Burial, cremation or donation

Bodies can be buried or cremated after death. Some people choose to be buried at sea, while others may donate their bodies to science. Find out the legal and other requirements for these different methods of body disposal.

Burial

Once a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death has been issued, a body can be buried. There are three choices of burial site: a public cemetery, a private cemetery, or private land.

To bury a body on private land, the land must be greater than five hectares in area and the approval of the Local Council must be obtained. The Council will not allow a body to be buried in an area where it has the potential to pollute a domestic water supply. Most Councils require the proposed site to be surveyed, and they may put a restrictive covenant on the land. Both public and private cemeteries can be selective, and may refuse to accept a body that has not been delivered by a funeral director. There is no legal requirement for them to do so.

A person who wishes to arrange a private funeral would need to identify a sympathetic cemetery operator before the death. (No such operator could be identified from inquiries made in the course of preparing this web site). Alternatively, it is possible to select a funeral director who will only conduct those parts of a funeral that the family considers too difficult to organise themselves.

When a body is buried, the top of the coffin must be a minimum of 900 mm below ground level, unless it is placed in an above-ground vault. Any body placed in an above-ground vault must be embalmed and hermetically enclosed in an approved material.

Cemetery officers must maintain a register of all people buried within the cemetery.

Cremation

Because the body is immediately destroyed when it is cremated, extra precautions are required by law before cremation can take place. (Unlike buried bodies cremated bodies cannot be exhumed for further medical study.)

The executor must complete an Application to cremate, in which he/she certifies that the dead person had not expressed any desire not to be cremated. This form is given to a doctor, usually the doctor that issued the medical certificate of cause of death.

The doctor then issues a cremation certificate if he/she is satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances and that the dead person was not opposed to being cremated. This certificate is then given to a medical referee who also inspects the body and checks the first doctor's certificate. If in agreement he/she issues a cremation permit. (If the body was referred to the Coroner, the Coroner can issue a cremation permit.)

The Regulations specify that the operator of a crematorium must accept a body for cremation unless there is 'lawful excuse'. Provided the body is delivered in a sealed coffin that meets occupation health and safety criteria, is of a suitable size and material, and is accompanied by a cremation permit, a crematorium should accept the body for cremation.

Many crematoria will be unwilling to accept a body that has not been delivered by a funeral director, and may request approval from the Department of Health. The Department of Health does not require any extra paperwork, and a phone call between the crematorium and the Area Health Service Public Health Unit should remove any concerns of the crematorium operator.

Although there are clauses in the Public Health Act and Regulation that specify requirements of crematoria, there is nothing in these laws specifying that a cremation must take place in a cremator.

Conceivably it would be possible to build a funeral pyre and cremate a body privately if it complied with Environmental Protection Agency and Local Government regulations on burning off. However, gas-fuelled cremators are a more environmentally benign way of incinerating a body and it is reasonable to expect that the law would soon regulate funeral pyres if they became popular.

Crematoria are required to provide ashes to the executor, to dispose of them according to directions, or to keep them for a minimum of 14 days if they are unclaimed. Permission is required to scatter ashes in certain places, including some enclosed waterways and public spaces.

A crematorium must also keep a cremation register and all the forms associated with a particular cremation for a minimum of 15 years.

Burial at sea

Disposing of an uncremated body at sea is regulated under federal law: the Sea Dumping Act. An application on a prescribed form must be made to Environment Australia. Although the act states that a fee of $1000 must be lodged with the application, the Minister has the power to waive the fee, and while the number of sea burials in Australia is only 3 or 4 per year, this is normal practice.

Bodies for burial at sea must be prepared in accordance with the Ship Captain's Medical Guide. This involves weighting the body and sewing it into a strong shroud with several openings to allow putrefaction gases and trapped air to escape.

The site of the burial must be arranged with Environment Australia, who will confirm the location with other agencies including, NSW Fisheries, NSW Department of Transport, NSW Environmental Protection Agency, Commonwealth Fisheries, Commonwealth Hydrographer and Commonwealth Maritime Safety Officer.

Environment Australia will try to grant a permit within a few days, but it is helpful if contact is made with the Department prior to the death.

The main criteria in determining a site for sea burial are that the body will not be carried inshore by currents, or be retrieved by fishing activities. This means that the body must be submerged in water of depth greater than 1000 m, which around Sydney, dictates that the burial will be more than 60 km off the mainland.

Donation of body to science

Human bodies are useful in medical research and in the training of medical students. The Anatomy Act regulates the use of dead bodies for medical purposes.

Bodies must be housed under strict criteria in a registered institution, such as a university medical school. Universities do not advertise for bodies, and at present, supply outstrips demand.

People wishing to donate their bodies to science need to make prior arrangements - it is not sufficient to leave an instruction in a will. After the body has been used, the medical school meets the cost of cremation or burial of any remaining parts of the body according to prior arrangements with the donor.


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