Chapters About the Author Blog Events/News Green Burial FAQ Reviews Buy the Book Contact

Monday, March 09, 2009

DIY Green Burial Step # 2: Learn Hospital’s Policy on Releasing Remains to Family

Note to family: If it looks like I'll be taking my last breaths in the clinical environs of the local hospital, please, take me home.

Like most people, I'd rather pass from the scene within the comforts of home, even with its proliferating dust bunnies, missing shoe molding and the previous owners' 1940's wallpaper with the pink flowers I still can't believe adorns my bedroom a dozen years after we bought this pile.

But there's an even bigger benefit to my passing at home: it nearly ensures that my family, on its own, can carry out my last wishes for a green and simple send-off to the Great Hereafter.

That might not be possible if I expire at any of the local hospitals to which I'd likely be brought in extremis. Two of them never returned my repeated phone calls asking about their policies for releasing remains to family members instead of funeral directors. The one hospital rep who did get back told me she's never heard such a (strange) request and wasn't sure her hospital even had a release policy written out.

My lacking response may be typical. Of the thirty-some hospital associations that funeral consumer advocate Lisa Carlson contacted to ask about their body release policies, none of them had a policy on hand. That included an association in New Jersey, a state that requires every hospital to have one.

If my home state of Pennsylvania requires hospitals to set protocol for the release of their dead, I couldn't find it. What I did turn up is a statute in our state code stating that "remains of deceased patients shall be prepared for removal from clinical areas in accordance with hospital policy." That directive seems, to me anyway, to address body disinfection and removal from hospital rooms, not from the hospital itself, although it does seem to grant overall removal powers to the hospital.

The PA hospital association I contacted concurs with that reading. In an e-mail, a representative wrote that hospitals in the state "establish their own policies regarding the release of a deceased." The association does not have or set policy itself.

So, with my local hospitals I'm left with the great unknown about their body release policies. [For now anyway. In the near future, I want to join with our local home funeral advocates and sit down with hospital staffs to talk about the idea of the home funeral.]

I'm also left with the question that keeps nagging whenever I've considered this issue: Can a hospital legally refuse to release remains to families? I know some hospitals do have such a policy or one that states it will only release to families when the deceased has left very clear instructions. If you're a lawyer or expert on hospital policy, I'd love to hear your take on the issue.

If it turns out that my local hospitals do have a release policy, I sure hope it reads something like the one crafted by Fletcher Allen Healthcare in Vermont, which Lisa Carlson cites on page 6 in her newsletter. Briefly, the policy allows for the release of the body to the family and tells families what arrangements they need to make to allow it.

Maybe my local hospitals have such a family-friendly directive somewhere in their files, just waiting for that first client to blow the dust off. Until I know that for sure, though, this will be among my final requests should I be languishing in a local hospital bed: get me home, and ASAP.

Note on video above: a short doc on the history and manufacturing of caskets.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.