How to conduct family-led deathcare when a loved one dies
When a person dies, it is their family’s responsibility to handle their final affairs and put them to rest. Traditionally, in centuries past, family-led deathcare was the norm. A funeral was a family affair where funeral duties were conducted by relatives of the person that had died. These family-led, do-it-yourself funerals were common, as the professional deathcare industry wasn’t established until the late 18th century in North America.
In those days, families handled all aspects of a funeral. From preparing the body after death and committing it to the earth or in some traditions to fire. In modern times, those duties have been turned over to funeral homes staffed by professionals that handle death care for a family. However, today a family can choose to handle many end-of-life duties themselves. This article will outline what you need to know about family-led deathcare.
What is family-led deathcare?
As the name suggests, family-led deathcare is post-mortem care or funeral services conducted in-part or entirely by family members of the deceased, typically without or with little assistance from a funeral home. This includes tasks such as body preparation, death registration, transportation to a crematorium (the most common form of final disposition these days) or to a cemetery.
There are many services a family can provide (see this complete list) on their own. However there are some exceptions because of legal limitations, such as embalming a body, that must be done by licensed professionals. Even embalming is not necessary in some deathcare plans.
With family-led funerals, families can choose to handle most deathcare tasks independently or, in part, with guidance by funeral service providers.
Where to start with a family-led funeral
One of the first tasks of deathcare is reporting the death to the necessary authorities. If the death is expected, families can call the doctor who was caring for the deceased. If the death is unexpected, emergency services should be called first. If there are no available doctors or emergency services in the area, then it should be reported to the local coroner's office. If you are unsure about the circumstances or who you should call, be sure to contact the local coroner's office. In the province of Ontario that is the Chief Coroner’s Office.
Report the death as soon as possible. This is essential for legal reasons and if you are planning organ, tissue, or body donations. Organ donation has a window of as little as four hours and in some cases (depending on the organ) 24 to 72 hours after death. Therefore, reporting the death as soon as possible helps ensure the viability of organs and tissues if they are going to be used to save a life.
Preparation and final disposition of the body
One of the critical and principal deathcare tasks is body preparation and final disposition. A family can choose to wash and dress the body and place it in a casket or wrap it in a shroud themselves.
Final disposition means burial, cremation or aquamation. Depending on the choice, this final care might include embalming, which is chemical preservation of a body, if it will not immediately be cremated or buried. However it is not mandatory and refrigeration of remains can be an alternative method to temporarily preserve it.
Embalming and final disposition services need to be handled by licensed funeral providers. Therefore, it is necessary to contact a direct cremation company such as Eirene.ca or a crematorium or cemetery. However, some final services can be completed by the family. That can include body preparation, selection of cremation services, cemetery location, choice of coffin or urn.
Transportation of a body
In Ontario is is legal to transport a body in a private vehicle. This is usually referred to as a “transfer” in the funeral industry. Transportation is usually conducted from the place of death to the location where it will be prepared for cremation or burial, as well as to the location of its final disposition, like a crematorium or cemetery..
However the province of Ontario allows for that duty to be conducted by a private individual.
Complete the necessary paperwork
Another important aspect of death care is the paperwork involved in death registration. The documents can be completed by a family member or by a funeral director. Death registration in Ontario involves the submission of two documents to the local municipal clerk's office:
- Medical Certificate of Death – a form completed by a doctor or coroner outlines the cause of death.
- Statement of Death – A form completed by a family member or funeral director, including information about the deceased. This includes information such as the age of death, family history, and place of death. The form can be obtained from a local municipal clerk's office.
After the death has been registered, a burial permit must be obtained. The staff at the municipal office where the death is registered can help families get the permit. This is necessary before final disposition of the remains can be conducted, including cremation. It is also required even if the burial or funeral arrangements are to take place in a different province.
If the death occurs outside of the province, but funeral arrangements will take place in Ontario, both a burial permit and transit or removal permit from the jurisdiction where the death occurred is necessary.
The death registration and the burial permit are the more time-sensitive pieces of paperwork, as they are needed to initiate further funeral arrangements.
Another vital piece of paperwork to be considered includes a death certificate. This can be completed any time after the death is registered. There are no restrictions on who can apply for the death certificate, but only the next of kin can apply for a certified copy of death (learn more about this here. A death certificate is often needed to complete other deathcare paperwork such as:
- Settling wills and estates
- Apply for death benefits
- Accessing or cancelling government services (e.g., driver's license, health care, pension, etc.)
