Frequently asked questions & commonly used terms in community-centered death and dying.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Q. What is family-directed after-death care?

Home after-death care is a family or community-centered response to death. The emphasis is on minimal, non-invasive, and environmentally-friendly care of the body in a family-centered way. It can occur in a family home, a nursing home, or some other facility. It reflects a family’s values and traditions and may include a representative of a faith or spiritual community. Family-directed death care has environmental, economical, and emotional benefits.

A family may participate in washing and dressing the body; use dry ice or techni-ice instead of embalming; allow several hours to 3 or 4 days for a home visitation, where family and friends can sit with the body and through sharing, singing, reading, or participating in rituals, honor the life of the loved one; facilitate the cremation or burial, transport the body to the crematory or cemetery; file the death-related paperwork

Support and assistance to carry out after-death care may come from home funeral educators, with the goal of maximum involvement of the family and their social network.

Q: Why would families choose to care for their own dead?

Family-directed after-death care, also known as a do-it-yourself funeral, home funeral, or home vigil, offers at least four significant benefits over the conventional commercial funeral:

  • A home vigil provides more time and freedom for family to say goodbye.
  • A home vigil allows mourners to channel their grief and to find a sense of purpose through the physical preparation of the body.
  • A home vigil allows for a more personalized family ritual that reflects the life of the deceased and provides a better transition for those left behind.
  • A home vigil cost hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.

Q: Is a family-led funeral the same as the home funeral that some funeral providers may offer?

Probably not. Some funeral providers in the US may have a home funeral option, but it probably means offering a commercial funeral with an embalmed body in one’s home. In contrast, a family-led funeral is the reclaimed tradition of family, friends, and community, not professionals, directing and performing after-death care and rituals in the comfort of one’s own home.

Q: Won’t it be too emotionally traumatizing?

In reality, those who have cared for their dead testify that it is a very therapeutic labor of love, a blessing, and a privilege.

Q: Isn’t after-death care a job that is only suitable for a professional?

While we have been conditioned by Hollywood and the funeral industry to believe that after-death care is something that only a professional can handle, in actuality, this isn’t so. The only thing a funeral director does that requires specialized training is embalming, and, fortunately, embalming is not part of a home vigil.

Q: How does one prepare a body for viewing?

The physical preparation of the body is safe and relatively straightforward. It involves a thorough cleansing of the entire body with soap and water. The process is pretty much identical to how a live bedridden person is bathed. Afterward, the body is dressed and prepared for viewing, which might include such things as closing the mouth and eyes if desired, positioning the arms and hands, and styling the hair. If the deceased is male, facial hair can be shaven; if the deceased is female, everyday makeup can be applied, if desired.

Q: Don’t the dead have to be embalmed?

Many people mistakenly believe that embalming is required by law, necessary for the public health, provides long-term preservation, or disinfects the body. However, none of these beliefs are true. Only Americans and Canadians routinely embalm their dead.

Q: If not embalming, then how does one slow decomposition of a body?

Embalming is just one way to provide short-term preservation of a body. It is not the only way or the best way, especially if one takes into consideration the violence and invasiveness of the process to the deceased and the release of cancer-causing chemicals into the environment and the embalmer

On a nonembalmed body, the rate of decomposition depends on a variety of factors, including temperature, condition of body upon death, etc. It typically is a slow process.

With a home vigil, it is recommended that the body be cooled with dry ice or Techni-Ice, placed inconspicuously under the torso and on top of the abdomen. The ice is replaced as needed. This is more than sufficient to slow the decomposition of the body until cremation or burial.

Q: Where do I get a casket?

Caskets can be homemade, purchased from a local or online retailer or from Costco at a fraction of a funeral home’s price. For cremation, you can use an inexpensive cardboard cremation container, also known as an alternative container, and personalize it by painting and decorating it. Not only will it be a work of art, many have found it to be a work of art therapy.

Q: Are family-led funerals appropriate for every death?

No, the feasibility of a family-directed funeral must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

A home vigil is ideal for hospice situations where death is expected and, as a result, no autopsy is required and the body can remain in the home. In fact, it is a natural progression for family to continue the care that they have been providing for days, weeks, or months for just a few more hours or days after death.

The weight of the deceased must be taken into account, as it would be difficult to provide after-death care for and transport someone who is extremely heavy.

If there has been severe trauma and/or the body is not suitable for viewing, a home funeral may not be appropriate. In these cases, it may be possible for the family to take part in some of the after-death care with assistance from a funeral director as needed. However, those that loved the deceased in life, as well as in death, should be the ones who decide what is, or is not, appropriate for them. Before the recent advent of the commercial funeral industry, Americans cared for their own dead in all circumstances. In many parts of the world, families still do. It is a personal decision.

Q: Is there information available or someone in my area  who can provide guidance or assistance?

Yes! Many resources are available.

First, educate yourself through books, step-by-step manuals such as Undertaken with Love, and any available hands-on training. Pioneers such as Jerrigrace Lyons of Final Passages in California, and Beth Knox of Crossings in Maryland, offer seminars and workshops.

