There are more than three million funerals arranged every year. You may have read about the many types that you can have and may have been to some unique services or celebrations of life. Whether you are planning a funeral in advance or for a loved one who has just passed away, a few of the first decisions to be made are related to disposition of the body.
What are the choices about what to do with the body?
If it appears that the death was not from natural causes, an autopsy may be required by the Coroner’s office prior to anything being done to the body.
After the decision has been made about whether to donate all or a part of the body and/or to save a DNA sample, a further choice has to be made – what to do with the remains; unless the body has been donated to medical science, it must be buried or cremated.
There are many types of burial and cremation services available:
- Donation for medical research
If you are planning your funeral in advance, think about donating your body to medical science. Not only is it basically a no-cost option but it helps science and learning as well. Body donation must be arranged by the person prior to death; it is not an option that can be arranged once someone is deceased.
Medical schools need bodies to teach students about anatomy and research facilities need them to study disease processes so they can devise cures. Since the bodies used for these purposes generally must be complete with all of their organs and tissues, organ donation is probably not an option. However, some programs do make exceptions so be sure to tell your family if you would prefer to donate your organs first; then, if the medical institution agrees to accept your body without some of its organs or if it is found that you are not medically suitable for organ donation, your family can carry out your wishes for whole body donation.
If you decided you want to donate your body, you should contact the medical school or research facility of your choice and make arrangements before you die. There are a few states that permit your family to make the decision after you die but, for the most part, this must be a pre-death decision.
With body donation, there is usually little or no expense for your family when your death occurs. Most medical schools pay for nearby transportation as well as embalming and final disposition. You should be aware that if you choose an institution that is not located near the place where you die, your family may have to pay some of the transportation expenses. After medical study, the donated body is usually cremated with burial or scattering in a university plot. However, the remains can be returned to the family for burial within a year or two. If this is your wish, it should be noted on the forms you filled out when committing to donate your body.
When signing a contract committing to donate your body, make sure it specifies what the institution will pay for and what will remain the expense of your estate. Be sure someone close to you has a copy of this contract or knows where it is located. It will be needed when you die so the appropriate person at the designated institution can be contacted and asked for instructions on what to do with your body.
Here are a few websites that have more information about whole body donation to medical science.
Provides links between individual donors and various medical research facilities.
Site maintained by the University of Florida.
This site has a list of body donation programs by state.
Virginia State Anatomical Program
It’s the only agency in Virginia authorized to receive donations of human bodies for scientific study.
Organ and Tissue Donation
Organ and tissue donation is something that should be considered by everyone. Each donor can save or improve the lives of as many as 50 people and many donor families say that knowing other lives have been saved helps them cope with their loss. In addition, tissue and organs can be donated to medical science to help scientists advance medicine and possibly discover cures for life threatening diseases.
Every day, many people live because someone donated an organ when they died. Yet the demand is much larger than the existing supply. As of December 2013, there were 122,276 people waiting for organ transplants. Source: http://organdonor.gov/
This is an option that should definitely be considered. Following is a little information about the process.
No matter how someone dies, their organs or tissue can probably be donated. However, if organs are to be donated, the deceased will probably have suffered a brain death as a result of a heart attack, stroke or an accident. After all life-saving efforts have been exhausted and it has been determined that death is imminent, the person will be put on ventilator support so that their heart and lungs continue to function until the organs have been removed. Once the organs are gone, artificial life support will be stopped.
If a traumatic brain injury has been sustained, the person may not be declared dead based on the definition of brain death. In this case, the person will be declared dead when the heart and respiratory function cease after life support has been withdrawn. In this case, organ or tissue donation will occur only after a family member or designated agent decides to stop life-sustaining therapy for a reason other than potential organ donation.
For more information, go to http://www.organdonor.gov/.
There is no cost to your family nor are they compensated financially for any organ donation. All related hospital costs are paid for by the organization to which you have donated organs, the recipients of the organs, their medical insurance company or Medicare.
If you do not make a decision whether to donate or not while you are alive, your family can do so after your death. However, it’s very easy to sign up to be an organ and tissue donor. Most state have an online registry to manage participation in the programs. If you live in a state that has such a program, just log on to their website and indicate the desire to participate. An electronic, online registry has some benefits:
- Immediate access. When you die, it’s easy for an organ transplant team to get immediate access to the registry and confirm your participation. If you’ve just written your information on a card, it may get misplaced and not be easy to find.
- Binding nature. When you register with a state program, this creates a binding wish on your behalf which, in most states, your family cannot dispute.
You can also go to http://www.organdonation.org and complete the Organ Donation form. Print it out and keep it in your wallet.
