How First Responders Can Assist Families Who Choose to Care for Their Own Dead in Washington
Washingtonians have the legal right to custody and control of their own dead. Whether the death was anticipated or unanticipated, once time and cause of death are established, the next-of-kin may choose to care for and transport the body, file the death certificate, arrange for disposition, and conduct any other aspect of after-death care.
Legal Authority of the Next-of-Kin In Washington, the legislative authority for the next-of-kin to act as unpaid funeral services practitioners is found in RCW§68.50.270: "Possession of human remains: The person or persons determined underRCW§68.50.160as having authority to order disposition is entitled to possession of the human remains without further intervention by the state or its political subdivisions."
RCW§68.50.160(1) specifies: “A person has the right to control the disposition of his or her own remains without the predeath or post death consent of another person. A valid written document expressing the decedent's wishes regarding the place or method of disposition of his or her remains, signed by the decedent in the presence of a witness, is sufficient legal authorization for the procedures to be accomplished.” Immediate family are by law the default decision makers regarding physical remains.
Ways You Are Empowered to Assist the Next-of-Kin Many families don’t know that an anticipated death for someone on hospice care or under other medical supervision is not generally cause to call 911. As a first responder, you may be the first person in cases not requiring medical or legal intervention, to assure families that it is okay to slow things down. You or a chaplain or clergyperson associated with your service can assist families in understanding their options:
The prevailing practice when a death has occurred, or in anticipation of a death, is to ask the next-of-kin, “What funeral home do you want us to call?” Typically, this question is accompanied by an information sheet listing all area funeral homes. Both the question and the information sheet imply that the next-of-kin is required to purchase the services of a funeral director or mortuary when this is not, in fact, the case. Instead ask them, “What plans can we assist you in making?”
Provide the following information alongside any information about local funeral homes: “Under Washington law, families may conduct any or all tasks commonly performed by a funeral home, except embalming (which is not required by Washington law). This may include:
caring for the deceased (for example, bathing and dressing);
sheltering the deceased at home;
filing death notice, handling death certificate/transportation/disposition permit;
transporting the body home or to another location for care and viewing (sometimes called a wake or vigil), and to place of final disposition;
and making all arrangements for any ceremony and for final disposition (for example, with a cemetery or crematory, or obtaining local county planning commission permission for a home burial).”
Familiarize yourself with the additional resources below.
Additional Information National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA)www.homefuneralalliance.org Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) www.funerals.org
2020 Washington Funeral Resources and Education, wafuneral.org
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Washington Funeral Resources and Education is a non-commercial public interest site dedicated to helping Washington consumers care for their own dead with or without the assistance of a funeral director. See FuneralPartnership.org for more state funeral information. This site is maintained as a project of White Eagle Memorial Preserve and Sacred Earth Foundation, which coordinates responses to inquiries with other Washington-based organizations and practitioners that support the mission of the Funeral Partnership.
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