Arranging the funeral
When it comes to arranging a funeral, there are many options available to family-led death care. Funerary services can be held in many locations, including at a funeral home. However, a popular choice for families that want to handle their own death care is arranging a home funeral.
A home funeral is a blanket term used to describe death care that family and friends of the deceased partially or entirely carry out themselves. That also means the use of a funeral home and commercial services is largely avoided or minimized.
Death care for a home funeral includes body washing, dressing, hair, makeup, keeping the body cool, posing, and more. Many of these activities can be completed solely by family. However, some things may be more challenging, such as transportation. Families may seek the help of a funeral home if they do not own a vehicle capable of successfully transporting the body.
Nonetheless, a home funeral also allows family and friends to control most or all decisions. Most funeral homes will allow for some customization with a celebration or ceremony. However, with a home funeral, there is more freedom to personalize the process.
Whether you choose a home funeral or use a funeral home, it is essential to make arrangements beforehand. This includes contacting crematoriums, funeral homes, and cemeteries ahead to ensure they can accommodate any specific requests or needs.
|Description of Service||Funeral Establishment||Transfer Service||Cemetery||Crematorium||Family of Deceased|
|Removing the body from the place of death||✓||✓||✓|
|Placing the body in a casket and delivering it to a cemetery or crematorium||✓||✓||✓|
|Registering the death||✓||✓||✓|
|Arranging to transport the body of the deceased out of Ontario||✓||✓||✓|
|Wash and dress the body||✓||✓||✓|
|Transport the body to or from a place of worship||✓||✓||✓|
|Hosting memorial services, celebrations of life and receptions including the rental of facilities (no body or cremated remains present)||Can be hosted by anyone||Can be hosted by anyone||Can be hosted by anyone||Can be hosted by anyone||Can be hosted by anyone|
|Coordinating religious and non-religious funeral services or receptions including the rental of facilities (with the body or cremated remains present)||✓||✓|
|Providing caskets, urns, vaults, and flowers||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Providing in-ground graves||✓|
|Providing crypts in a mausoleum||✓|
|Providing niches in a columbarium||✓|
|Providing places to scatter cremated remains||✓|
|Providing openings and closings of graves, niches, or crypts||✓|
|Conducting cremation or alkaline hydrolysis||✓|
|Providing viewing of cremation||✓|
Advantages to family-led death care
One of the primary reasons to choose family-led death care is that it provides a meaningful and loving way to say goodbye. It allows friends and family to be directly involved in their loved one's end-of-life care.
Family-led death care also allows for more time for closure and healing, encourages bonding and cooperation, and gives the family more control over planning and decisions. Although funeral homes can provide a space for an appropriate send-off, the process may seem impersonal. This doesn’t mean that the deceased is not being cared for or respected, but it is just one of many funerals that day.
Family-led death care can also save money. The services provided by funeral homes are often expensive and include options that may not be needed or wanted by the deceased or their family and friends. Products and services can be excluded with family-led death care, saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Additional deathcare considerations
More considerations when choosing family-led death care include:
- Laws and regulations. As mentioned above, a deceased family is legally allowed to participate in many aspects of post-death care in Ontario. However, each province can have its own varying laws governing the handling of dead bodies and other parts of post-death care. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what activities are allowed or not permissible in your area.
- Educate yourself about family-led death care. Death care is not an easy duty. It is essential to educate yourself on what is required and ensure that you have the necessary resources to facilitate all activities. Family and friends must also be willing and able to commit to participating in death care. Otherwise, family-led death care is impossible, or portions of the post-death care will need to be conducted by funerary service providers.
- Planning and arrangements. To help ease the family's load, it is a good idea to plan ahead of time. Understand your responsibilities, ensure you can fulfill the requirements, and make any additional arrangements with crematoriums, cemeteries, and funeral homes before death. If the death is sudden, it may be beneficial to have more of the responsibilities handled by funeral providers.
- Stress and grief. Losing a loved one is never easy. Stress and grief may make providing family-led death care more difficult. So it is advised to have back-up plans or arrangements if you find that despite prior intentions, you cannot conduct personal death care.
- Institutional knowledge of family-led death care. Some institutions, such as hospitals and nursing homes, may not be aware that it is legal for the family to provide death care. It is best to communicate with institutions beforehand to avoid any misunderstandings.
- Where to go for help. If you are unsure of what activities are permitted and legal in your area of the province, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario can help (https://thebao.ca/). Additionally, funeral directors and guides can also be contacted for further information or assistance. Contact our experts at Eirene if you'd like assistance or have questions. We are available 24/7 by phone and email.