Body disposal - legal procedures

Certain procedures must be carried out in order to dispose of a human body, including arranging for a funeral, certifying that a person is dead and what the cause of death was, as well as registering the death.

Brain diagram

 © Australian Museum Research Library

Body disposal in New South Wales

Certain procedures must be carried out in order to dispose of a human body in New South Wales. Disposal of bodies is dealt with in six pieces of New South Wales legislation.

Many of the legal requirements involve the regulation of funeral directors, but there is no legal impediment to people conducting all aspects of a funeral themselves. However, the system is built around funeral directors and it would be difficult to conduct a private funeral if potential obstacles in a particular local government area had not been sorted out prior to the death.

This account is only a summary and has been prepared for general information as a component of the Australian Museum's exhibition and website Death - the Last Taboo. The Australian Museum has no role in the management of body disposal in New South Wales. The Department of Health and the relevant acts must be consulted for the detailed legal requirements. We would welcome any assistance in improving this site and keeping it up to date.

Responsibility for the funeral

The executor of the dead person is responsible for disposal of the body. If there is no executor, it is the responsibility of the most senior next of kin. In the circumstances that the next of kin does not want to be involved, the funeral can be treated as a destitute burial, conducted by the government contractor. In most situations the executor will be a family member and/or a person keen to implement the family's wishes concerning the funeral. However, situations arise in which conflicts occur within families and the executor is required to make the final decision.

The executor is not bound by any directions the dead person left in his/her will, except that the body may not be cremated if the dead person wished otherwise.

Certifying the cause of death

The certificate of a medical officer is required to confirm that the person is dead and to determine the cause of death. The medical officer is preferably the person who had most recently been attending the person before death.

In New South Wales law, a person is considered to be dead if there is:

"(a) irreversible cessation of all function of the person's brain, or
(b) irreversible cessation of circulation of blood in the person's body."

In practical terms, this means that the heart has stopped beating for a prolonged period or in the case of a person on life support, brain death has occurred.

If the certifying doctor cannot determine a cause of death, if the death is suspicious, or in some other circumstances, the death must be referred to the Coroner. In this case the police must be notified, and they will organise transport of the body to the nearest forensic morgue.

Preparing the body

A number of changes take place in the body during the period after death. The body starts to become stiff after around three hours as a result of rigor mortis, before relaxing again after thirty hours. Blood drains from capillaries in the skin of the upper surface, and collects in blood vessels in the lower surface. Fluids may leak from natural body openings, particularly if decomposition is allowed to occur.

Hospital staff 'lay out' the body of someone who dies in hospital, washing the body, placing the hands on the chest or lap, applying bandages to keep the mouth and limbs in position, and packing absorbent material around the body openings. These activities can also be performed by a funeral director or family member in the case of deaths at home.

Funeral directors may apply make up, to mask the pallid appearance, and they can also embalm the body if required. Preservatives are injected into the circulatory system during the embalming process, and this treatment slows the rate of decomposition by a making the body unsuitable for the growth of bacteria and insects.

Full arterial embalming is required by law if the body is to be 'buried' in an above-ground vault or if the body is held without refrigeration in the care of a funeral director. This situation often arises when the body is made available for viewing or for extended vigils. Embalming can only be performed by a qualified and registered embalmer.

Death at home

Approximately ten percent of people die in their homes. Most of these are unexpected deaths, but it is possible to remain at home in a terminal condition, under the supervision of a doctor.

If a body is discovered at home, and there is any uncertainty as to whether the person is dead, an ambulance should be called immediately. If ambulance officers determine that the person is dead, they will leave the body in the home, otherwise they will take it to a hospital.

If a person at home is known to be dead, the first step for the person's family is to call the doctor who last treated the dead person so that within 24 hours of death, a medical certificate can be issued (and a cremation certificate, if required). The doctor will also be trained in dealing with death and will be able to guide the family of the dead person through the first stages of the funeral process. Usually, this will involve contacting a funeral director who can conduct all aspects of the funeral. Alternatively, the family can chose to arrange a do-it-yourself funeral.

Registering the death

All deaths must be registered with the NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages. The funeral director, relative, or any person with the required knowledge can do this by filling out a Death Information Form (form PR13 supplied by the Registry). This form compiles personal details including children and spouses, as well as noting how the cause of death was certified (medical certificate, or Coroner's report). The form also contains sections to be filled out by the crematorium and/or funeral director performing the burial or cremation, certifying that the body has been disposed of.


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