Some considerations on how to care for your loved one’s body prior to the funeral – including keeping the body at home, keeping vigil, using an undertaker and viewing the body.
Ideally your loved one will have detailed his or her wishes concerning care and disposal of their body after death in an Advance Decision, Lasting Power of Attorney for Health & Welfare (or their equivalent) or in other words, written or spoken. Otherwise you will need to use your intuition as to what they would have liked.
N.B. In the UK, funeral wishes including disposal of the body (even if included in a Will) are not legally binding unless enforced by the Courts.
Soon after a person has died it is good to close their eyelids and mouth and to reposition their body so that they are lying flat on their back prior to the onset of rigor mortis – the stiffening of the body. Failure to do this within a couple of hours of death may result in the body being removed by the undertaker in a bent shape (if they were propped up with pillows or sitting at the time of death) which may be distressing for you.
If a person dies at home, once the death has been certified by a doctor, you have the choice to call an undertaker who will arrive in a discreet van to remove the body and take care of it until the time of cremation or burial. However, in the UK there is no legal requirement to have the body removed immediately. You may wish to wash and dress the body yourself, to keep vigil and to invite family and friends to view the body, meditate, sing, pray, say final goodbyes or whatever else is appropriate.
Many people report that they can feel the spirit of their loved one very present in the room up to about 3 days following death; then it seems to suddenly disappear. So you may wish (or your loved one may have requested) to keep the body for an interval of some hours up to a week, depending on facilities. This time of vigil can be extremely precious. Depending on the belief system of the deceased, – if they had one – it can be a time to read sacred texts or give other words of encouragement, or simply lovingly hold space for your loved one.
Keeping the body at home
Washing and dressing the body
Washing the body of a dead person, sometimes as part of a religious ritual, is a customary funerary practice in several cultures and is traditionally performed by family, friends, and neighbours.
If you feel to, it can be a beautiful ritual to gently wash and dress your loved one yourself, ideally with other close family members and or friends. If your loved one has been attended by a care agency or nurses at home, they may also offer to wash and dress the body for the final time or to support and advise you in doing so.
Washing and dressing is easier to do before rigor mortis has set in but can also be done afterwards. The bladder and bowels may evacuate after death so lie the body on a rubber sheet and towels or absorbent pads. Latex gloves should be worn and possibly a face mask depending on the cause of death. There may also be some slight movements or twitches as the body releases.
Some general guidance on washing and preparing a dead body can be found here and also in the excellent, free resources at the end of this section. During the washing, you may like to keep silent or else speak lovingly to the person. Some religions have very specific practices for the ritual of washing and shrouding the body – details of which can be obtained from the appropriate clergy, texts or from the internet.
Cover or dress the person as they have requested or as you think they would like – for example, using a sheet, a nightie/pyjamas, favourite clothes or suit. If the body has become stiff, it may be more convenient to just use a sheet or to cut the back of a nightie and tuck it around the body. You may also wish to decorate the bed with flowers or petals. Now may also be an appropriate time to take some photos of your loved one, especially to share with those who are unable to view the body.
Preserving the body at home
A characteristic smell is produced as the body begins to decompose due to the bacteria in the gut that in life were used for digestion. In the absence of embalming or relatively rapid cremation, the body putrefies. The first sign of putrefaction is a greenish skin discoloration appearing on the right lower abdomen about the second or third day after death. The process of decay can be slowed down by cooling the body (see below) or chemically via embalming.
If you wish to keep the body at home for more than a few hours (depending on the climate), it is essential that you keep it cool. Turn off any heating and close any windows to prevent flies entering the room. If you have access to dry ice, you can pack the body as described here. In the UK, it is probably easier to use bags of ice from the supermarket. These can be put in plastic bags tied together and placed on and around the body. In case the ice bags leak, cover the body with a plastic sheet first to keep it dry. Blankets can be placed over the ice packing to slow down melting. In this way it is generally possible to keep a dead body at home for up to a week (according to The Good Funeral Guide).
There are certain additional factors that may affect the rate of decomposition and the appropriateness of keeping a body at home. These are explained simply here: The Good Funeral Guide.
