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 Alabama.
In Alabama, a death must be registered with the local office of vital statistics within five days. The body may not be buried or cremated until the death certificate is filed. (Alabama Code § 22-9A-14(a).) 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 physician in charge of the patient for the illness or medical condition that caused the patient's death completes the medical certification section of the death certificate and returns it to the Office of Vital Statistics within 48 hours of receiving it. If there is no physician in charge of the deceased person, the county medical examiner determines the cause of death and completes the medical certification within 48 hours of receiving it.
You may need to obtain copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. You may simply want to keep a copy for your personal records or, 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.
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 10 certified copies.
If you need to order copies of a death certificate after the time of death has passed, go to the health department in the county where the death occurred, or visit the Alabama Department of Public Health to order a death certificate online.
In Alabama, the following individuals are permitted to apply for a certified copy of a death certificate:
Local, state, and federal agencies and public or private agencies who are conducting their official duties may request copies of death certificates for statistical or administrative purposes. (Alabama Code § 22-9A-22.)
Anyone can obtain a death certificate for someone who died more than 25 years ago.
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it is still a common procedure, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
Embalming is legally required in only very limited circumstances. In Alabama, embalming is not required unless the body will be transported outside of the state. (Alabama Code § 22-19-2.)
A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The average cost of a casket is more than $2,000, and the price can run into the $10,000-$20,000 range for more elaborate designs and expensive materials. Whether due to the cost or for other reasons, some people prefer to forgo a casket altogether.
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.
No. While it's true that, in Alabama, only licensed funeral directors may sell caskets (Alabama Code § 34-13-1(a)(25)), 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.
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but there are no laws in Alabama that prohibit home burial. Before establishing a family cemetery at home, you should check local zoning rules. You may be able to create a family cemetery and hold a home burial if you live in a rural area. But you must obtain a burial permit from the local registrar of the district where the death occurred before burying someone. (Alabama Code § 22-19-3)
In Alabama, there are no state laws governing where you may keep or scatter ashes. Generally, use common sense and refrain from scattering ashes in places where they would be obvious to others.
Scattering ashes on private land. You're 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 ordinances and zoning rules before scattering ashes on local public land, such as 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, developed areas, campgrounds, and waterways. You can find guidelines for scattering ashes on the websites of some national parks. For more information, begin your search at the National Park Service website.
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 Alabama, see Burial at Sea on the EPA website.
Scattering ashes by air. While there are no state laws on the matter, federal aviation laws do 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.
For more information about funeral laws in Alabama, see Alabama Home Funeral Laws. To learn about the federal rule on funerals, which protects consumers in all states, visit the FTC's Funeral Rule page.
To find out more about funerals and other final arrangements, see Nolo's section on Getting Your Affairs in Order.
Get It Together, by Melanie Cullen (Nolo), helps you gather and organize the essential details of your life for yourself and your family.