How to Prepare a Corpse for an At-Home Funeral

If you want a truly green funeral, then you need to learn how your ancestors went about preparing a corpse for a funeral. The methods below were practiced before undertakers (or funeral directors) took over the handling of the dead between 1850 and 1920. Old-time funerals were, perhaps, the greenest funerals ever.

The list below contains some practices used by American colonials. With each practice is a current option to help make your funeral (or a loved one’s funeral) as green and natural as possible.

  • Before embalming became a common practice in the U.S., the typical time between burial and death during the summer season was within twenty-four hours, as temperature has more impact on body decomposition than does time. Today, a funeral home may not require embalming unless it is state law. It is never required for the first 24 hours in any state; 22 states require embalming after 24, 48, or 72 hours, but refrigeration is usually an option. Refrigeration is not an option in Alaska, Minnesota or North Dakota. Remember that colonials usually buried a body where it fell, so transporting a body across interstate lines was not an issue two centuries ago. Check now about laws concerning body transportation before the inevitable happens.
  • Washing the body and dressing the corpse was more an act of love than a necessity in colonial times. To be blunt, the deceased loses all bodily functions at time of death, so cleaning the body may not be your cup of tea. But, in all cases it is necessary to eliminate odors. Today, with at-home corpse preparations, family members also can wash and dress a deceased loved one. Once again, you must check with state laws [PDF] to see how you can comply with at-home funerals.
  • You may discover many problems that colonials knew how to handle. For instance, vinegar may have been used to swab out the deceased’s mouth to help eliminate ‘death odor.’ Also, arms were folded across the chest to give the appearance of sleeping…and this must be done shortly after washing and dressing before rigor mortis sets in. Feet often were tied together to limit after-death muscle contractions caused by the breakdown of muscle tissue by digestive enzymes during decomposition. A handkerchief often was wrapped under the chin and around the head to keep the mouth closed, and coins were placed on the deceased’s eyes to keep them shut as well. While these motions may seem old-fashioned and irrelevant, in many cases these precautions were necessary to fit a body into a coffin or grave.
  • Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, many families buried their loved ones in family plots like the one shown in the image above. They would mark the graves with a stone, a cairn or a hand-carved memorial created from wood and, eventually, stone. Even today, in rural areas, families are allowed to bury their loved ones in active family plots located on farms or at homes. But, times change and these families and others must comply with state and federal laws when it comes to burial. While your third-great-grandmother may have been buried in a pine box without a grave liner, some states may require family plots to comply with state laws, which may include using grave liners and proper caskets rather than shrouds or biodegradable caskets.

Beyond the issues of a home burial shown above, there can be extreme satisfaction and a sacredness to handling the body of a loved one after death. Additionally, with the increase of home deaths, it seems to make sense to prepare the body before burial (unless you live in Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska and New York, where funeral directors are required to be involved to some degree). To learn more about other folks’ experiences with at-home funeral preparations, please read the stories listed below for some ideas and thoughts about this process. These stories also provide useful links to learn more about at-home funerals:

  • Death Midwifery and the Home Funeral Revolution: Home funeral guide Jerrigrace Lyons, director/founder of Final Passages in Sebastopol, states, “It [home funeral preparation] was a life-changing experience and it awakened in me a passion to share with others how empowering and beneficial the home funeral was and the fact that it is completely legal in California.”
  • A Movement to Bring Grief Back Home: After Richard Saul died of Lou Gehrig’s disease just before Christmas last year at age 77, neighbors and friends gathered at his Cleveland Park home to extend sympathies to his widow, Judy, and their sons and grandson. Many were surprised to learn that they could also pay their respects to Richard.
  • The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral: Two bodies, two funerals and two different outcomes.

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