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Friday, January 30, 2009

Step 1 in Green Funeral Planning: Documenting the Right to DIY

They may wail and rent their garments. They might toast their good fortune with my best Scotch. No matter how my family marks my passing from the scene, however, this much is clear: they have every legal right to handle what's left of my mortal remains.

Lisa Carson documents those last rights in the Pennsylvania chapter of Caring for the Dead. The PA State Association of Township Supervisors does the same, in more detail, in this summary of state funeral laws (to wit: "Nothing in state law requires a family to use a funeral director.").

I'm adding copies of each of these documents to an end-of-life file I'm preparing for my family. I have a good idea of what I want to happen with my remains upon my final exit, and I want to make sure my family has all the information they need to follow through (after they've finished raiding my liquor cabinet, of course).

They may need it. Officials in charge of post-death affairs in this corner of the Keystone State have an uncertain grasp on the legalities of the DIY funeral and burial, I'm finding. When time comes, my family may have to educate the Powers that Be that, yes, it does have the right to essentially serve as my funeral director. The documentation I'm collecting now will go a long way to prove the point then, if need be.

Interestingly, no Pennsylvania law I've turned up explicitly states that right. The state has enacted all manner of laws for funeral directors; it does not, however, reserve post-death matters solely to the dismal trade. Who, then, has those rights?

According to the Vital Statistics Law of 1953 (P.L. 304) -- another document that's going into my family file -- that somebody would be a "person."

Section 501, which deals with death certificates, reads: "The person in charge of interment or of removal of the dead body . . . shall file the death certificate . . . ." Another section further on emphasizes the point, stating that the "local registrar shall issue the permit [to 'dispose' of remains] only after the person in charge of interment or removal has filed with the local registrar a certificate of death . . . ."

Legislators probably assumed that the unnamed "person" in their law would be a funeral director. A funeral director has so consistently been that person on my home turf that officials here may assume he's the required one by law to handle final affairs.

Yet by leaving that person unidentified, unnamed, Pennsylvania legislators are allowing non-funeral personnel to fill the role: like my wife, children and parents.

To find documentation on DIY rights in your state, start with Carlson's book. Then go online. Google "state legislature" and the name of your state. The results should bring you to your state laws. At the home page of my state legislature, for example, I clicked on "Session Information" and then entered "funeral" in the "Find By Legislation" search box. The search led to amendments that had been made to the Vital Statistic Law, which I then tracked down.

Alternatively, you can search for your state funeral board, whose web pages often link to state funeral laws. Also, consult the pages of your state affiliates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Many of them post information about state funeral laws.

Next time: Claiming a body from the hospital.

The video above offers more proof of the value of a home funeral and why it's becoming more popular. The video features Beth Knox, the founder of Crossings whom I profile in the home funeral chapter of Grave Matters.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (


Nancy Slattery said...

Mark- We did a home burial 6 mon ago when my husb died in Va. Researched laws to insure we complied w/all. Now the bank owns our home- and wantto have grave moved-as feel is lowers property value. I will fight this if have to-did not use casket- my husb wanted green burial-was his desire to on our own property by the home he helped create-loved. I have written to B. Knox and L.Carlson-any input into this situation?

Mark Harris said...

Hello, Nancy,
I apologize for getting back to you so late. I've been on the road and just now getting back to the blog.

First, I can understand wanting to remove your husband's remains. I don’t know, however, that keeping them where they are necessarily lowers the value of your property in the eyes of future buyers. Backyard cemeteries are a somewhat common sight in many rural areas, after all, particularly in the South. The gentleman farm my grandparents bought in southern Virginia came with an enclosed gravesite that held the remains of the previous owner, his wife and son. The small cemetery was visible from the sunroom and actually quite beautiful. It didn't, at least, deter my grandparents from purchasing the property (and tending the graves, I might add). Other families may feel differently, of course. But I don’t think all families would find a backyard cemetery to be a check on their impulse to buy.

I'd be more concerned about what the law says about my rights, and the rights of my family, to visit the gravesite once the land was sold. And, also, what responsibilities future owners have and don't have regarding the graveyard. Some states/regions spell out those rights. I'd take a look to see what yours says.

If you are committed to removing your husband's remains, you may want to check for laws that speak to the disinterment of remains. You may have to follow certain guidelines in doing so. It sounds from your note that you've found something in local ordinances that prevents you from moving your husband's grave?

If you want to send on more information about what you've learned, I'd look into this further. Why don't you contact me directly by e-mail:


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