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Are home funerals legal?

Yes!  Keeping or bringing a loved one home from an institution after death is legal in every state – including Wisconsin – for bathing, dressing, private viewing, and ceremony as the family chooses. Every state recognizes the next-of-kin’s custody and control of the body that allows the opportunity to hold a home vigil. Religious observations, family gatherings, memorials, and private events are not under the jurisdiction of the State or professionals in the funeral industry, who have no medico-legal authority unless it is transferred to them when they are paid for service

Some states do require the involvement of a licensed funeral director for some portion of the process. Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York have various restrictions concerning a family’s right to after-death care, home funerals and burials. This does not affect family rights to bring/keep the body at home, but a funeral director will need to be involved in the process.  Wisconsin has no such requirements.

Families who hold a home funeral must still contact the authorities in order to file a death certificate and other documents.

Are dead bodies dangerous?

There are many misconceptions about dead bodies. Dead bodies are actually safer than living bodies, unless the person is killed by an infectious disease. Some of the fear of dead bodies may linger in our collective consciousness from mass casualties in the past from diseases such as plague and cholera, typhoid and TB, anthrax and small pox. Such infections are rare in the US. However, somebody whose direct cause of death is an infectious disease is not an ideal candidate for a home funeral.

How much does a home funeral cost?

It depends. If a family does everything on its own, funeral home fees are eliminated. However, you will still need to purchase a plot and pay for interment (opening and closing the grave), or pay for cremation.  A “direct cremation” (a very basic service usually including transportation of the body, paperwork, and cremation – without a funeral, viewing or any other frills) can be purchased for as little as $1,000 in SE Wisconsin.

How much does a regular funeral cost?

The average cost of a funeral with burial is $8,700.  This does not include the burial plot or interment fee, which can be several thousand dollars more. On average it costs $6,000 for a funeral with cremation. From the National Funeral Directors Association.

What are the environmental impacts of a regular burial?

With a conventional burial, the embalmed body goes into a metal or wood casket, which goes into a vault or liner, which goes five to six feet into the ground, under a smooth lawn that needs a fertilizer, mowing, and upkeep. Metal caskets can leach iron, copper, lead and zinc into the soil. Wood caskets might be prepared with preservatives, varnishes or sealants and may contain arsenic and other chemicals. Vaults made of concrete, plastic, fiberglass or asphalt, off-gass and leach pollutants. And of course- before they are ever used, the harvesting, processing, manufacture and transport of casket and vault materials represent additional energy use and other environmental impacts.

Two million caskets are purchased in the United States annually. Casket wood consumes 77 thousand trees each year. The steel used for caskets is enough steel to build 2,000 Empire State Buildings. The concrete used for vaults and liners is enough to build a highway from San Francisco to Kansas City. And  4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid goes into the ground.

Is natural burial actually safe for the community?

Yes, it is safe.

Green Burial Council has produced a comprehensive document addressing safety concerns: The Science Behind Green and Conventional Burial.

Why do people choose embalming?

Currently, 60% of bodies are embalmed. This is often done before burial, and sometimes before cremation. There is no legal requirement for embalming in any state. However, funeral homes often have a policy requiring it if there is to be a viewing.

Embalming became common after the Civil War when bodies needed to be transported long distances to get home. Arsenic was the main ingredient in embalming fluid at that time. As done today, the medical community is in agreement that there is no medical or safety purpose to this practice. It is done mainly for cosmetic reasons. From an environmental perspective, embalming fluid eventually ends up in the earth. But even before this, it is causing harm. Embalming poses a number of health hazards to funeral directors and embalmers from inhaling the fluid, which contains formaldehyde, benzene, ethanol, glycol, and other toxic chemicals. Those who embalm suffer a 13% higher death rate, eight times the risk of contracting leukemia, and 3 times the risk of contracting ALS and other autoimmune and neurological diseases.

There is green embalming fluid made of plant-based extracts, but it does not have the same results as regular embalming, it is more expensive, and most funeral homes do not offer it.

Why is cremation getting more popular?

In 2015, for the first time, more Americans were cremated than buried. In 1980 only 10% of Americans chose cremation. By 2035, it is projected that 80% of Americans will be cremated.

What’s behind this dramatic trend? For one thing, the Catholic church was a staunch opponent of cremation. In 1963 it changed its stance to allow it – although full burial is still preferred, and ashes must be kept intact and not scattered.  Around the world, the cremation rate in Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic majority countries is much lower due to religious sanctions on cremation, (Italy, Ireland and Poland having less than 10%.) whereas for Hindu or Buddhist majority countries the cremation rate is much higher (Japan, Nepal and Thailand having a rate over 95%).

