"As people gather for the holidays, some use the opportunity to discuss difficult but important family topics. That includes what folks want to happen when they die and how they want to be remembered. Often when a death occurs, the next of kin hands the arrangements over to a funeral director in the moment of grief and stress. But some families are choosing to stay with the body and handle as much as they can themselves.
"Zaakera Stratman's daughter Mikaela, a University of Washington student, died unexpectedly at age 22 from a rare type of acute brain inflammation in 2018. Mikaela's death left the family in shock. But despite her grief, Zaakera resisted simply turning over the funeral arrangements to a professional."
So began the feature story distributed by the NW News Network, which serves 11 public radio stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Reporter Tom Banse shared some of Mikaela and Zaakera's story, detailed in three parts on our website: Hospital Vigil, Green Burial, and Transit Permit. The story is the first to introduce Washington Funeral Resources & Education to listeners around the state. We're getting great feedback on what's being called "such a helpful, informative piece."
Read the USA Today coverage of what inspired our non-commercial public information site in Oregon, and a Register Guard editorial on "Not Taking No for an Answer" when it comes to family- or community-directed care for the dead.
By Jodie Buller
During my years as a cemetery manager, I’ve worked with folks who’ve been comfortable relying on a funeral director to file the death certificate and obtain their burial/transit permit, and others who wanted to handle this paperwork themselves, as is their right under Washington law. I had to tell these DIY families that Washington’s shift to exclusive reliance on an electronic death registration system (EDRS) meant that they would have to hire a funeral director.
Seeing the traumatic and expensive barriers this created for Zaakera Stratman after her daughter Mikaela’s death increased my motivation to pursue a solution. With this website already in development, we formed a two-pronged plan. The first was to invite funeral directors friendly to home funerals to commit to offering reasonably priced “a la carte” assistance solely to facilitate the Death Certificate and/or Burial/Transit Permit (unless other services are desired), and to train their staff accordingly. (See Completing the Death Certificate> Hiring Assistance for Filing in How to Complete Paperwork.)
More importantly, our website development team initiated outreach to the Washington Department of Health to highlight the discrepancy between Washingtonian’s rights under the law and the current practice of restricting filing to professionals with EDRS access. We were fortunate to have former National Home Funeral Alliance President Lee Webster and Funeral Consumers Alliance Executive Director Josh Slocum willing to take the lead. They brought their years of advocacy experience to bear, identifying the key personnel to engage and the legal citations that affirmed this right. With that information, in mid-February 2021 we generated a flurry of letters from affected families, along with community advocates and organizations.
Within days we had a response from the Department of Health (DOH). Donna Feddern, Vital Records Manager for the DOH Center for Health Statistics confirmed, “There is a defined process for registering a death when there is no funeral home involved and it is still a paper process.” By the end of February, DOH had issued an official one-page publication titled Families Acting as Funeral Directors.
There is now clear and accessible documentation of the legal authority for those who chose not to hire a funeral director to handle the paperwork. Ms. Feddern has assured us that both this publication and paper death certificates have been distributed to county clerks who are responsible for facilitating this process on the local level. (It’s still a good idea to print it out and bring it with you to your county clerk. See How to Complete Paperwork for more tips.)
As a member of the team developing this website and someone who supports a lot of folks who prefer to do-it-themselves when it comes to death-care, I am grateful to DOH for this clarification, to Lee and Josh for initiating the advocacy push, and to all the community advocates who made their voices heard.
For more background, read Karen’s Story for an example of family-filed paperwork in Oregon.
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