You should also add the information to your driver’s license. Many people still signify their desire to be a donor this way. Or you can include your wishes in your Disposition of Body form.
There is one important thing to remember. You still need to tell your family about your decision for two reasons:
- So they will know about your decision. In some states, online registration is confidential. In others, a symbol reflecting your decision is pre-printed on your driver’s license or state identification card.
- So they will understand and support your decision. Otherwise, in some states if they disagree, they can still override your decision after your death. Doctors are often reluctant to remove organs if the family of the deceased vehemently objects, even when they are legally entitled to do so.
As of July 2006, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act was revised to reflect changes in federal rules and regulations. Basically, it says that anyone can make a commitment before death to donate any or all of his or her body parts. After a document of gift is signed (no witnesses required), no family member can legally amend or revoke the donation after the person dies. Although an organ procurement organization may seek affirmation of the gift from the donor’s family, the donor’s decision should stand. Conversely, if someone signs a refusal, that bars anyone else from making an anatomical gift of that person’s body or parts.
However, if a person does not make an organ gift before death, the revised act provides a list of people who may make an anatomical gift on behalf of the deceased. That list now includes an agent acting under a healthcare power of attorney or other record, adult grand children or even a close friend. The priority order varies by state so be sure to check your local statutes.
Because DNA is the most basic element of our individuality, it is the most authoritative source of positive identification. It is successful in both legal protection and family heritage research. Also, medical research is relying more and more on the advances of DNA analysis in making our medicines more effective. Storing a sample of your DNA may help to save the life of one of your family members one day. If you do not have a DNA sample on file, your family can decide if they want to retrieve and store a sample of your DNA when you die. It is their last opportunity to do so. Taking a DNA sample is as simple as a diabetic blood sugar test and can easily be taken by any licensed embalmer or cremation technician. Most funeral homes and crematories offer DNA services. If you already have a DNA sample on file, make sure your heirs know about it. You should also let them know if they need to make payments for its ongoing storage.
Traditional, Full Service Funeral with Burial
What ever the final disposition of the body, this is still the most common type of funeral. It usually includes a viewing of the body, a formal funeral service and use of a hearse to transport the body to the funeral and then the cemetery. It also includes burial or entombment of the remains. It is almost always the most expensive type of funeral.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, “a traditional funeral, including a casket and vault, costs about $6,000, although extras like flowers, obituary notices, acknowledgment cards or limousines can add thousands of dollars to the bottom line. Many funerals run well over $10,000.” And that doesn’t even include the cost of the cemetery plot, which can increase the cost by thousands of dollars.
Although in most cases embalming is not required by law, the majority of people arranging a funeral are convinced to include embalming. This can raise the cost of a funeral by as much as $3,000. Note that if a body is not embalmed, it must be kept refrigerated or on dry ice until shortly before burial or cremation.
With a direct burial, the body is buried shortly after death. There is no viewing and no embalming is necessary. There may be a memorial service at the gravesite or at another location later. This type of burial can cost a lot less than a traditional, full-service rite. However, there are still charges for the funeral home’s basic service fee, preparation of the body and its transportation, purchase of a casket or burial container and a cemetery plot. If the decision is made to have a gravesite service, there will be an additional charge for that. One of the biggest problems with this type of burial is if the deceased had family members who want to come from far away for the service. A direct burial doesn’t allow for much travel time.
Green funerals have been popular in Europe for many years and are just beginning to catch on in this country. Some religions have been practicing tenets of a green funeral for centuries, i.e. Judaism and Islam. These are basically “all natural” burials with no embalming and the use of a casket or other container that will totally decompose once it’s in the ground. The cost of a green funeral averages about $2,500, less than half of the lowest full service, traditional funeral, with a percentage of the fees set aside for ecology. One reason costs are low is that a biodegradeable coffin starts at $300 for a simple wooden box or a recycled cardboard container. However, just like with a coffin for a traditional funeral, you can choose a special sea grass, wicker or willow “eco-pod” that costs a great deal more than $300. People are beginning to ask for a green funeral because they prefer a more natural approach to burial. There are several things that make the approach more natural:
- Embalming fluid is not used. This fluid contains formaldehyde, which has been listed as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, several European countries already ban its use and the European Union is considering banning all use of embalming fluid as of 2010. If a body is embalmed, when it is buried and begins to decompose the embalming fluid may leech into the ground and contaminate any water in the area.
- The box or container in which the body is buried is biodegradable, unlike a metal coffin which remains long after the body has decomposed. Or the body can just be wrapped in a simple shroud for burial.
