A Guide for DIY Funerals by Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont

by Holly Stevens 

When Nellie Hickerson, 90, of Randleman, N.C., died in early 2008, she went to the grave in the same manner that she had lived her final years -- lovingly tended by her children, C.L. Hickerson, 58, and Suzanne Poorman, 54, on the family 80-acre homestead in rural Randolph County.

For three days Nellie's body lay in the bedroom of her home, cooled by dry ice and the ice bottles that grandson Matthew Poorman had stashed ahead of time in the freezer. Captured earlier on a CD, Nellie's voice sang out now and then in a hauntingly ethereal Southern twang: "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see."

A third sibling drove down from Wilton, N.H., for the Friday burial in the homestead graveyard, where C.L. had previously reinterred his father's remains. An unlined cedar casket made by a neighbor waited nearby. Meanwhile, friends prepared meals, took pictures, brought shovels. Someone even thought to stash tampers and a rake for finishing the site afterwards.

In the end, Nellie was laid to rest beside her husband on the only tract of land she’d ever known intimately, her grave adorned with the wildflowers and herbs she’d admired all her life.  The cost? Oh, about a couple hundred for a backhoe operator to dig the grave, ten bucks for the death certificate, and another thirty for the dry ice. 

If this story sounds fanciful – though it really happened -- it is only because we’ve grown so accustomed in the past century to handing over the care of our own dead to institutional caregivers: funeral homes and, more recently, crematories.  There is nothing wrong with hiring professional funeral providers, of course. But in recent years, more families like the Hickersons have opted to care for their own loved ones, all the way to final disposition.

Except for embalming and cremating, it is legal in North Carolina for families to serve, in effect, as their own “funeral directors.” It does require some attention to a few regulations, and a willingness to be something of a pioneer in communicating your intentions to those who will be involved. But many of those who have chosen this route will tell you that they found it to be enormously healing and satisfying.

Here are the basics you must know:

If you are interested in caring for your own dead it’s crucial to plan ahead. While the practice is legal in nearly all states, it’s still relatively rare and you may encounter barriers—some because of ignorance and others of intent. If you do encounter roadblocks and there time to intervene, Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont may be able to assist you. Please call us.

If you act as the funeral director, you must notify your county health department of the death within 24 hours and then arrange for a death certificate to be filed within five days with the registrar of the county where the death occurred. If hospice is involved, they can handle these tasks for you. Otherwise, you will want to talk in advance with your county staff to find out what steps you will need to take, whom to contact and how. Tamma Hill, the field services manager for North Carolina Vital Records, will reassure county workers that might be hesitant to work with you. Reach her in Raleigh at (919) 715-8963 or (919) 733-3000 ext. 242, if you encounter any resistance.

If the loved one is under the care of a physician and the death is expected but hospice is not involved, tell the physician ahead of time of your plans to act as the funeral director and to claim custody of your loved one’s remains until final disposition. It helps if you have power of attorney for health care decisions, as this grants you the clear authority to make decisions regarding the care of the remains.

You and your friends may legally transport the body (only if you pay for this does the person need to be a licensed funeral transport provider). In North Carolina, you do not need a burial transit permit unless the body is under the care of the county medical examiner (as happens when the death was suspicious or unexpected) or if you will carry the body across state lines. (In those cases, the medical examiner or county registrar would provide the permit.) The typical casket can easily fit in the bed of a pickup truck or in a minivan with the rear seats removed.

Check in advance with your local newspaper if you wish to place an obituary. Papers vary in their policies regarding obituaries submitted by families.

In most cases, human remains can be kept fresh for several days by setting the room air conditioner at the lowest temperature setting or by cooling the body with ice bottles or five-pound bricks of dry ice. Most families find dry ice the most practical. Check ahead with your local grocer for availability. You’ll need about 30 pounds for the first 24 hours and less for each subsequent day under usual circumstances. Dry ice increases the CO2 content of the surrounding room, so keep air circulating.

Unless you are fortunate to live where you are permitted to bury your own dead on land you own, you will need to make arrangements for burial in a cemetery or cremation. If burial is your choice, you can choose immediate burial when you are ready to say goodbye. The funeral home might handle only the committal, perhaps at a negotiated lower rate since you have handled the death certificate and sheltering already.  Some cemeteries prepare their own graves so that you might be able to handle the committal yourself without a funeral home’s involvement at all. FCAP has a list of backhoe operators who are experienced with this kind of work.  If a church cemetery is involved, you might even be able to get permission ahead of time not to use a vault or grave liner.

If you choose direct cremation, 24 hours must pass after death before cremation occurs. Most crematories require that the body arrive in a combustible container that fits their equipment; it is wise to arrange ahead of time with the crematory of your choice to make sure that your container meets their needs. You may be able to negotiate a direct cremation at a lower rate since you will already have arranged for the death certificate.

The members of Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont work together as informed consumers for after-death arrangements that embrace their needs, preferences and rights. We use information gathering, education, advance planning and advocacy to address this aim. The Alliance assumes no legal or financial responsibility for death care arrangements.

Local Resources for DIY Funerals

The best local source for home funeral advice is a local natural at-home death care education and support group in Greensboro, inspired by Crossings. For information contact Sandy LaGrega (336-908-4664) Sandy has ten years experience as a home death care consultant.

Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont
PO Box 14214
Greensboro NC 27310

National Resources

Crossings “Caring for our own at death: renewing simplicity and sanctity at the transition time of death.”

Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love -- This book by Lisa Carlson is subtitled A complete guide for those making funeral arrangements with or without a funeral director. Copies are available through FCA at

A Family Undertaking -- A documentary on home funerals that was first broadcast on SCETV in 2005 and can be rented from Netflix.

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. (New York: Scribner, 2007) -- This excellent book by Mark Harris is available at a discount from FCA.

Care of the Dead: North Carolina General Statutes – compiled by Holly Stevens of Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont. At Lulu:
Final Passages -- A website devoted to “green and loving family-directed home funerals.”

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Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont
P.O. Box 14214
Greensboro, NC 27415-4214
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