A Los Angeles Times story about Jerrigrace Lyons, California’s ‘death midwife’, generated ten days of entertaining barbs and counter-barbs on an SCI chat board. The article describes how Ms. Lyons assists families that choose home funerals in lieu of a funeral home.
One of the posts challenges a fellow funeral director for the assistance he provided a family, stating in uncertain terms that such services exposed the funeral director to legal and professional liability. Because the post was somewhat tactless, the liability issues were skirted in subsequent responses. Undeterred, the poster ("Chuck") challenged consumer advocates and fellow funeral directors on the liability issues.
But, Chuck’s main point has to do with the funeral director’s exposure for professional liability when assisting a home funeral. Chuck attempted to bait consumer advocates into providing a statement that funeral directors should be liable only for the services they provide. Out of better judgment, the consumer advocates advised ‘no can do’.
Incompetence or mistakes can trigger professional liability, but professional liability can also result from the funeral director’s failure to discharge an obligation imposed by statute or regulation.
The standards required by a funeral director’s license differ from state by state. Only a handful of states prohibit home funerals. Consequently, it stands to reason that most states permit the funeral professional to assist families who want to explore the home funeral alternative. But as with any profession, it is incumbent upon the funeral director to understand what is required by his/her license, and to ascertain from a meeting with the family whether the circumstances and the family’s intent comply with applicable state law.
As another poster explained, some states’ definition of “funeral directing” impose an obligation on the licensee (whether it be the funeral director or the establishment) to maintain control of the body until the final disposition is made. In such states, the funeral director may have an obligation to witness the committal.
Funeral directors willing to assist with home funerals probably do so out of a commitment to professionalism rather than the prospect of revenue. To disparage funeral directors ‘for crossing the line’, or to label families who chose home funerals as ‘crackpots’, serves only to discredit the professionalism of the death care industry.