.

When A Loved One Passes, What Do I Do Next?

There are steps to be taken when a loved one passes away including obtaining a death certificate to preserving the body.

Obtain A Death Certificate

So, your loved one is gone and you’ve decided to do a home funeral and burial. You’ve checked your state and local municipal laws and know you’re in good legal standing. Now you need to apply for a death certificate. In most states the death certificate may be ordered by the following people:

  • The deceased’s spouse, parent, child, or sibling.
  • A legal representative of the deceased’s family
  • A person who is listed on the death certificate as an informant.

You’ll want to order the certificate from the state and district in which your loved one died. This needs to be done within 72 hours of death. A doctor must complete the certificate’s medical portion within 24 hours of your loved one’s death.

Services such as Vital Check allow you to order a death certificate online. Or you can go directly to the local Health and Services Department of the deceased. Everplans lists the different requirements for ordering a death certificate in each state.

When deciding whether to perform a home burial, you’ll also want to ensure you have the authority to choose the body’s final disposition.

Do You Want To Bury Or Cremated Your Loved One?

There are many options for burial from biodegradable tree pods to mummification, the three most common options, however, are traditional burial, cremation, or for natural burial.

Traditional Burial

A traditional burial usually includes an embalmed body and a traditional coffin. This method helps preserve your loved ones’ remains and makes movement of the body, should you move, easier.

It is possible to build your own coffin. According to Mother Nature Network, it is illegal for funeral homes to reject a coffin you’ve bought (or theoretically have built) yourself. If you want to build your own coffin, consider this article by Mother Earth News.

If the idea of building a coffin isn’y6t for you consider buying one online or another burial method.

Cost:

Price may be worth considering when choosing a container for your loved one’s remains. Traditional coffins cost slightly more than $2,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Cremation

Being cremated allows you to keep your loved ones’ ashes in an urn such as this one offered by Everlasting Memories. Cremation jewelry is also a nice way to keep a piece of your loved one close to your heart.

Cremation also offers you more leeway in terms of home burial rights. If you own your property you may spread your loved one’s ashes without interference. If you’re a renter you may need to get permission from the property owner.

There are several options for containers when you choose cremation. From biodegradable urns designed to be buried to urns designed for couples so your loved ones may rest together.

It’s important to choose an urn that feels right for your family, whether it serves as a temporary resting place before you spread your loved one’s ashes, or it takes permanent residence in your home. For more information on different types of urns check out this article.

Cost:

Cremation urns typically cost between $50 to $1,000. They can be buried, or sit in a family home. Some come with inscriptions or photographs memorializing you’re loved one.

Natural Burial

The third most common option is a natural burial.

A natural burial foregoes embalming and allows for your loved one to be buried in a biodegradable casket, or in some states, without a casket at all. This method allows your loved one to return to the earth and nourish the soil of the land they’re buried in.

The following states do not require a casket for burial: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington, according to Coeio.com.

Cost:

Even biodegradable coffins can be over $1,500, according to Love to Know. Though, depending on the material they can cost as little as $50.

Decide On The Resting Place

This can be a family decision but if that is not an option, the hierarchy for funeral arrangements is:

Person named in Last Will and Testament

Someone named in the deceased disposition document before their death

Executor of estate

The representative of the deceased’s estate

Family member

Typically a surviving spouse, an adult child of the deceased, the parents of the deceased or the next of kin.

If none of the above applies than a public official decides on the final resting place if the body becomes the responsibility of the state or local government.

Do I Need A Coroner Or Medical Examiner To Examine The Body?

Each state and local municipality will have different rules about whether a body needs to be examined and who will do the examiner, according to Web M.D.

Generally speaking if your loved one died from unnatural causes or if there is not a medical professional present at the time of their death, you’ll need a coroner or medical examiner to conduct an autopsy.

If your loved one has died at home you’ll want to call either 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency, or your loved one’s doctor, according to Love Lives On. Once this is done, an official will pronounce your loved one dead and determine whether an autopsy report is necessary.

