The death of a family member triggers a flurry of decisions, all of which must be made in a time of great emotional stress. At the center of the decisions is a single question—how should the dead be mourned and memorialized? The “right” answer can vary significantly based on religious beliefs, family politics, social norms, and the economic capacity of the family.
Many families are relieved to be able to hire a funeral director to take care of all of the practical details, but there is a growing interest in “home funerals,” in which human remains are prepared for disposition in the home, rather than at the funeral parlor. As described in a recent New York Times article, remains may be washed and dressed by family, members of a religious community, or a funeral director. Surrendering control of the corpse to a funeral director immediately after death, allowing it to be embalmed, and displaying it in an open casket is often referred to as the “traditional” American funeral, but in fact that has only been the “tradition” for a little over a century. Until the end of the 19th century, most American funerals were home funerals.
Families may choose home funerals for many reasons. For some, ritually preparing human remains for burial has significant religious implications. For others, it is a last meaningful act of love. For too many, the “traditional” American funeral, which averages $8,500 plus the cost of the burial plot, is simply beyond their means.
Throughout the world, home funerals are routine and accepted. In the United States, a country that prides itself on religious liberty and the freedom of self-expression, the growing interest in home funerals represents a challenge to the commercial funeral industry. That industry has responded as economics expect, by engaging in classic “rent seeking” behavior and lobbying state legislatures to enact restrictive laws that insulate it from competition. In the case of home funerals, the competition comes from families themselves.
Sixteen states require that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within a particular time period after death (usually 24-48 hours). (Those states are: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.) Four of those states (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas) require that human remains be refrigerated below a particular temperature (typically 35-40 degrees). Virginia already requires that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within 48 hours after death. Virginia State Senator Kenneth Alexander, a funeral director, has proposed Senate Bill 595 to specify that the remains must be refrigerated at a temperature of no more than 40 degrees. This bill has been received with appropriate outrage by funeral consumer advocates and some funeral directors.
Legal requirements that human remains must be embalmed or refrigerated after death are classic examples of industry rent-seeking. By requiring “refrigeration,” particularly at a specific temperature, rather than simply permitting cooling via dry ice or other means, these states place heavy burdens on families and religious communities that want to care for remains at home.
On the surface, these requirements seem reasonable. Aren’t human remains a health hazard? Don’t these laws prevent public health nightmares? Actually, it turns out, unembalmed and unrefrigerated human remains don’t pose significant public health risks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that “[t]here is no direct risk of contagion or infectious disease from being near human remains for people who are not directly involved … handling dead bodies.” The CDC further advises that those directly handling human remains can protect themselves from potential bacteria and viruses by wearing gloves and washing their hands. “The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant,” the CDC advises, “but they do not create a public health hazard.” The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. “The widespread belief that corpses pose a major health risk is inaccurate. Especially if death resulted from trauma, bodies are very unlikely to cause outbreaks of diseases…” The WHO also advises that “[d]ead or decayed human bodies do not generally create a serious health hazard, unless they are polluting sources of drinking-water…” The Association Française d'Information Funéraire advises that there are three methods for preserving human remains before final disposition: dry ice, refrigeration, and embalming. The use of dry ice is the “common traditional technique for preservation at home,” the Association reports, and “[i]t gives perfect results in 95% of the cases.”
In a 2009 article, author Max Alexander contrasted the home funeral of his father-in-law and the “traditional” funeral of his father. “Home after-death care is not for everyone or every situation,” Alexander acknowledged, “[but it] occurred to me that if more Americans spent more time with their dead … they would come away with a new respect for life.” In the United States, of all places on earth, families should be able to make the choice of how to care for their own dead without the interference of laws designed to protect no one but a for-profit industry.
Tanya D. Marsh