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Guidelines for Various Situations: the legal process in Massachusetts

A helpful phrase for a family member to use when you are talking to any “official” to arrange a home vigil is to say that you are “acting as the funeral director.”

Expected death at home

If the death is expected and you have hospice there is no need to call an ambulance, police, or 911. The hospice nurse will come at the time of death, sign a Nurse Pronouncement Form, and give it to the family. This form states the time of death and will be given to the doctor or the Town Clerk to be input into the electronic system as part of the death registration process.

Unexpected death at home

If the death is not expected, you will need to call the police who will then be in contact with the medical examiner. You may call the non-emergency number of the police department and explain the situation. Each town may respond differently. Some may treat the home as a “crime” scene for a short while. Others choose not to go that route. All will do some type of investigation. Call your primary care physician as soon as possible to inform her or him of the circumstances and ask them to help by giving appropriate information to the authorities (police and/or medical examiner) as quickly as possible.

Expected death away from home

Usually an expected death will take place at a hospital, a hospice facility, or a nursing home. In these cases it is best to pre-plan with the attending physician, social workers involved in discharge planning, and hospital administrators. In most states you will be able to transport your loved one after having the correct paperwork filled out. You may also choose, with pre-planning, to have a funeral director bring your loved one home.

Unexpected death away from home

If an unexpected death occurs and you want to act as your own funeral director, then you must know your rights in order to take custody of the body. If there is to be an autopsy you will have a chance of preventing it if you voice religious objections. The body will often be taken to a morgue until plans are made.

Be prepared with a clear understanding of your state laws and regulations. If the death occurs in another state, you can get quickly up to speed on applicable laws at the site of the Funeral Etihcs Organization, Lisa Carlson, who runs the site, is knowledgeable about the various state laws and will answer questions by phone or email (802-482-6021,

Work with the signing physician or hospital staff. Most people are familiar with procedures involving a funeral director and will generally work with you if you are informed, determined, and can produce the proper paperwork that is needed. However, some hospital and care facility staff may not have any experience with families wanting to take the body home. Their first response may be “It can’t be done.” Check out this link if you are confronted with institutional obstacles:


Take a good friend along for support. If you know a sympathetic funeral director, his or her services may be useful in clearing administrative obstacles to taking possession of the body and in organizing and bringing your paperwork.

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Most recently updated 2018-09-02