How To Preserve The Body

Next, you’re going to want to consider how you want to preserve the body, especially if you don’t intend on burying it within 24 hours.

Legal Considerations

In many states, a body needs to be embalmed or refrigerated after 24 hours. Embalming is also necessary in many states when the body needs to be transported across state lines.

For a full list of legal requirements  body aftercare, go to the National Home Funeral Alliance, which lists out state by state requirements. Some states also require that a funeral director be involved in the embalming process.

Techni-ice

If you’re looking to refrigerate the body at home, and can legally do so, there are a few techniques that can be used to preserve the body. Techni-ice or Other Polymer Refrigerants, which can be purchased on Amazon, are an inoffensive and accessible tool for families looking to preserve the body. The sheets can be cut to fit the dimensions of the body and work for about 3-4 hours, though as the body cools the cooling time will be extended.

Dry Ice

Dry Ice is another method for preservation, though it may be hard to come by in some states and the amount of ice needed varies by how long the body needs to be held before burial. It’s also necessary to operate carefully when using dry ice and to ventilate the room the ice is being held in.

Cooling Vests

You may also use cooling vests and towels. The Home Funeral Alliance recommends that you stick to simple designs for vests and towels. The Home Funeral Alliance also states that a well-air conditioned room is suitable for preservation if the body will only be held for 24 hours before burial. For more information check out this article by the Home Funeral Alliance.

Preparing The Body For Burial

Next, you need to focus on preparing the body for its final resting place.

Bathing The Body

One of the emotional gains to burying the body at home is getting to wash and care for your loved one’s body yourself.  During the bathing ritual, anointing the body and dressing it with care can aid in the family’s grieving process.

To avoid having to deal with care after Rigor Mortis has set in, The Home Funeral Alliance recommends bathing the body soon after your loved one’s death. The genital and rectal areas need special care and attention because the body loosens bodily fluids after death. It is recommended that you place a diaper on the body after it’s been bathed.

If Rigor Mortis has already set in by the time you bath the body or if the body is generally stiff, you should massage the body’s joints.

Suggested supplies:

  • washbasin
  • gloves
  • towels, washcloths
  • soap
  • shampoo
  • hairdryer
  • fresh sheets and pillowcases
  • diapers/incontinence pads
  • essential oils
  • clothing/shroud/other covering

Close the eyes

For the eyes, you’ll want to place small bags of rice or sand on their closed lids to weigh them down.

Close the jaw

The jaw can be kept closed by tying a tie around the jaw and head or using bandages the tie the mouth shut.

Bathe the body

The body can be bathed from head to toe, taking special care to wash and dry in between skin folds and creases, open wounds and genital areas.

Groom the face and hair

The hair can be shampooed and blown dry, faces can be shaved, makeup can be applied and nails trimmed.

Cover the body

The body is then dressed in clothing or gently wrapped in a shroud.

Finding A Place To Bury Your Loved One

If you’ve chosen the burial route, you’ll want to consider the location of the burial. This will be somewhere where your family and future generations can come to pay their respects. It could be a spot in the yard where your loved one enjoyed spending time. It could be near their favorite rose bush or tree.

Or it could be somewhere deep on your property separate from your home surrounded by trees and quiet.

What To Consider In A Burial Site

A burial site near a water table is likely to erode and disturb your loved one’s remains. A site with higher elevation is less likely to be susceptible to erosion.

Think long term when choosing the burial site and choose a spot that will not impact or impede future generations that live on the property.  For example, don’t choose a burial spot where future generations may choose to add on to an existing home or structure on the property.

How To Dig A Grave

Once you’ve found the perfect spot to bury your loved one you’ll want to start digging for a grave.  You’ll also want to consider how much room you’ll need for the grave. This will be determined by the size of the container or the dimensions of your loved one should you forego a coffin.

Many states have a minimum grave depth requirement. Most states only require 18 to 30 inches in depth for a single body, according to How Stuff Works. It’s best to check your local zoning laws before you dig.

