The Dirt on DIY Funerals: What Is Legal?

As our society changes, many people are rethinking the rituals around how they handle the death of a loved one. . Piedmont Pine Coffins

I recently wrote about a friend who lost her son and set out to reclaim the rituals around death, and the response to the story was fantastic. A growing number of people feel that our existing institutions no longer adequately help us face the inevitable. This cultural shift takes many forms, from DIY funerals to greener forms of burial.

But what, exactly, is legal is this realm?

Can you handle a funeral yourself?

It's an obvious understatement to say that the loss of a loved one is a trying time for any family. For many people, a licensed funeral director is an indispensable guide to making sure that everything goes smoothly. Nevertheless, for some families, taking control of their own funeral arrangements is an important way to engage with the process and make sure that the rituals reflect their ideals. And it's often perfectly legal. According to NPR, in most states there is no requirement for a funeral director to be involved in a funeral.

Keeping the body at home

It is also, usually, perfectly legal and feasible to keep a body at home for at least a couple of days. According to Rodale's Organic Life, the typical length of time a body can be kept at home is three days. They advise keeping air conditioning on, or using dry ice to keep a body cool. There may, however, be local laws that need to be followed — and displaying a body in anything but a conventional, culturally appropriate "viewing" may fall foul of laws regarding abuse or desecration of a human body. A growing number of home funeral professionals may be able to guide you through the practical and legal implications of keeping a body at home.

Home burial

When my friends Tami and Lyle lost their son, they had already been exploring home burial for a neighbor who was dying of ALS. It turns out that in many states, there is no law against burial on private land. Before conducting a home burial, however, it's important to check with the town or county clerk and local health department for any rules that may apply. If you do bury a body on private land, it's recommended that you draw a map of the property showing the burial ground, and file it with the property deed. This way, the location will be clear to others in the future — making both sale of land and any building or landscaping projects easier, without the risk of inadvertently disturbing the burial site.

Piedmont Pine Coffins photo
As many families explore alternative or DIY funerals, simpler, lower-cost caskets are becoming more popular. Piedmont Pine Coffins

Transporting a body

Transportation of a dead body is often a significant area of uncertainty for grieving families. Can you drive around with a dead body? What happens if you're stopped? Donald Byrne, proprietor of Piedmont Pine Coffins in North Carolina, shared this advice with me, although it's important to note that laws may vary by state:

"Any family member can drive the dead person around, but have a death certificate in the car with you. That way, if you are stopped, the police know how the person died (noted on the death certificate) and know who you are, since you'll have your DL with you. If you are, say, a family friend or a home funeral guide who's helping the family by transporting the body, just make sure you have one family member in the car."

coffin in truck photo
In most states, family members can transport a body. It's advisable to keep a copy of the death certificate with you. Kevin Bobal

Can you forgo embalming?

Defined as the preservation of a corpse, most usually through arterial injection of a preservative like formaldehyde, embalming is standard practice for most burials in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no requirement in many states for a body to be embalmed. Many people are now choosing to forego the process — both as a way to save money, and to avoid toxic chemicals which may be harmful to the living and to the environment.

According to Alternet, embalming really only took off in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, and since then it has become a major source of income for the funeral industry. If you'd prefer not to embalm a body, and a funeral professional tells you it's compulsory, be sure to ask why.

Some funeral homes may not allow viewings or open caskets for an un-embalmed body, says Byrne, fearing that their reputation would be on the line if an unappealing funeral took place within their walls. For similar reasons, they are more likely to refuse a shroud burial in their funeral home without embalming.

If you're planning on a home viewing, there are often ways and means to make sure a body is "presentable," even without chemical embalming. In an interview for Vice, Caitlin Doughty, a licensed funeral director and advocate for rethinking our funeral rituals, shared some of the many options available:

"If you have a funeral home do it, they probably have some tricks that they've used. There's probably some wires, there's probably some eye caps and some Super Glue involved if they've prepared the body. But if you're preparing it at home, it can be as natural as you want. Essential oils, candles, rolled-up towel under the mouth, it can be as completely natural as you want it to be. But it's all cultural. The eyes being a little open, the mouth being a little open —the fact that we're not comfortable with that is cultural."

Caskets, shrouds and other containers

woodworking tools on a coffin photo
A coffin-makers woodworking tools. Piedmont Pine Coffins

For someone planning a funeral, selecting from the diversity of caskets being marketed can be a bewildering and costly challenge. It's important to know that federal law requires funeral homes to accept caskets purchased from another source, and there's no requirement to use a casket at all. A simple shroud, for example, may be more fitting. (Individual burial sites or funeral homes, however, may have rules that effect this.) Suppliers like Piedmont Pine Coffins are making a niche for themselves creating low-cost, sustainable alternatives to hardwood coffins. Piedmont Pine Coffins even offers low-cost coffin plans for people who want to build their own.

Byrne explains that some states require you to be a licensed funeral director to sell funeral merchandise such as coffins. But such state laws are on shaky ground, he says, ever since a Trappist monastery in Louisiana that sold caskets prevailed in a case against the state funeral commission, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he says he has never heard of any cemetery or funeral home mandating a certain type of casket.

Scattering ashes

Given the rising popularity of cremation, understanding the legal parameters of how to dispose of ashes is probably as important as how to dispose of an intact body. While local restrictions may vary (so please check!), the basic rule of thumb is this: Disposing of cremated remains is legal on private land and uninhabited public land. It's also legal to dispose of ashes from the air. Technically, you are supposed to get permission to scatter ashes on federal land, but most online advice suggests that you're unlikely to meet resistance if you do so tactfully and away from buildings or other land users. Scattering at sea should also be done at least three miles offshore, but Byrne suggests that here too, reality may be slightly different to the letter of the law:

"Although the authorities always want to know where human remains are disposed, so you're always supposed to inform them ahead of time. But there are no Ash Police. Quiet as it's kept, if you're discreet, you can scatter with impunity."

Alternative burial options

The guidance provided above is geared primarily toward "standard," culturally accepted burial practices that are commonly used here in the U.S. What exactly is "culturally accepted," however, has varied over time and according to where you live. So as our society rethinks how we dispose of our dead, it's probably no surprise that some people are looking to answers from other parts of the world or other moments in human history.

From Tibetan sky burials — where a body is left in the open for vultures to devour — to viking boat burnings or burial at sea, there are many different methods to choose from. The best advice is probably this: If you're stepping outside established cultural norms in the community in which you live, it's best to consult a professional before going too far. Byrne does point out that there is one licensed funeral pyre/outdoor cremation site in Colorado, and he says a group in Arkansas is looking to start a second. So if you have an interest in alternative modes of disposal, it may be worth advocating for them early before you're in need of the services.

It's also a good idea to think through the physics of any method you're considering. For example, the aforementioned funeral director Doughty has some graphic words of caution for anyone considering a viking funeral because of the how it's like to turn out — not well.

How we manage our dead is fraught with personal, legal and cultural ramifications, and often depends on which state you live in. The guidance above is intended as a broad guideline only. So it's important to check with authorities where you live before committing yourself to any specific direction. In addition, the following resources may also be useful for further research: