Funerals are influenced by personal and family preferences, traditions dictated by cultural and religious practices, and affordability. Most funerals in Canada are held between one day and up to four days after the death of a person. However, there is also a variety of mitigating factors that allow for an extension of this timeline. This article will discuss how various situations and circumstances affect how long a funeral can be held after death.
Before funeral scheduling can begin, there are a few things that the deceased's family must handle. First, the death must be reported to the appropriate authorities. If the death is expected, families can call the deceased person's doctor. If the death is unexpected, emergency services should be called first. If there are no available doctors or emergency services in the area, it should be reported to the local coroner's office. The local coroner's office should be contacted if you are unsure about the circumstances or who you should call. (For more info: See this checklist of tasks to complete within 7 days of a death.)
Next, the death must be registered, and a burial permit must be obtained. In Ontario, death registration includes completing and submitting two documents to the local municipal clerk's office - Medical Certificate of Death and Statement of Death. A funeral provider can help a family complete these. Once that is done, the burial permit (which allows for cremation or burial to proceed) can be issued at the municipal office where the death was registered. The timeframe for these processes can vary. However, it is typically done within the first couple of days after death.
Body preservation is a key part of the funeral process. Even if the final disposition option happens soon after death, most bodies must be preserved for at least a short period of time (e.g., at a minimum while registering the death). Two of the most common funeral-related body preservation processes include embalming and refrigeration.
Embalming is a chemical process that stalls decomposition and helps preserve human remains for an extended period. If done correctly, bodies can be preserved for many years.
The process begins with the body being washed with disinfectant and the limbs and muscles are massaged to relieve tension and stiffening. Any necessary grooming is also done at this time. Next, the eyes are closed using glue or plastic eye caps that prevent the eyelids from opening, and the lower jaw is wired or sewn shut.
The blood is then removed from the body and replaced with an embalming solution. This solution contains formaldehyde-based chemicals and may also include methanol, ethanol, glutaraldehyde, phenol, water, and dyes. After this, body cavities are embalmed as well. This involves puncturing organs, draining gas and fluids, and injecting embalming solution. Once this is complete, the body is fully embalmed. The body can then be prepared for a viewing or visitation. This involves dressing the body and applying makeup.
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Embalming is not legally required in Canada. Refrigeration can be substituted to help slow down decomposition and decay, a process that starts within 24 hours of death. Refrigeration can help preserve a body for several days. It is often used on its own or in addition to embalming.
Refrigeration conditions may vary depending on the facility. For example, some facilities offer short-term, positive temperature refrigeration, while others provide long-term negative temperature refrigeration.
Positive temperature refrigeration is one most used by funeral providers. Bodies are kept between 2 - 4C (36 - 39 F). This slows the rate of decomposition of the body, but does not stop it completely. Therefore, most providers will not keep a body in this state for more than two weeks.
Negative temperature refrigeration is used more when the body needs to be preserved for an extended period (e.g., criminal investigation). Bodies are often kept between -50 C to -10 C (-58 to 14 F). At these temperatures, the effects of decomposition can be stalled for several months.
The type of preservation chosen also depends on the type of funeral you will be holding, as some services may call for an extended period between death and a funeral service.
Generally speaking, burials are scheduled fairly quickly after death. Therefore, refrigeration is often a preferred and more affordable preservation choice. Families can also choose to speed up funeral arrangements by forgoing services such as ceremonies, visitations, and viewing. However, these services are still possible in favourable circumstances or if negative-temperature refrigeration is chosen.
For families that opt for a burial, a viewing or visitation is usually scheduled in the week after death. At these events, close friends and family come to support those closest to the deceased and say their final goodbyes. Viewing involves an open casket. Visitation is for those who want pay their respects at a closed casket event.
In some cases, funeral providers may recommend embalming for these services. However, in Canada, embalming is not required and is up to the discretion of the deceased person's family. The choice based on the length of time between the date of death and the date of viewing or visitation.
If there is no viewing, refrigeration works well as an alternative to embalming, and is suitable for temporary preservation for several days, and within two weeks. With negative temperature refrigeration, the body will be preserved for several months, but the suitability of the body for a viewing decreases as time passes.
However, embalming has its restrictions. With mortuary embalming, the embalmed body is preserved for about a week, so viewings should occur within that time. The embalmed body is suitable for visitation for a little longer than a week. Ideally, burial or cremation should happen within a week of death in most cases where possible.
It is important to note that embalming will not be an option if you choose a green burial. Green burials do not use embalming fluids or toxic chemicals, and bodies are buried in biodegradable caskets (e.g., wicker) or wrapped in a shroud made from biodegradable materials. This type of burial allows the body to decompose naturally and incorporate back into the earth.
Like burials, cremation can also occur within days after death, especially when using a direct cremation company like Eirene. Direct cremation involves remains being sent directly to a cremation centre shortly after death (once the paperwork is complete). Ashes are picked up or sent to the families after that. For this arrangement, embalming is not necessary. Refrigeration may also not be required, depending on how long it takes to secure the burial permit. After this cremation, friends and family can choose to hold any memorial or funeral services at any time without time constraints.
However, the same preservation timeline (used for burials) would also apply for cremation if a family chooses to hold services such as viewings and visitations beforehand.
Cremation can be conducted whether the body has been embalmed or not. However, flame cremation of an embalmed body will emit chemicals that increase the carbon footprint.
Therefore, aquamation may be the preferred choice for those wanting a funeral that is a more sustainable option. Learn more about aquamation here.