Rigor mortis and other physical changes occurring after death
A short summary about what to expect if it is decided to keep the body at home for any length of time. Read more
Undertakers and whether to embalm
If it’s decided to have an undertaker take the body away to prepare it for burial or cremation, there are some options to be considered (if these have not already been addressed in an Advance Decision), such as: How is the body to be treated? Should people be able to view it before the funeral? Is the body to be returned home for viewing after embalming?
Unless asked not to, undertakers generally embalm the body using formaldehyde to preserve it. Many people feel that this is unnecessary, invasive, expensive and environmentally unfriendly. The argument often given that embalming is necessary to protect public health has been found to be invalid. Embalming may be appropriate if the body has to be transported a long way or if viewings several days later are required, although refrigeration may be an alternative option.
An extract from The Natural Death Centre’s website:
‘Embalming. This is often called “hygienic treatment” by the funeral arranger, but contrary to most people’s understanding, it is an invasive, toxic procedure.
‘Embalming is not necessary, and you do not have to have it.
‘If the funeral director does not have refrigerated facilities or a cold room, if there is some delay in getting a date for the funeral, or if the undertaker stipulates embalming is required in order for the family to spend time with the person who has died, you may want to consider choosing another funeral director.’
See below for more information about the non-necessity for embalming.
Keeping vigil and viewing the body
Keeping vigil might include meditating, with friends and family, by the person; chanting, singing, praying, reading sacred texts or favourite passages. Apart from any possible benefits to the departed consciousness, this can help bring home the reality of (their) death to those left behind. It can be a time to reminisce, to connect with family and friends and to support each other through any grief and other emotions. Meditating on death itself can also be a powerful experience.
In some religious traditions there are sacred texts that are read to the dead person to help them navigate the passage from death to rebirth. The most well-known of these is the Tibetan Bardo Thodol – known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead – which describes a process lasting 49 days.
Because it was created over two and a half thousand years ago, for a specific culture (Tibetan) and religion (Buddhism), this may not have so much relevance in a contemporary context. Our suggested alternative is OSHO Bardo. This has a more general approach, being created for both those with and without any religious affiliation and being unrelated to any particular culture. Based on the experience of meditation and free of any beliefs, it provides simple guidance for moving inside to the space beyond the bodymind.
Viewing the body
Viewing the body at home or at the undertakers can be helpful to bring closure to the relationship with the loved one as they were known and to accept their death. However, it may not always be beneficial to view the body; a US study in 1990  showed that 32% of people found viewing the body to be a negative experience. One friend shared that she found it very upsetting to see her father embalmed with a fixed unnatural expression and dressed in a suit when all he had worn was pyjamas for the last several years of his long illness. As she had seen the body of her father at the time of his death, she wished in retrospect that this had been the last visual imprint she had had of him.
If it is not possible to be physically close to the body or to view it, you can still burn a candle next to a photo of the person, make a shrine, or some other act to ritualise the death and remember your loved one. Although in most societies, rituals are not as elaborate as they once were, ritual can still have an important function marking various life transitions or milestones – from birth to puberty, reaching adulthood, marriage and finally death. Ritual can help us to integrate sudden changes in circumstance in our lives – to give meaning to the situation and more easily deal with it.
Sources & Further Resources
Note 1: American Attitudes and Values Affected by Death and Deathcare Services commissioned by the Allied Industry Joint Committee, prepared by the Wirthlin Group, 1990
A helpful summary of Do-it-all-yourself funerals: at www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk
If you know in advance that you would like to care for the body yourself, and perhaps even arrange the funeral yourself – and the dying person has requested this through an Advance Decision or given you Lasting Power of Attorney for Health & Welfare — you might want to purchase a copy of The Natural Death Handbook, available here.
From the USA and Canada, where the home funeral movement is thriving, you can obtain three excellent resources. All are detailed and downloadable from the internet. The first two contain accounts of home funerals that will be informative and, perhaps, also inspiring.
- The Crossings Resource Guide – A Manual For Home Funeral Care
- The Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives
- Undertaken with Love – A Home Funeral Guide
Buy only what you want – an excellent checklist from The Good Funeral Guide showing the options of what you can have the undertaker do, it includes care and preparation of the body.
10 things about embalming – from Confessions of a Funeral Director
Embalming: What you should know – a US resource giving reasons for not opting for embalming