For some people, the idea of caring for a loved-one’s body in the lead-up to burial or cremation is hugely confronting. For others, it is a natural extension of the caring they have provided in the lead-up to their loved one’s death.
Practical insight into what is involved in preparing a body for burial and what options there are to engaging the services of a funeral director.
What does the Natural Death Advocacy Network do?
We’re a not-for-profit community organisation and we advocate for people who want natural choices at the end of life. Among other things, we advocate for the establishment of natural cemeteries, working alongside cemetery trusts and petitioning for stand-alone natural burial grounds. Mostly people call us because they are looking for a natural burial site, rather than a standard cemetery with tombstones and lawns.
We have a list of funeral directors that practice natural burials. We also support people who want to bury their loved ones naturally and do the whole thing themselves. That support includes advocacy work. Sometimes cemeteries say they won’t take a booking for a family-led funeral without a funeral director being involved. When that happens, we ring the cemetery and explain how it can be done.
Are family-led funerals controversial or misunderstood in some circles?
One rural cemetery trust thought I was a witch until they learned what family-led funerals are. I spend a great deal of my time patiently wading through old-held values and beliefs. Sometimes it helps to remind trustees how much things have changed within the past century. Many trustees are in their eighties, so I say “Tell me the story about when your grandmother died and how she was buried”. They’ll talk about how their grandmother was cared for at home and how the men went out the back and made a coffin and then took the coffin to the graveyard. Back then it was all done by the family.
We’ve lost that over time. Back then rituals were known and someone down the road knew how to layout the body. There was comfort in knowing what was going to happen. People had experienced it first-hand before and maybe better understood that it was a natural part of life.
These days, it can be difficult for families if they want to do some, or all of it, themselves. But legally, they have the right to handle all aspects of the body’s preparation for burial, cremation, and the funeral, if that is what they want.
I know families who have provided all of the care and done the shrouding themselves and just brought in a funeral director to transport the body from their home to the crematorium. Lots of funeral directors will do a tailored piece of help like that. They are also starting to accept that a family, rather than a funeral director, might make a booking for a burial or cremation.
What sort of things do funeral directors generally do when preparing bodies?
Somewhere in our collective history, we as a society decided that after our loved ones die we want to make them look like they are alive and just sleeping. So a lot of what funeral directors do is about achieving that, particularly if a body is going to be made available for viewing.
They may embalm the body, and apply a whole range of chemicals externally to change the body’s appearance. They also put caps inside the eyes, sew or glue the person’s lips together and use a lot of makeup.
When you look at what really matters after someone dies, we need to care for the body respectfully but we also need to look after the welfare of the family too. So if the family says they need their loved one to look like they are sleeping, in order to be able cope, then chemicals, eye caps and stitching may be the appropriate choice.
My personal belief is that if we have conversations about end of life and plan for what it might look like, then that leaves people much better prepared to see beauty in the person in their death and not want to sanitise it. It is easier for them to be witness to the situation and feel in control of it.
At home what might people do to keep a deceased loved one’s eyes or mouth closed?
You can just lift the lid of the eye and put a little dollop of Vaseline underneath. That will keep the eyes closed.
Unless you hold the person’s jaw closed, it will open; that is part of being dead. To keep their mouth closed, just roll up a face washer and pop that under their chin, or tie a scarf under their jaw and around their head. Their jaw will then set closed when rigor mortis sets in.
In my experience of having done this hundreds of times, I’ve never had a family that’s not coped with it. Before their loved one died, they might have thought that they couldn’t. But it’s a bit like caring for a baby and witnessing the small changes as they grow. Changes in the body are very minor in the days after a person’s death and with preparation we can cope with these changes comfortably.
Is it important to wash the body and how do you do that?
You don’t have to wash the body, but people tend to like doing that as part of their caring, as a kind of ritual.
Washing a body is not much different to washing a person who is alive. You just use warm water with some essential oil, wipe their hands and face, and wipe their bottom if it needs wiping. It’s the same kind of tender loving care you gave only hours before they died.
Is there anything to consider in terms of the person’s dignity and bodily fluids?
It is rare, but sometimes people wee or empty their bowls before they die. Usually that’s it. If you are concerned, you can use a disposable nappy and add a good dose of essential oils, but it is rare that fluids are smelly.
Sometimes if you turn the person to wash their back some fluid might come from the back of their throat. All you need to do is just wipe it away.
What legal requirements to you need to consider when someone dies at home?
You need to have the doctor who has treated the person to write out a medical certificate with the cause of death.
If the person is to be cremated, a second doctor, who has no relationship to the first doctor, has to authorise the cremation.
You also have to register the death with the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages in your state.
Can you keep a loved one’s body at home rather than sending them to a morgue?
For some families, it is important not to be separated too soon from the person who has died. You can hire cooling plates or a cooling bed, or even pack a body in ice, rather than having the body taken straight to the morgue. I know a family who lived in a cold part of Victoria. It was winter when their Dad died at home. They kept him outside for a few days in this beautiful, chilly altar.
Usually after three days families are ready to release the body of the person who has died. They’ve been having rituals and ceremonies and so they’re ready by that time. They may proceed with the funeral or choose to place the person in the care of a funeral director’s cooling facility until the funeral takes place. We very rarely see families keep their people at home after about three days.
If the ambient temperature is warm it can be tricky and some people’s bodies change more rapidly than others. We recommend that people have someone outside of the family who can support them, if their initial plans need to change, but for the vast majority that doesn’t happen. Support people can include a ‘home funeral friendly’ funeral director, a death doula or a supportive local GP or palliative care nurse.
How do you go about getting a coffin?
You can build your own coffin. Most people who are doing a family-led burial or cremation do. What you need to remember though is that every cemetery has a different specification, so it’s not a case of one size fits all. It is important to contact the cemetery and find out what specifications they have.
The vast majority of funeral directors will not just sell a coffin to a family, without providing other services. But the Natural Death Advocacy Network has a list of funeral directors who will sell directly to the public.
These days you can also just go to Costco and buy one.
For a natural burial you need a coffin that is entirely biodegradable and free of toxic glues and chemicals, so you need to check your cemetery’s requirements on that front as well.
Do you need a coffin if the body is to be buried or cremated in a shroud?
You need to check the legal requirements in each state. In Victoria, for instance, the Cemeteries and Crematoria Regulations 2015 requires a body to be transported to and within a cemetery in a coffin, container or receptacle which prevents noxious odour or matter from escaping. The body can then be taken out of the coffin and buried in a shroud.
If the body is to be cremated, it still needs to be placed on a solid base in order to be transported over rollers into the oven. A body that is transported to a shrouded cremation needs to be either transported in a vehicle with dark windows that you can’t see through, or be concealed within a coffin, in order to minimise disturbance to people passing by.
Where can I get more information?
Talk to Vickie Hingston-Jones, visit the Natural Death Advocacy Network website, or email us (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“Home funerals empower families and friends to begin the beautiful journey of mending the tear in the fabric of their community that is torn apart when someone they love dies.”
— Zenith Virago