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Care of the Body

After the death everyone take a big breath. Be with the body and spirit of your loved one. There is no need to rush into anything. This is your time to slow down and rest in the peace and sadness of the moment.

Cool the room

Turn the heat off, put the air conditioning on, or open a window.

Cool the body

(See Cooling the Body.)

Take off heavy blankets and cover body with a light sheet.

Use “techni-ice” gel packs. (Techni-ice can be ordered from Make sure it is from Australia and not China, $34.95 for 12 sheets.) Wrap individual frozen gel packs in pillow cases and place around the body: two under the shoulder blades, two under the kidneys, one on the stomach and one under the head. Place 6 unfrozen sheets in the freezer. After 3 or 4 hours rotate them out. After the first 24 hours the head and stomach can be stopped. Keep rotating the techni-ice under the body every 8 to 10 hours for the remainder of the vigil.

You can also use ice/gel packs from a drug store. They must be changed more frequently than the techni-ice.

Care of the body

Prepare the room for a vigil or wake

(See Holding a Vigil.)


Whether you are planning cremation or burial, for transporting, the body must be placed in a rigid container lined with plastic sheeting. A simple container for cremation, often called an “alternative container,” can be obtained from a funeral home for about $100. It will be a strong cardboard box, sometimes with a plywood base and is designed to be destroyed during cremation. The top of the box is perfect for families to decorate during the home wake.

Caskets for burial or cremation can be homemade. (For cremation they must be combustible), or they can be bought from a funeral home. They are also available from retail stores.

Outer Burial Containers

Most cemeteries require that the casket be placed inside a concrete grave liner to prevent the ground from subsiding. Some cemeteries offer them for sale, but if not you must buy one from a funeral director. In Massachusetts they cost anywhere from $400 to $1,000 installed. The best deal is almost always from the cemetery, if they sell grave liners.

“Burial Vaults” are more expensive, more elaborate grave liners that are usually sold by funeral homes. It is often claimed that they protect the casket, but there is no proof that they protect the body. All you need is a simple grave liner to meet the cemetery’s requirements.

Cemetery charges for opening a grave vary considerably but will always amount to several hundred dollars, not counting lot and liner. Most cemeteries do not permit anyone other than their own staff to open or fill a grave.

Check with your cemetery about regulations regarding markers, monuments and plantings, and about the charge for grave maintenance.

Scattering, Burial, or Storage of Cremated remains

Once cremation is complete, the crematory will return the ashes, usually in a box. If you wish to buy an urn, you can purchase one from any funeral director. Cremated remains can also be kept in any container — in a beautiful pottery vase, for example, or in a box or container that was a favorite object of the decedent. They can be buried anywhere, in or out of a cemetery, or scattered in a particularly loved place. Some crematories have “columbaria,” or rooms with niches where ashes can be stored. There is no restriction on the disposal of cremated remains in Massachusetts, except when they are buried in a cemetery. In that case, you must present the cemetery with a certificate from the crematory stating that the burial permit and the medical examiners’ certificate were duly presented.

Organ and Body Donation

Although organ and body donation do not, strictly speaking, come under the heading of caring for your own dead, they do provide an alternative to conventional cremation and burial. Most of us are aware that there is an acute need for organ donations, and that in losing one’s own life it is possible to give life to others. If you wish to be an organ or body donor, contact a medical or dental school and ask about their donation program. The Massachusetts medical schools require the donation to be arranged by the donor personally before death, not by the next-of-kin.

Requirements of schools vary, but here are some questions you should ask:

There are some restrictions on the acceptance of bodies. Ask about them, and always make alternative plans in case the school is unable to accept the body.

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Most recently updated 2018-08-15