British Columbia

DIY funerals: How to do it 'rite' at home

In the final installment of DIY Funerals: Rite at Home on CBC Radio One, experts offer tips on how to care for your own dead.

You can never have too much ice, and other practical tips for a DIY Funeral

In her East Vancouver home Deborah Magdee set up a shrine to her late mother Elsie. Magee led a home funeral for her after she died. (Bridgette Watson/CBC)

DIY Funerals: Rite at Home is a five-part radio series exploring home funerals. The series ran from July 4 to July 8 on CBC Radio One's afternoon shows in B.C.

Taking care of dead loved ones at home can be an affordable and intimate alternative to paying a funeral provider and for those interested in doing so, there are important things to know before undertaking such a task.

Home funerals can be done safely and legally in British Columbia if the proper steps are followed. This includes filing the proper paperwork, gathering practical supplies, and adhering to the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act.

Navigating the paperwork

Some people hire a death doula, someone who specializes in home funerals, to help them navigate the paperwork.

If a home death is expected, a physician can prepare a notification of expected death in the home form. This allows the family to have time with their deceased loved one without immediately contacting a physician to pronounce death.

Ngaio Davis, owner of Classical Cremations, in her Vancouver office where she assists clients with custom funeral preparations, including for home funerals. (Bridgette Watson/CBC)

The death will need to be registered with The British Columbia Vital Statistics Agency, where a disposition permit will be issued to confirm where the body will be buried, or cremated.

If a funeral home is not moving the body, then a private transport permit must be applied for through Consumer Protection BC. Without this form, transporting a body violates the Funeral Services Act.

A death doula can also teach people how to care for a dead body. They are not registered funeral providers and cannot be paid to wash a body, but they can provide instruction and support.

You can never have too much ice

Dead bodies need to be kept cool. It is essential to have ice packs on hand to place around the vital organs of a person after they pass.

Pashta MaryMoon is a death doula who helps families prepare for home funerals. She said people need to be prepared for the effects of rigor mortis.

"You often see in movies somebody dies and their eyes are open and then they just pass their hands over top of the eyelids and they shut," said MaryMoon, who explained this is not normally the case in real life.

MaryMoon's DIY tips include using sandwich bags of rice to weigh down eyelids. She also recommends using a headscarf to secure the corpse's jaw closed before rigor mortis sets in. 

The body can be washed with essential oils that kill bacteria, but Charlotte Poncelet, executive director of the BC Funeral Association said it is important to disclose medical history if you are planning a home funeral.

This will protect body handlers from being unknowingly exposed to hepatitis or other health risks.

Blending traditions

Not everyone wants to wash their own dead.

Ngaio Davis is an independent Vancouver funeral director. She suggests talking to your loved ones well in advance and planning according to personal comfort levels.

"I would like to see things really open up and just be a blending," said Davis. "It doesn't have to be flaky, it doesn't have to be stiff and funeral direct-y, it can be just what you need."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast