Bodies at home and at the hospital

Deathopedia is a blog series that tackles topics about dying, death and loss, to build death literacy. To see death literacy in action in communities across Australia: check out Compassionate Communities Hub and Dying to Know Day.

How long can a body stay in the home after someone has died?

There is a great deal of misinformation “out there” about dead bodies at home. My response here is about an expected death occurring in a private residence and death in hospital.

In NSW* if a person dies at home the body can stay at home for five days. At the end of those five days (or before) you need to either hire a funeral director and use their mortuary or have the service and bury or cremate.

It actually gets a bit more complicated when you bring a body of your loved one home from a hospital.  Technically,  it is legal however it is generally not encouraged for adults though many families bring babies and children home before a funeral. Hospital mortuaries tend to only want to release a body to a funeral director. However, as Robert Larkin (a lawyer) notes in his book Funeral Rites (a highly recommended read), “It is legal to take possession of a body from an institution and it to your home. However the community is still in the early stages of claiming back funeral rites so do not be surprised if the initiative is met with some resistance”.

In these situations, a family can insist to take their loved one home.  Now obviously if you just have the family station wagon it’s going to be tricky to actually take a body home without a trolley and a bit of experience carrying a body. Bodies are heavy and it’s emotional work too! Though it has been done! I know a family who have taken a coffin to the hospital morgue, put the coffin in the back of their ute and taken their grandma home and then two days later to the cemetery. (I’d like to stress this isn’t what everyone wants to do- but it is an option).

This is where your funeral director can be invaluable. You can ask a funeral director to help transport a person home, and that’s all. You technically do not have to hire the funeral director to do anything else. Ring around and find a service to provide this service for you. You can then have a home vigil and funeral from home. You can then also hire the funeral director to transport the coffin from home to the funeral service and burial or cremation.

If you choose at this stage to hire a funeral director, you will find they are are bound by public health regulations that states that the body must be kept in refrigeration for eight out of 24 hours. So if you want to have a home vigil, or if taking care of the body of your loved one at home is important to you, you need to plan around this eight hour requirement.

So in summary, If a person dies at home, the body can be kept for up to five days (in NSW refer to your state or local law). You can also take possession of a body and take it home from a hospital or nursing home. The body can remain for up to five days after death. While there is no legal requirement to hire a funeral director, they can be helpful for transport (and other things!). Like most of these death related experiences – if you know what you want it is possible to plan and negotiate ahead of time with healthcare institutions and funeral directors.

Watch this video from our favourite mortician to help us understand our historical and cultural misinformation on the issue.

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*Here’s an extract for all the public health policy nerds out there:

Retention of bodies by a person who is not a funeral director (1) A person who is not a funeral director must not retain a body if more than 5 days have passed since death.

(2) The Director-General may approve, in a particular case, of a body being retained for longer than 5 days, subject to any conditions that the Director-General considers appropriate. (3) This clause does not apply to a body that is stored at premises licensed under the Anatomy Act 1977 or the subject of an inquest under the Coroners Act 2009.

Retention of bodies by a funeral director (1) A funeral director must retain a body: (a) in a refrigerated body storage facility, and (b) in a mortuary or a holding room. (2) However, a funeral director may cause the body to be removed from a refrigerated body storage facility: (a) to another part of the mortuary, for a maximum of 8 hours a day for the purposes of preparing the body for burial or cremation, embalming the body or viewing of the body by mourners, or (b) for the purpose of transporting the body for burial, interment or cremation, or (c) for the purpose of transporting the body to another mortuary.

Kerrie Noonan12 Comments