Transporting a loved one after they’ve passed

7 min read

Important considerations about transporting

  • In most cases, you will want to call a funeral home first, as the staff can help make these arrangements for you.

  • Hospitals typically will not hold a body for more than 72 hours, with some exceptions.

  • If your loved one dies at home, you have five days to register the death, but it is not advisable to wait more than 72 hours.

  • If crossing state or international lines, there may be several jurisdictions' laws involved.

  • In many cases embalming will be required, but there are religious exceptions.

Soon after a loved one has passed away, one of the most difficult things you will have to deal with is transporting their body. This can be a challenge for almost anyone, both logistically and emotionally.

When dealing with your loved one’s physical remains, painful emotions are bound to come. It’s totally normal to find this part hard; just breathe and let yourself feel whatever you are feeling. Some people find it helpful to remember that your loved one was not their body. This was just the physical vessel that carried them this far, and now they have taken another form, whether you think of that as their soul, or as the memories of them that live on in you and their other family and friends.

In terms of the logistics of transporting their body, the process can differ greatly depending on where your loved one died, as laws vary from state to state. If you are in doubt, it is a good idea to look into the relevant laws in the area.

In many states, you will have to present official paperwork attesting that you are authorized to make decisions about the disposition of your loved one's body, either because they left specific instructions that you were to be in charge, or because no such instructions exist and you are their next of kin.

As always, if you are struggling with these decisions and logistics, be sure to reach out for help, whether from friends and family, or professionals such as hospital staff or a funeral director.

Choose a funeral home

When your loved one passes away, the first call you will typically want to make is to a funeral home, whose staff will take care of a lot of these arrangements for you. If you know that your loved one wanted to use a particular funeral home—for example if they left a Final Wishes document detailing their intentions for the funeral—contact that institution as soon as possible.

If there’s a funeral home close by that your family has used for years, that’s where you’ll want to turn now. Or if your loved one was a member of a religious community or institution, reach out to them, as they will most likely have a funeral home they often work with. Otherwise, you can reach out to friends in the area who have gone through what you’re going through, particularly if you have positive memories of funerals they may have planned. Remember that the funeral home is going to be very important to helping you through this process, so you want to work with a place you feel comfortable with.

If your loved one passes away in a hospital

If you’re struggling to find a funeral home, it’s important to keep in mind that time is of the essence. Hospitals in most states will not hold the body in their morgue for more than 72 hours. You are dealing with a lot right now, most of it very difficult, but finding a funeral home should truly be your number one priority at this stage.

If you need to have more time with your loved one’s body before removing it, especially in the case of specific religious or cultural customs, it’s best to speak to the nurses, doctors, or hospital administrators to make them aware. If there are extenuating circumstances that make the 72-hour limit impossible, some hospital morgues will extend the time, usually for a fee.

Grief comes out in different ways, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.

Any personal belongings that were left behind by your loved one will be safely kept at the hospital until the executor of the estate claims them. At this time, a receipt will be given to the executor who has come to collect the items.

If your loved one passes away at home

If your loved one passes away at home, there’s a different set of protocols and slightly less urgency to have the body removed. You have five days to register the death, which can only be done by a medical professional. This is usually the person’s primary care doctor. Otherwise you can reach out to a local hospital, health department, or coroner. In most states, funeral home staff can also help in this step of the process. 

While it is normal and even healthy to want to sit with your loved one and invite others who were close to them to do so as well, you should bear in mind that the body will not stay intact; it will start to break down within 24 to 72 hours after death. This is simply a difficult fact of life and death that should be considered when thinking of how you want to remember your final moments with them.

How to transport a loved one across state lines

If you want to use a funeral home in another state, it’s important to be aware of the laws in each state regarding how the body must be prepared and handled when crossing state lines. 

Both Alabama and Alaska require that the body be embalmed before crossing state lines, no matter the means of transportation. In California, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, and New Jersey, embalming is required if the body is transported on a common carrier such as a plane or train. However, should the person be Muslim, Jewish, or any other religion that prohibits embalming, religious guidelines, per the Religious Freedom Act, supersede these laws. In these cases refrigeration can be used instead.  

This is a good example of why having a funeral director is so helpful: they can provide you with answers you don’t have to scramble to find on your own, helping to relieve some of your burden.

When it comes to moving the body out of state, you have two transportation options: by air or by ground. Ground transportation, including by car or train, is relatively less expensive than shipping by air. Mortuary transport companies usually charge between $1 and $4 per loaded mile for car transport (“loaded” meaning you only have to pay for the miles the body travels, not any travel to pick up or the return trip). If train transportation makes more sense due to distance, the shipment fee will vary by train company and distance.

Airline shipment is a bit more complicated and more expensive—it can cost as much as $3,000. If you choose this option, you must work with a “known shipper” funeral home, which will offer mortuary shipping and already have a contract with certain airlines for shipping bodies both domestically and internationally. 

In either case, the funeral home will charge a “ship-out” fee, which includes collecting your loved one and preparing their body for legal transportation according to state laws. This fee can run anywhere from $600 to $1,500. 

When we lose someone dear to us, our reactions will vary. Some people will want to take a step back and let others take control of the whole process, while others want to be really involved. Grief comes out in different ways, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. But a good way to help ease some of this pain, especially with something as delicate as transporting the body of a loved one, is to leave as much of it to the professionals as you can. It’s time to focus on what needs to be done, but you also need to allow yourself the space and time to grieve.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.