Keelia Carver first read about home funerals in a magazine. She was young. Her parents were healthy. The idea of caring for a loved one in death was compelling, but not yet applicable to her life.
That changed in February 2018, when her 4½-year-old son Max died tragically in an accidental drowning.
After his death, Keelia and her husband, Blaine, wanted to bring Max home from the hospital and lay him to rest in the cemetery on the family ranch in Central Oregon.
Authorities told them that wasn’t possible. Instead, they were given a list of funeral homes and told they would need to hire one to secure the release of their son’s body.
What the Carvers did not know at the time—nor did the professionals they turned to for help—is that keeping or bringing a loved one home after death is legal in every state in the U.S. The next-of-kin has the right to custody and control of the body for bathing, dressing, private viewing and ceremonies as they choose.
“You find out they were all wrong and it’s just devastating,” Keelia says. “We could have had all that time with Max. It felt like we were abandoning our kid in a town with strangers.”
Despite their shock and grief, and with no easy place to find information about their rights, the Carvers persisted in their efforts and eventually were able to bring Max home to bury him on their property.
They planned the funeral and gathered with family and friends to share memories. Keelia gave the eulogy. Blaine read one of Max’s favorite picture books. They sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Amazing Grace.”
Max was buried at the foot of his grandmother’s grave with his fishing pole, binoculars and other treasured items.
Since then, Keelia has worked to make sure others know the law and have access to the resources they need to care for their loved ones after death. Her efforts have led to changes at the hospital where the Carvers spent that terrible day three years ago.
After learning of the family’s story, the state medical examiner’s office updated its annual in-service training to include the rights of loved ones.
Keelia has partnered with other advocates to create the Oregon Funeral Resources and Education website (oregonfuneral.org), which provides information about Oregonians’ legal rights and resources when death occurs.
In Oregon, whether the death was anticipated or unanticipated, once the time and cause of death are established, the family may choose to care for and transport the body, file the 24-hour notice of death and death certificate, arrange for disposition and conduct any other aspects of after-death care.
Families may—but are not required to—hire a funeral director to assist with some or all of those services. For example, a family living in a remote rural area may hire a funeral home to prepare the body and casket, and then choose to transport the casket themselves to their local cemetery. A funeral may be held at a private residence, church, funeral home, park or other locations.
Each state has laws affecting what happens to a body after death. Most have unique rules about embalming, burial or cremation, scattering ashes, and how to obtain a death certificate.
Keelia suggests families find the Resources for Professionals section on the website and share the one-page information sheets with the appropriate professionals when planning after-life care.
“Show it to the hospital or the nursing home administrator or the hospice nurse or the medical examiner or the police officer and say, ‘This is the law. Please help me,’” she says.
Keelia continues spreading the word, speaking to health care providers, community groups and other organizations.
“There are plenty of people who want a mainstream funeral, but there are others that this matters to,” she says. “Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but maybe it matters to your sister, or your best friend, or your grandmother. Maybe you can be that ray of grace on somebody’s terrible day. You have the power to go out and help somebody.”
Did You Know?
- In the U.S., it is legal for families to bring or keep their loved one home until the time of burial or cremation. In 10 states, a funeral director may need to be involved in some capacity, but this does not prevent a home funeral.
- The National Funeral Alliance (homefuneralalliance.org) provides home funeral resources and a quick guide to the requirements by state.
- The Funeral Consumers Alliance (funerals.org) is dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified and affordable funeral. Check out “Four Steps to Funeral Planning” on the FCA website to get started. Search the list of FCA chapters to find resources in your state, including average funeral costs.
- Oregon Funeral Resources & Education (OregonFuneral.org) and Washington Funeral Resources & Education (WashingtonFuneral.org) provide state-specific information about legal rights and resources when death occurs. Families can find affordable and meaningful ways of memorializing and caring for their loved ones.
- The Green Burial Council (greenburialcouncil.org) advocates for environmentally sustainable, natural death care.
- You can help educate professionals about families’ legal rights and resources when death occurs by downloading and sharing professionally-specific one-page information sheets for Oregon (https://www.oregonfuneral.
org/for_professionals.html) and Washington (https://www. washingtonfuneral.org/ resources_for_professionals. html).