Do It All Yourself
What needs to be done?
“Someone will wash the body. Someone will dress the body. Someone will close the eyes for the final time. Someone will. At the critical moment of death, someone will perform these tasks for the person whom we have loved and cared for all our lives. Why would we give those meaningful rituals away to a stranger? Why do we give away the best stuff?” Anne O’Connor
A home-based funeral is sometimes called a DIY funeral, a term many people are uncomfortable with. Let’s call it a home funeral.
When someone dies, most public officials advise you on the assumption that you will want to use a funeral director. Some will express amazement that you want to do it all yourself, some may try to dissuade you, some will disapprove and some will try to stand in your way. If anyone tries to tell you it’s against the law, put them right. It’s not. Tell them you are the funeral director. Check out the legal position here: Your legal rights and responsibilities.
The more prepared you can be in advance, the better. To begin from a standing start will be really difficult.
Why would you want to do it?
If you feel strongly about letting strangers take your dead person away to do with them you know not what; if you feel strongly that it’s your duty to care for them and spend time with them in death as in life; if you think you have the emotional and physical strength to enable you to do that, then you may well be prepared and equipped for the task.
It needs serious thought. Not only can it be difficult in itself, it may also be difficult to explain to friends and neighbours. It’s an unconventional thing to do. Do you care?
What will your close family members and friends think? You will need their help. At least four of them, preferably six.
The Rule of Five
Before you can sensibly undertake any practical task in which you are unversed, you need five things.
- an understanding of the difficulties
- an understanding of the worst that can go wrong
- the right equipment
- a workshop manual
- the phone number of an expert who can advise – or ride to your rescue in case of calamity
Some of the difficulties
If someone dies at home, and there are no unexplained circumstances requiring a post mortem, a home funeral may be a relatively straightforward undertaking unless death happens shortly before Christmas, when public holidays may delay funeral arrangements.
Other difficulties may be:
- Place of death
- Circumstances of death
- If there is a post mortem
- If the person has been in an accident
- If the person dies away from home
Is a dead body infectious?
If the person has died of a disease which would put you at risk, your doctor will tell you. Most viruses and diseases can survive no longer than a few hours in a dead body. The microorganisms associated with decomposition are not the kind that cause disease. Smells don’t kill.
Almost all dead bodies are not dangerous. Gloves and simple protective clothing are all you need – and a mask, if you like.
Is no previous experience enough?
Looking after a dead body is a lot easier than looking after a bedridden adult or a helpless child. You can do it all from the workshop manual.
Is it possible to keep a body at home for so long?
In most cases, if you arrange to keep your dead person at home for no longer than a week, so long as you keep him or her cool all should be well.
1. The very worst that can happen
According to Erika Nelson, a funeral director, quoted in the Crossings Manual for Home Funeral Care (see below) the following conditions make a body especially difficult to care for:
- Bed sores – open wounds which leak fluid
- Oedema and fluid-filled blisters
- Certain infections
- Rapid decomposition
A number of factors govern the rate of decomposition even when the body is kept cool. Those which may hasten it include: the duration of the dying process; cause of death; the size of the body; the contents of the stomach; and the presence of medication (especially cancer drugs). A nurse may be able to offer an opinion. Sometimes, decomposition can progress very fast.
2. The right equipment
Chances are that you have almost all the equipment you need in the house already – towels, sheets, etc. What you’re doing, remember, is as old as time itself.
You’ll need to keep the body cool and you do that with dry ice or with ordinary ice packs.
You’ll need to keep the room cool, so a portable air conditioning unit is a desirable extra.
You’ll need a coffin, which you can either make yourself or buy.
You will need strong and willing hands to help you.
3. A workshop manual
There is presently no home funeral care manual dedicated to people in the UK. The best resource published here is the latest edition of the Natural Death Handbook.
From the USA and Canada, where the home funeral movement is thriving, you can obtain three excellent resources. All are detailed and downloadable from the internet. The first two contain accounts of home funerals which will also be informative and, perhaps, also inspiring. If what you have read so far has not deterred you, go to:
- The Crossings Resource Guide – A Manual For Home Funeral Care. Please consider giving a donation here.
- The Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives
- Undertaken with Love – A Home Funeral Guide
If you’d like to see what a home funeral looks like, here are some photos.
4. Phone a friend
Many funeral directors will be happy to stand by and help you out if it all gets too much – for a fee, of course.
Many funeral directors will be very supportive, happy to act as consultants throughout the process and drop in whenever you want to check that all is well. Recommended!
Find a gravedigger
If you want to bury the person who has died, the grave must be dug according to rules laid down by the burial ground. Because gravedigging is a skilled and potentially dangerous business, it is likely that you will be required to engage a professional gravedigger.
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