- No concrete vault or metal grave liner is used.
- The body may be buried in a conservation-based cemetery such as a county park or a nature preserve where all of the graves are covered with wild flowers or other native vegetation such as memorial trees instead of tombstones. According to the Green Burial Council, there are currently six states that have green burial sites – California, Florida, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas. And seven more have plans for a green burial site on the drawing board.
- The grave may just be marked by a flat stone or native plantings and identified with the help of a GPS system.
Each year in the United States, we bury: 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid 180,544,000 pounds of steel in caskets 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze in caskets 30 million board feet of hardwoods in caskets 3,272,000,000 pounds of reinforced concrete in vaults 28,000,000 pounds of steel in vaults Source: Mary Woodsen, Staff Science Writer at Cornell University
The amount of wood from coffins located in a ten-acre cemetery is enough to build 40 houses and there is enough concrete to build swimming pools for all of them. Source: NPR Fresh Air Interview with Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.
Do It Yourself (Home) Funeral
Until the Civil War, families cared for their own dead. They laid the body out in their home and then buried it in a family graveyard. That concept has come back into its own for a small number of people across the United States. Some people want their family to care of the deceased’s body themselves and do not want to take it to a funeral home or crematory. If you’re planning this in advance, you may request that a service is held in your home or another special place and not use the services of a professional funeral director. You may also be interested in your loved ones burying you themselves. If you’re thinking about these options, you should be aware that although many states will legally permit you to eliminate the funeral director, you may still run into some roadblocks and there are also some states where the laws are either unclear or they will absolutely not permit it. So be sure to check your state statutes and prepare to be creative.
- This is the lowest cost type of funeral, primarily because your family and or friends will have to do all of the work that is usually left to a funeral home.
- Death Certificates: Your designated agent must immediately complete and file a doctor-signed death certificate with the county or district where your death occurs.
- If your body is not embalmed, your agent must find another way, such as refrigeration or dry ice, to preserve your body prior to burial or cremation.
- Your designated agent will need to obtain a burial permit from a local official in the county and state where you died. In addition, there may be specific local statutes that apply to the actual disposition. For example, if you have your own rural land, zoning laws may permit you to be buried there. Be sure to check what’s allowable in your area. Once you have been buried, information on date and place of interment must be recorded on the burial permit and it must (in most states) be returned to the local official who issued it.
- In addition to the burial permit, you will be required to obtain a special body transportation permit if your family will be moving your body. This permit can be obtained from the local coroner.
- In 45 states, your family is not legally required to use a funeral home to plan and conduct a funeral.
- Cremation: A special permit-to-cremate may be needed; your agent can get this permit from the medical examiner or coroner. If you authorized cremation prior to your death, your family will carry out your wish. However, if you didn’t authorize your cremation or didn’t sign the permit to cremate form prior to your death, your designated agent or next of kin will be required to do so.
Even though there has been an increased interest in the concept, the number of actual home “do it yourself” funerals is still tiny.
There are two organizations that may be of help to you if you’d like to explore a do it yourself funeral: Final Passages, PO Box 1721 Sebastopol, CA 95473 707-824-0268 www.finalpassages.org Crossings, 7108 Holly Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912 301-523-3033 www.crossings.net
The Cremation Association of North America predicts that the national cremation rate will rise to 35% and over 42% by the year 2025. In 1987, it was only 15.2%.
Traditional, Full-Service Funeral with Cremation
As discussed in the section on burials, the traditional full-service funeral is still the most commonly requested type, especially when the final step is cremation. It usually includes a viewing of the body, a formal funeral service and use of a hearse to transport the body to the funeral home and then to the crematory. If the choice is burial of the ashes, it can also include that burial or entombment in a mausoleum or columbarium.
With direct cremation, the body is cremated shortly after the death, eliminating the need for embalming. A coffin can be rented in which to store the body until it is cremated. In some instances, this may be a cheaper option. If it is decided to buy a coffin, consider buying a cheap cardboard one. After all, the coffin just needs to hold your body for a short while. On a recent web search, we found one for less than $100! Once cremated, the remains are placed in an urn or other container and returned to a family member or other designated agent. There is no viewing; however, a memorial service may be held at a later date, either with or without the ashes of the deceased present. The remains may be kept in someone’s home, buried in a crypt in a cemetery or buried or scattered in a favorite spot. There are even cremation urn pendants and bracelets in which a small amount of the ashes can be stored. Direct cremation also costs less than a traditional, full-service funeral. Fees include the funeral home’s basic service fee and preparation and transportation of the body. A crematory fee may be charged if the funeral home doesn’t own the crematory. There will also be a charge for an urn or other container. A basic cremation will cost $1,000 or less; however, actual cost will vary by the funeral home or crematory you select and the price for the ancillary goods and services chosen. If the decision is made to bury the ashes, a cemetery plot or crypt will need to be purchased and a fee will paid to open and close it as well as for perpetual care. If the choice is to not place the body in a casket prior to cremation, the funeral home should provide an alternative container that can be used. For a listing of crematories, cemeteries and funeral homes, check out the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). You can look for a member business in your area. 312-644-6610 http://www.cremationassociation.org If the decision is made to cremate the body, the ashes can be handled in several ways. Someone can:
- Arrange for them to be placed in a columbarium or mausoleum.