Here are some of the common tools you will need for digging a grave:

Directions For Digging A Grave

1. Clear the area.

If you need to clear the area you’ll want to start digging up roots, weeding, mowing and pruning based on how much space you'll need during the funeral service or how large you want the space to be.

2. Start digging.

Next, you’ll start digging. When digging a grave the soil should go into three dirt piles, with each pile being place onto an individual tarp.  The piles will be used after the body has been placed in the grave. It’s important to keep each layer of soil together so you do not disturb it.

3. Check grave depth.

The grave should be about 3 feet deep.  This allows for the minimum of 18” of soil to be placed on top of the body or the container in which the body is buried in and creates what is known as a “smell barrier”.  Animals are unlikely to smell decomposition with a barrier of 12” of soil so by adding 18”, there is little to no likelihood that an animal would attempt to unearth the remains.

4. Level and shape the grave.

After digging, you’ll want to level the grave and shape it.  Level the sides and bottom as much as possible.  Boards can be placed over the opening of the gravesite and then covered with a tarp to prevent water pooling in the bottom of the grave if burial is not to take place immediately.  Secure the edges of the tarp with rocks to prevent wind from blowing it away.

Lowering The Body Into The Grave

At cemeteries, caskets are lowered into the grave through a, “lowering device.” These devices can cost thousands of dollars. To lower your loved one in the ground you may need to get creative. One woman, whose home funeral experience is featured in Mother Earth News, state that she used a 2-by-10-inch board as a ramp and placed a rope under the casket. She used the rope to slowly lower the casket from the ramp and into the grave.

One undertaker at the blog The Other Side of Funerals suggests using straps or ropes to run underneath the coffin and around the handles of the coffin. For detailed instructions on this method of lowering check out this article.

What Type Of Service Should Be Performed?

Doing a home burial allows you to perform service in a way that honors your family's spiritual traditions. Your grandparent may have been a diehard catholic and appreciate a catholic burial service, but you may have more humanist leanings.

At an at-home funeral, you can call in grandma’s favorite priest to give a final Rite of Committal but also allow time for funeral goers to remember Grandma’s life in a celebratory manner.

Tips For An At Home Vigil

  • Consider holding a potluck rather than hiring a catering company
  • Serve the deceased’s favorite dishes.
  • Encourage family members to bring their favorite photos of the deceased.
  • Do a collective prayer or meditation
  • Play music that was dear to your loved one.

At an at-home funeral, you can personalize the service to best suit the needs of your family and the deceased. For more information on funeral services check out this article.

Decorating The Gravesite

There are a myriad of ways that families can decorate the gravesite and pay homage to their loved one.

A Gravestone

The most common way to decorate the gravesite is through a gravestone. The average cost of a gravestone is $1,000, according to Cake, an end-of-life planning platform. A headstone helps mark the burial site.

It’s also a permanent way to let future generations know about your loved one through identifying details about their life. On a grave, you can also mark your loved one’s final resting place with a favorite quote or verse.


Trees & Flowers

Another way to mark the burial site could be to plant a tree or bush near the grave. Be careful not to plant a tree too close so that it does not disturb the body.

You could also make a small garden bed above the grave and plant perennial flowers. Check out this article for information on flowers that work well at gravesites.

Marking your loved one’s burial site with something living could help you grieve as you pay your respects through nurturing new life.


Photos & Jewelry

If you have decided to forego burial you can still pay lasting tribute to your loved one through photographs and jewelry. You could set up a family alter around your loved one’s ashes or carry special keepsakes with you to remind you of your loved one.

Choose The Burial Method That Works Best For Your Family

One of the appeals of hiring a funeral home is convenience taking on the responsibilities of afterlife care can feel overwhelming. If an at-home funeral sounds appealing to you, but you’re not sure where to start, consider hiring a funeral guide or death midwife. This guide should be able to walk you through the process of paperwork, body care, and other practicalities. The Home Funeral Alliance has a directory of funeral guides here.

An at-home funeral and burial is an affordable and personal way to give your loved one the send-off they deserve.

Updated March 26, 2020 by Frances Kay