Burial & Cremation Laws in Rhode Island

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Each state has laws affecting what happens to a body after death. For example, most states have unique rules about embalming, burial or cremation, scattering ashes, and how to get a death certificate. Here are some answers to common questions about post-death matters in Rhode Island.

1. How do I get a death certificate?
2. Who can order a death certificate?
3. Is embalming required?
4. Is a casket necessary for burial or cremation?
5. Do I have to buy a casket from the funeral home?
6. Where can bodies be buried in Rhode Island?
7. Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation?
8. Learn more.

How do I get a death certificate?

If you are in charge of wrapping up the deceased person’s affairs, you may require multiple, official copies to carry out your job. You will need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate each time you claim property or benefits that belonged to the deceased person, including life insurance proceeds, Social Security benefits, payable-on-death accounts, veterans benefits, and many others.

In Rhode Island, a death must be registered with the state registrar of vital records within seven days and before the body is removed from the state. (Rhode Island General Laws § 23-3-16.) Typically, the funeral home, mortuary, cremation organization, or other person in charge of the deceased person’s remains will prepare and file the death certificate. The easiest way to get copies of a death certificate is to ask the person or organization that files the certificate to order them for you at the time of the death. If you are the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least ten certified copies.

If you need to order copies of a death certificate after the time of death has passed, visit the website of the Rhode Island Department of Health. From the DOH website, you can find instructions for ordering death certificates by mail or in person.

You must provide a copy of a valid, government issued photo ID or other acceptable identification at the time you order the death certificate. The first certified copy of a Rhode Island certified death certificate costs $20; additional copies ordered at the same time are $15 each.

Who can order a death certificate?

In Rhode Island, you can order copies of a death certificate only if you can show that you have a “direct and tangible interest” in the record. Such people include:

  • the deceased person’s immediate family members or legal guardian
  • an authorized agent of the deceased person or of one of the people named above
  • a lawyer, title examiner, or member of a legally incorporated genealogical society, if conducting official business
  • any person who needs the record to establish or protect a personal or property right, or
  • any person with a court order.

For more information see Vital Records: About Confidentiality on the Rhode Island Department of Health website.

Is embalming required?

Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.

In Rhode Island, a body must be embalmed or refrigerated within 48 hours of death. (Rules and Regulations Pertaining to Embalmers, Funeral Directors and Funeral Establishments § 13.2.)

In addition, a body must be embalmed if it will be shipped by common carrier, such as an airplane or train. If embalming is not possible, the body must be enclosed in a “strong, sealed outer case.” (Rules and Regulations Pertaining to Embalmers, Funeral Directors and Funeral Establishments §13.12.)

Is a casket necessary for burial or cremation?

A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The cost can range from about $500 to $20,000 or more for an elaborate design.

Burial. No law requires a casket for burial. However, you should check with the cemetery; it may have rules requiring a certain type of container.

Cremation. No law requires a casket for cremation. On the contrary, federal law requires a funeral home or crematory to inform you that you may use an alternative container, and to make such containers available to you. An alternative container may be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.

Do I have to buy a casket from the funeral home?

No. Federal law requires funeral homes to accept caskets that consumers have purchased from another source, such as an online retailer. You may also build your own casket, if you prefer.

Where can bodies be buried in Rhode Island?

Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Rhode Island. City or town councils have the authority to regulate burial grounds in the state. (Rhode Island General Laws § 23-18-10.) Before conducting a home burial or establishing a family cemetery, check with the city or town clerk to see if burial is allowed and, if so, whether there are zoning rules you must follow.

If you bury a body on private land, you should draw a map of the property showing the burial ground and file it with the property deed so the location will be clear to others in the future.

Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation?

In Rhode Island, there are no state laws controlling where you may keep or scatter ashes. Ashes may be stored in a crypt, niche, grave, or container at home. If you wish to scatter ashes, you have many options. Cremation renders ashes harmless, so there is no public health risk involved in scattering ashes. Use common sense and refrain from scattering ashes in places where they would be obvious to others.

Scattering ashes in an established scattering garden. Many cemeteries provide gardens for scattering ashes. If you’re interested, ask the cemetery for more information.

Scattering ashes on private land. You are allowed to scatter ashes on your own private property. If you want to scatter ashes on someone else’s private land, it’s wise to get permission from the landowner.

Scattering ashes on public land. You may wish to check both city and county regulations and zoning rules before scattering ashes on local public land, such as in a city park. However, many people simply proceed as they wish, letting their best judgment be their guide.

Scattering ashes on federal land. Officially, you should request permission before scattering ashes on federal land. However, you will probably encounter no resistance if you conduct the scattering ceremony quietly and keep the ashes well away from trails, roads, facilities, and waterways. You can find guidelines for scattering ashes on the websites for some national parks. For more information, begin your search at the website of the National Park Service.

Scattering ashes at sea. The federal Clean Water Act requires that cremated remains be scattered at least three nautical miles from land. If the container will not easily decompose, you must dispose of it separately. The EPA does not permit scattering at beaches or in wading pools by the sea. Finally, you must notify the EPA within 30 days of scattering ashes at sea.

The Clean Water Act also governs scattering in inland waters such as rivers or lakes. For inland water burial, you may be legally required to obtain a permit from the state agency that manages the waterway.

For more information, including the contact information for the EPA representative in Rhode Island, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.

Scattering ashes by air. While there are no state laws on the matter, federal aviation laws prohibit dropping any objects that might cause harm to people or property. The U.S. government does not consider cremains to be hazardous material; all should be well so long as you remove the ashes from their container before scattering.

Learn more

To learn about the federal Funeral Rule, which protects consumers in all states, visit the website of the Federal Trade Commission.

For more information about funeral laws in Rhode Island, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Rhode Island.

To find out more about funerals and other final arrangements, see the Getting Your Affairs in Order section of Nolo.com.

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