- Have them buried in a cemetery plot or special urn garden.
- Have them retained at the home of a friend or relative. If you are arranging this prior to your death, the person you’ve named to carry out your wishes will have to sign a Permit for Disposition showing that your ashes were released to him or her. Upon the death of the person to whom they were released, arrangements must be made for their disposition.
- Store them in a church or religious shrine, if local laws permit this.
- Request that they be scattered in a land area where no local prohibition exists, in a cemetery scattering garden or at sea. You might find it interest that some people chose ash scattering because they worry about their ashes getting stuck in the back of a close or up in the attic. Be aware that a special permit may be needed for cremains scattering.
- Look for something unique to do with them. There are some companies springing up everyday with new ideas about what can be done with cremains. For example, one company uses the deceased’s ashes to make stone statues, planters or other items for a home or garden. Another encases a small amount of the ashes in a piece of jewelry that can be worn as a remembrance.
- Have some sort of a permanent memorial, even though the ashes have been scatter. One option is to have the deceased’s name listed on a scattering plaque in a cemetery’s cremation garden. Or relatives of the deceased may retain small portions of the ashes and store them in keepsake urns.
- Have the ashes (or the body for that matter) placed in a special container or put in the ocean with those of others to create reefs.
This new alternative to cremation provides one major advantage over the traditional form of cremation that has been around for many years – it does not use anything toxic or harmful to the environment. Cremation uses fossil fuels which are regulated by environmental officials and which have the potential to add to pollution because of their green house gasses. Bio Cremation, on the other hand, uses a process called alkaline hydrolysis. This process uses 95% water in an alkaline solution to reduce a body to dry bone residue, very similar to that in standard cremation.
Although this process has been legal in Europe for awhile, it is new to the United States and is just now beginning to gain approval in several states. As of this writing, May 2010, Bio Cremation is legal in Florida, Maine, Minnesota and California. State legislatures in Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona and Washington State are expected to give approval shortly.
If you decide on Bio Cremation, you can still have the same type of funeral as with other options – a traditional full service funeral with Bio Cremation or direct Bio Cremation.
Bio Cremation by Resomation is distributed solely by Matthews International in the United States.
I think you may need to update some of your information. Some facilities do accept anatomical gifts without pre-arrangement by the donor.
Thanks for contacting us. Do you know of specific facilities that don’t require pre-arrangement?
There are several whole body donation facilities that accept donors after death without preregistration. They include:
Anatomy Gifts Registry- http://www.anatomygifts.org
Life Legacy Foundation- http://www.lifelegacy.org
Life Quest Anatomical- http://www.lifequest-anatomical.com
Bio Gift Anatomical- http://www.biogift.org
Each organization should be contacted for acceptance criteria, as well as to inquire if a locality is serviced where a death has occurred.
It should be noted that these programs are cost free to donate to unlike some anatomical programs via Medical Schools.
By stating cost free the professional fees and transportation of a funeral director are covered to transport a deceased person from the place of death to the donation center facilities.
If someone is seeking to donate and are being declined for one reason or another keep calling various programs some criteria is different between programs which may gain acceptance in one but not another.
Some universal reasons for a decline are:
Under age 18
Hepatitis B or C
The above conditions are universal however a donation facility’s definition of obesity or underweight does vary so call to check on these factors.
Hi, my name is Eric Marquardt. I am a distributor of natural burial caskets. The company I represent is Northwoods Casket Company. They do have a website and facebook page. I was wondering if you are interested.
Eric: Can you let us know what type of relationship you are seeking with your company?
I live in Greenville, S.C. I would like to donate my whole body for medical research. i just do not know how to go about it. I don’t have money for a lawyer, I just don’t see the need.
You don’t need a lawyer to get consent to donate your body for medical research. Let us do some checking on your behalf. We’ll see if we can find a list of medical facilities in your area that accept whole bodies for medical research. You can then contact them about making arrangements before you die.