A Return Home: How Funeral Homes Can Support Home Funerals

As a funeral director, your business has likely been set up around the concept of a traditional funeral.

But did you know that fewer than ⅓ of Americans are interested in a traditional full-service funeral with embalming and burial?

That means for every 3 people who walk in your funeral home, only ONE of them is looking for the type of service that your business is likely built upon. Or even worse, these families aren’t coming to you at all, because they assume you can’t offer what they’re looking for.

That might sound startling to you upon first read. But don’t worry, because there’s a way to serve thesefamilies, too. Caitlin Doughty, owner and director at Undertaking LA Funeral Home, has been exploring this exact topic for a few years now. She’s dove in to explore and expand upon the possibilities of offering more flexible death care services to families.

She joined us at the NFDA International Convention this year to relate her experiences.

In her talk, she explained how most of her families approach her funeral home asking for a home funeral, a green burial, or other “non-traditional” death care service. Instead of turning these families away, Doughty and her staff have decided to embrace each family, and respect their choices for memorializing their loved one.


The 3 levels of family involvement that are welcome

Doughty walked us through the 3 levels of family-involvement in funerals that her funeral home supports:

  1. “The Full Banana”: The highest level of family involvement takes place in a home funeral. This is a case in which a loved one passes away at home. Then, the family then washes the body, dresses the body, and has everything entirely contained in the home.
  2. “The Half-Grapefruit”: The middle ground level of family involvement is when a family requests delayed removal of a body. This means the loved one passes away at home, and then the family calls the funeral home. The funeral home begins the death certificate and communication with the doctor—but they don’t pick up the body right away. They leave the family alone, allowing them to take all the time they need to say goodbye. When they’re ready, the family calls the funeral home again—sometimes 2 hours later, sometimes 24. At that point, the funeral home then picks up and transports the body.
  3. “The Cherry on Top”: The final form of family-involved death care is when a family comes to the funeral home to help out somehow. This could be something as simple as fixing mom’s hair or helping to dress her.


Changing the mental  framework of our industry

When looking at the traditional mental framework of the funeral industry, Doughty explains “funeral directors are the experts in dealing with dead bodies.” She suggests a new outlook that reframes that statement to: “Families are the experts in dealing with dead bodies. Funeral directors help them achieve their goals.

The conventional wisdom has been that families have no desire to be involved in caring for a body. Or, that they don’t want to see bodies that aren’t perfect, view unsightly things, or smell weird things. Doughty disagrees, saying, “I’m here to tell you that many families want to be involved in that. They love this person, and they want to help care for their body.”

When Doughty and her team first began, they expected that most of their cases would be “perfect hospice bodies.”

Instead, they’ve had families help prepare bodies that have been emaciated, autopsied, or in car accidents. And while helping to shroud or embalm their loved one’s body, families have experienced heavy emotions, tears, and anger. ”But it is cathartic, and they are grateful for the experience. If we’re honest with families, we can be honest with them that death is messy and hard. It’s not all clean and perfect,” Doughty says.


What if we started saying “no” less, and embraced yes?

Traditionally, Doughty explains that many families are told “no,” with requests as simple as putting lipstick on a mother or helping to dress her. These little acts make a big difference for the family in caring for their loved one. And when they are told “no,” they turn away from those funeral homes.

Undertaking LA has served families who are relieved to be told “yes” in answer to their requests to care for their dead. Doughty asserts, “When you’ve told them ‘yes,’ you’ve empowered them…  the power of permission is so important. Once you give families permission, they will keep believing in you and adoring you forever. We need to regain the trust of our families.”

If you’ve been saying “no” to families’ requests, examine your reasons behind that answer. See if you can find ways to be more flexible to families’ requests for involvement in the death care of their loved ones. This shift will ultimately result in regaining the trust of your families.

And if it’s one thing that will create the biggest shift in this profession… it’s certainly getting that trust back.


About the NFDA Speaker, Caitlin Doughty:
Owner and Funeral Director at Undertaking LA

Caitlin Doughty owns and directs Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home that offers services unique to most other funeral homes in the industry. With a transparent honesty about the funeral process with all families they serve, Undertaking LA believes “Death can be complicated, but arranging a funeral should not be.”

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  3. Lee Webster

    For more on how funeral directors can support home funeral families, the NHFA produced this piece in 2014: https://www.homefuneralalliance.org/what-funeral-directors-can-do.html

  4. Headstones Columbus, OH

    The loss of a loved one is never something that we want to experience. Great that you have 3 levels of family-involvement in funerals.
    – Nick G., Columbus Headstones

  5. Krystal Penrose

    Thanks for reading Nick! Glad to see you here.