Final Rights

Reclaiming the American Way of Death

Why Do Hospitals Want to Hold on to Dead Bodies?

Posted By on February 17, 2012

While most people would prefer to die at home, nearly half the deaths in the U.S. either occur or are confirmed in a hospital. With the growing interest in home funerals, more and more families want to take charge of this intimate and critical life event. One pediatric oncology nurse says she’s seen a dramatic difference in healing when parents who have lost a child have had a hands-on funeral experience.

And yet some hospitals refuse to release a dead body to anyone but a funeral director, someone who may even be a stranger to the family. Why? “Liability,” some hospitals have claimed. What liability, I would ask? Hospitals routinely release new-borns to their parents. They routinely release Grandpa after he’s recovered from his heart attack to anyone who will pick him up. And just what is the “liability” if the new-born was a still-birth or Grandpa didn’t survive his heart attack? There certainly isn’t much more a family could do to make them deader than they already are.

If anything, hospitals that have such restrictive policies are creating their own liability, a lawsuit for interfering with the right of the family to possess the body for the purpose of burial and mourning (1995, federal court decision, Whaley v. County of Tuscola; preceded in 1909 by Wyeth v. Cambridge). And when releasing to the family, there certainly won’t be any law suit for a mistaken identity release as has happened in various states.

To their credit, most hospitals have come a long way in dealing with death, especially in the case of infant deaths. Years ago, a dead child was whisked out of sight, with no chance for the mother to hold the babe and mourn. Most hospitals now know that facing the death physically is an important part of healing for that mom.

So are funeral arrangements for a growing number of families. Out of the total, home funerals are likely to be only a few. But for each of those families who choose that option, a hospital should be well-enough educated to facilitate (not hinder) that choice . . . with a comprehensive bank of “how-to” information if the family needs it. In Vermont, the state Health Department has fulfilled that role. But state hospital associations could do the same. Knowing the laws in every state, I’d be willing to help!


10 Responses to “Why Do Hospitals Want to Hold on to Dead Bodies?”

  1. Jack Gerbl says:

    Hi Lisa, I wanted to give some California specific information on your topic. If the hospital were to allow the family to immediately remove the deceased, they would be assisting the family in violation of State statutes. The California rule is that a deceased human being can only be transported by a mortuary or an agent acting on behalf of the mortuary (a first call company) without a disposition/transit permit accompanying the deceased. If the family has a permit, it can transport the remains anywhere in the State or out of the State. To obtain this permit, the death certificate must first be filed with the proper health department. This will be more difficult for the family now because California is 100% EDRS – Electronic Death Registration System. Only funeral directors with training, some hospitals, coroners and Dr’s. have online access. The family that wants to “act as a funeral director” can get help from the local health departments but it is time comsuming and can take days to get it done if the Dr. isn’t cooperative. California law says the Dr. has 15 hours from death to provide causes but there is no enforcement arm for that law. When I take a casket to a home for an all night visitation, I make sure a copy of the permit is in the casket. The problem I see for the family trying to make a removal without the permit would be if they were in an accident or stopped by an officer for any reason, they are in violation. The body my be claimed by the corner and the family would be subject to a coroners’ removal fee that can range from $100 to $400, each county sets their own amount. The coroner would not release the body without a permit being presented. So in California, the family needs to leave the deceased at the hospital until the paperwork is completed. Also, this way the body is refrigerated. If they have it at home more than 24 hours, unembalmed, the local health officials may take issue with it. I hope that this information will help someone in the future. If I can ever help you with anything California specific, please don’t hesitatie to contact me.
    Jack Gerbl
    San Jacinto Valley Mortuary
    San Jacinto, CA
    websites: and others

  2. A. Gallon says:

    The state of California does NOT prohibit a family or friend from transporting the body of a deceased love one.

    From the CA Cemetery and Funeral Handbook:

    “Home Death Care

    The law does not prohibit consumers from preparing a body for disposition themselves. If you choose to do this, you must:
    File a properly completed Certificate of Death, signed by the attending physician or coroner, with the local registrar of births and deaths.
    Obtain a Permit for Disposition from the local registrar of births and deaths.
    Provide a casket or suitable container.
    Make arrangements directly with the cemetery or crematory”

    A. Gallon

  3. Lisa Carlson says:


    Each state chapter of “Final Rights”–including California–walks a family through the requirements and paperwork, although there are eight states that mandate the involvement of a funeral director. But not all hospitals know caring for your own dead is legal in the states where permitted, and I’m trying to change that, to educate more of them.

  4. Hi Lisa,
    Thank you, thank you for writing this piece.

    I have LONG used your wonderful books and work to help families KNOW their rights when their baby dies. I really appreciate this piece and want to explore it further with you. I fear that unless we get hospital associations to change their heavy handed view (in most cases) by guiding hospitals to remember the rights and laws of parents (and all loved ones) regarding the care of their deceased baby or others who have died…we will begin to see more law suits. It is inevitable with the publishing of your Final RIghts book (which I love, recommend, and use frequently) and the increased visibility I and others are spreading throughout workshops and via the internet AND at our new Loss Doula programs (

    What can I do to help you with this mission? It is SO VERY Important and long overdue.
    With much appreciation…
    Sherokee Ilse, author Empty Arms: Coping with Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Death

  5. JANICE says:

    Is it a california law that a stillborn has to be released to the parent(s) and to make funeral arrangements? I thought the hospitals take care of the body.

  6. JANICE says:

    What is the law in CA. when a woman gives birth to a stillborn? Can a hospital insist that it be released to the parents and they make arrangements?

  7. Lisa Carlson says:


    If the infant is less than 20 weeks of gestation, then the hospital may offer to handle disposition, likely as medical waste.

    Older than that, there is a fetal death certificate, and all laws would apply just as in the case of an adult. Many funeral directors do not charge for their services, only out-of-pocket expenses such as an infant’s casket. And many families find it healing to handle the death without a funeral director.

  8. Bill says:


    My wife and I are expecting an Anencephalic baby in the coming months. We live in NYC and I am wondering if there are State or Local regulations against us transporting our daughter to the funeral home.

    Any info you or your readers could give would be appreciated.


  9. Lisa says:


    I apologize for not answering sooner and for the rude remark Tel made. You may transport in NY but the death certificate must be filed by a funeral director first. Check with Crestwood Memorial Chapel and explain what you want to do. They may be willing to work with you. You can tell them I sent you.

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