EMMAUS, PA — It used to be that when someone passed, a family member called the funeral home, and a stranger showed up and whisked the body away, never to be cared for by loved ones again. But things are changing, or rather, returning, to more intimate rituals such as home funerals, which were commonplace in pre-funeral-home-director times. "I've never heard anyone say, 'I'm sorry we've done a home funeral,' " says Penny Rhodes, a home funeral guide with A Natural Undertaking. "I've heard many people say, 'I wish we would have done that.' "

The problem is, many people still don't know home funerals are even an option, or how to begin to go about planning one.

"We can't choose what's important to us if we don't know what the options are," says Rhodes, who explains that home funerals are perfectly legal and cost a fraction of what a conventional funeral would cost. Bodies don't need to be embalmed, either, making for a more natural, less-invasive process. Side-stepping the embalming process also keeps the probable human carcinogen formaldehyde out of the environment.

Here's what you need to know about home funerals:

It's not all or nothing. You no longer have to pay $8,000 or more for complete funeral home services. The industry is recognizing that many families want to perform some or all of the duties involved with caring for the dead — like washing the body, laying it out for a home funeral, and even transporting the body to its final resting place (or, if the person dies in a hospital or somewhere else, from that point to the home for an intimate viewing or vigil). Because of the growing interest in home funerals and green burials, funeral home services are often now a la carte, not complete packages.

For instance, if the thought of carrying a body down a flight of stairs and bumping it off of corners sends you into a panic, you can hire a funeral home to move the body (or ask someone a bit more removed to do it — sometimes, moving the body can be a bit overwhelming for immediate family members, but not always). A funeral director can also transport the body from the hospital to home, or from home to the burial ground or crematorium, if the family does not want to obtain permits to do this themselves. Some funeral directors also offer to wash the body, although Rhodes says many family members find this cleansing ritual, where you generally just use a soft cloth and warm lavender water to gently cleanse the hands and face, is therapeutic. She adds that some family members who are initially vehemently opposed to home funerals wind up being the ones find the most closure during the home funeral process.

Make the right calls. Ideally, a person who wants a home funeral and/or green burial will clearly write out these wishes while alive and assign a designated agent. This person helps implement the deceased's wishes. But whether someone's been designated or not, there are important immediate calls that need to be made just after a loved one passes on.

1. If the person is in hospice, the associated nurse will likely already be there, and can pronounce the death. If not, call the local county coroner to perform this task.

2. Next, you'll want to call the Bureau of Vital Statistics in your state and report your loved one's passing. Numbers are posted in the phone book and online through your state's health department.

3. That agency will direct you to call the proper local registrar, who produces the official death certificate. You also deal with this person to obtain a transport permit if you'd like to drive the deceased to your home, to a burial ground, or to crematorium. (It must be in an enclosed vehicle, and you also need a disposal permit if you are taking the body to a cemetery or crematorium.) Some people hire a funeral home just to complete the paperwork end of things, while the family focuses on the intimacy of caring for the deceased loved one.

Set up a vigil. Home funerals work for people who die at home, for instance, in at-home hospice care, or for those who pass in the hospital or a nursing facility. If the person died at home, Rhodes suggests getting rid of all signs of illness before a home viewing or funeral. "Clear tables of medicines, and take away oxygen tanks and the hospital bed," she says. "All that's over with now."

It helps to keep an air conditioner in the room to keep the body cool, but dry ice can work, too. It's legal to keep the dead body in your home for up to three days.

Beyond that, the setting should be highly personalized. Some prefer candles, flowers, and soft music, while other prefer less embellishment for loved ones who lived simply.

There's help out there — lots of it. A strong network of experts and guides are available to help counsel you on planning your own home funeral (it's always best to plan ahead) or to help you carry a home funeral out according to a loved one's wishes. And Rhodes notes that although not all deaths can be foreseen, there's a lot of help out there, enabling families who lose someone unexpectedly to honor their loved one through an intimate home funeral.

Here's where to find help:

This article is republished with permission from Rodale.com.