Second, Minnesota Threshold Network offers free monthly meeting and occasional practical trainings as well as an extensive resource page: https://mnthresholdnetwork.wordpress.com/resources/. Email MTN at mnthresholdnetwork@gmail.com.

Third, visit the National Home Funeral Alliance website. “Find a Home Funeral Guide” offers a list of guides in your area. Please note that some funeral guides offer experience and assistance as a free community service while others charge a fee.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, remember that a successful family-directed funeral does not require experience or perfection.

[The above Q&As were adapted and used with permission from the Funeral Consumers Information Society of Michigan]

Q. What is a green burial?

Eco-friendly burials are designed to cooperate with the natural process of decomposition and to have a minimum impact on the environment. Typically they feature:

  • No formaldehyde-based toxic embalming chemicals
  • No metal or hardwood caskets. Only biodegradable containers, made of sustainable material such as pine or bamboo, or biodegradable shrouds
  • No concrete vaults or grave liners.  (Minnesota state law does not require burial vaults, but most cemeteries do.)
  • No or a natural headstone/memorial


Q. But is it legal? Answer from Minnesota State Representative Carolyn Laine

In 2010, I passed legislation to eliminate embalming as a requirement if the body was viewed in public. Dr. Michael Osterholm, well-known epidemiologist at the U of M, was my key expert testifier. By eliminating the requirement for embalming, families can have home visitations or church funerals with an unembalmed body and anyone present. And they can have green burials without losing the opportunity to take the time to have their friends and family present at a visitation with the body present.

To this day, people are sometimes told erroneously by their funeral director that if they want to skip embalming, they need to go directly to cremation or burial. Later, they can have a memorial service with photos but no body. I feel it is very important for the family to have the time it takes to say goodbye. I feel that a couple hours at a funeral home with an embalmed body is not only insufficient time but an abnormal way to support grief. After all, person who has recently died looks like themselves, just dead — whereas an embalmed body looks very different. And embalming means the body is quickly taken and hidden away — whereas it is possible, and legal, to spend time with the body of the loved one, using ways to keep the body cool, and let the acceptance of death move deeply into us as we have the time to grieve naturally.

And THEN one can move into more natural burial options, continuing to lovingly care for one’s loved one and releasing them into the natural processes of life and death. Green burials are very rapidly becoming popular. When I started giving “Home Funerals and Green Burials” presentations a few years ago, there were no cemeteries in the Twin Cities that did it. Today I know of 4, with one being totally devoted to green burials. Other cemeteries are coming on board as people request it. Nationally, it has gone from about 5 a decade ago to about 150 now!

Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco-Garden in Inver Grove Heights offers only green burials. Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center, offering traditional and green burials, is a certified hybrid cemetery by the Natural Burial Council. Oak Hill Cemetery on Lyndale in Minneapolis allows green burials mixed in with their other plots. Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville also will bury green.

More cemeteries will agree to bury in a green way when consumers press the issue. There are no specific state laws around natural burial, except that the county is responsible for deciding whether one can bury on one’s own property (it will be designated a cemetery in perpetuity). All the regulations requiring a large concrete grave liner or a  vault around a casket are only cemetery rules, not law. In spite of hype about “preventing water penetration,” the purpose of a vault is so the cemetery can drive heavy equipment over the lawn to cut grass and to dig graves.

Electronic resources:

Green Burial Movement:-http://www.brownedocs.com/the-green-burial-movement/

A Will for the Woods, A new full-length documentary film, about a dying psychiatrist seeking a natural burial site. See a trailer here — http://vimeo.com/user3481436

Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. Mark Harris (2007). New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.  www.gravematters.us.


Q. What about Ebola? [Answer from Minnesota State Representative Carolyn Laine]

Although the Ebola virus dies in all modes of disposition — burial, flame cremation, and flameless cremation — and cannot live more than at most a few days after the host body dies, we are in the U. S. taking extraordinary precautions, even after an Ebola victim dies. The Center for Disease Control rules require the body be placed in two waterproof bags or a hermetically-sealed casket liner. Then it can be either cremated or buried. Because we  are taking great care to not have people come into contact with bodily fluids that might still carry the infection, it would not be recommended to wrap in a simple shroud or use a simple casket. Therefore, a green burial would not be a choice. Please note that we are unlikely to see a spread of Ebola in America because it is actually quite difficult to contract; one needs to be in direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.


Q. Are there green cemeteries in Minnesota?

The Twin Cities now offers green burial options. Please ask your local or family cemetery if they have a green option, as green burial is driven by consumer demand.


Q. Isn’t cremation environmentally-friendly?

Although cremation is considered greener than a conventional funeral, it takes tremendous amounts of fossil fuel to burn a body. Additionally, toxins can be released into the atmosphere, including vaporized mercury from dental fillings.


Q. Is there another option?

Minnesota is leading the way in flameless cremation, a process of reducing a body to its basic elements using alkaline hydrolysis. The Mayo Clinic has used this for years in its medical school body donor program. Now flameless cremation is available commercially from Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation in Stillwater.

News stories on alkaline hydrolysis:



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