Burial & Cremation Laws in Tennessee

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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 Tennessee.

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 Tennessee?
7. Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation?
8. Learn more.

How do I get a death certificate?

You may want copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. 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 Tennessee, a death certificate must be filed with the office of vital records within five days of the death and before final disposition of the body. (Tennessee Code § 68-3-502.) 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; usually this will be a funeral home, mortuary, or crematory. 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 later, visit the website of the Tennessee Department of Health . From the DOH website, you can download a mail-in order form or find information about applying for death certificates in-person or online.

To order certified copies of a death certificate, you must provide an acceptable form of identification, or sign your application and have it notarized. Each certified copy of a Tennessee death certificate costs $7.

Who can order a death certificate?

In Tennessee, a certified copy of the death certificate that includes the cause of death may be issued only to the following individuals:

  • the deceased person’s spouse, child, parent, or other next of kin
  • a person who can show that the cause of death is necessary to establish a legal right or claim, or
  • a documented, authorized representative acting on behalf of the deceased person or one of the people named above.

For more information, see Tennessee Code § 68-3-205 and Tennessee’s death certificate application form.

Is embalming required?

In Tennessee, there are no laws or regulations requiring embalming, the 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.

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 a casket, if you prefer.

Where can bodies be buried in Tennessee?

Most bodies are buried in cemeteries, but there are no state laws in Tennessee that prohibit burial on private property. Local governments may have rules governing private burials, however. Before conducting a home burial, check with the town or county clerk and local health department for any rules you must follow.

If you do 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. In Tennessee, family burial grounds are protected if they are recorded with a deed. (See Tennessee Code § 46-8-103.)

Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation?

In Tennessee, there are no state laws controlling where an individual 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 is wise to obtain 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. As with local or state 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. 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 Tennessee, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.

Scattering ashes by air. There are no state laws on the matter, but 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 Tennessee, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Tennessee.

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

by: , J.D.

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