Cost is another factor. Cremation is usually significantly less expensive than conventional burial.  And people are simply losing interest in full funerals.  In fact, fewer than one-third of Americans say they want the conventional full funeral service with embalming, open casket viewing, and burial.

In the great shift toward cremation, will natural burials catch on?  54% of Americans say they are interested in Green Burial, and 72% of cemeteries report an increased demand.

How does cremation work?

Cremation is the process of reducing the body to ashes through the use of intense heat. The process usually takes two to four hours and more than 1800 degrees of heat. By the way, what comes out of the retort is not ashes but bone fragments. The bone fragments are placed in a “cremulator” and reduced to a material that is more like sand than ashes.

Cremation releases 300-600 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (depending on container, size of person, retort, etc). It can also release fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions from dental fillings. The UN estimates that cremations contribute up to .2 percent of annual global emissions of greenhouse gasses. While cremation has less of a carbon footprint than traditional burial, the process is still environmentally problematic.

Many people are not aware that embalming is not necessary for cremation.

Is scattering ashes legal?

In Wisconsin, scattering ashes is legal on private property.  One is supposed to obtain permission to scatter ashes on public, government owned land such as parks.

Be aware that scattering remains can have a negative effect in a delicate environment. Ashes have high pH and salt content.

Are home burials legal?

Burying a body on private property is is sometimes possible. There is no federal or Wisconsin state law prohibiting it – it is controlled by the local zoning rules in whatever city or town you are in. See this PDF.

What other final disposition options do I have?

  • Alkaline hydrolysis (also called flameless cremation, or water cremation). Legal in 16 states but not yet Wisconsin.  The cost is roughly the same as regular cremation. You end up with very similar results as cremation (“ashes,” but white rather than grey as they haven’t been burned). Compared to cremation, this process produces one-quarter the amount of carbon emissions, and consumes 1/8th of the energy.  In this process a body is placed in a steel chamber in a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide, and heated and pressurized. After 2-3 hours, the body is reduced to bone pieces that can be broken down into ash (exactly like regular cremation).
  • Promession – This process is being developed in Europe and may be coming to the US in the future. It involves freezing the body in liquid nitrogen and vibrating it into a powder, then removing any metals. What is left over resembles dust or powder.
  • Burial at sea – the EPA in charge of laws and regulations. It must be done three nautical miles from land and a depth of 600 feet.  This is considered a green option.
  • Whole body donation (to science) is an altruistic option – but it still results in cremation.
  • Recomposition is a process that is currently under development.  It is intended for urban areas where burial space is an issue, and intended to be a highly environmentally sustainable process.  The decomposition process is sped up through optimal mix of wood chips, moisture, and air – and the body is turned into healthy and usable soil in 30 days (in which you can plant a tree!).

What should I know if I use a funeral home?

The Federal Trade Commissioner enforces a very important consumer-protection law called the Funeral Rule.  It is worth reading through.

Some highlights:

  • Funeral homes must show you an itemized price list (rather than only packages) when you ask. This is called the  General Price List, or GPL, and it is yours to keep.  Most funeral homes do not have their prices on their website- you’ve got to go in, or call and ask.
  • Funeral homes are legally obligated to let you use – at no additional cost or fee – any casket that you purchase elsewhere or make yourself.
  • You should use a funeral home only for the services you want and need- you should not feel obligated to purchase a package. For instance, if you are doing a home funeral, you might only wish to purchase assistance with the paperwork and transportation of the body.

A website called gathers General Price Lists lists and posts them online, allowing you to compare prices of various services in your location.

Is there any financial resources or assistance to help with funerals/cremation?

Yes, some people who meet certain criteria may be eligible for up to $1500 to help pay for unmet funeral-related costs. Find more information here.

What should I be doing now to prepare?

You’ve already started by visiting this site!

Figure out what you want, and put it in writing. Know what your loved ones want. Start the conversation with your family. Hold a ‘Death Dinner Party’ conversation while everyone is still healthy.

Ensure you have Advance Directives in order, including:

  • A living will to specify what kind of medical treatment you want at the end of life/
  • Power of attorney for healthcare which indicates who can make decisions for you.
  • Authorization of final disposition, which allows you to choose who can make funeral decisions for you, and allows you to indicate your preferences for funeral and disposition.

You can find these Wisconsin-specific forms on this link.

If somebody in your life (or you yourself) want to have a home-funeral, start planning now. As the time approaches, know where to get supplies, assign duties, and if you need additional support – have on hand the contact details of an end-of-life doula or home funeral guide.