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 Colorado.
Filing the death certificate. In Colorado, a death must be registered with the local or state vital records office within five days and before the body is buried or cremated. (Colorado Revised Statutes § 25-2-110(1)(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 who was in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that caused the death completes the medical certification section of the death certificate within 48 hours after the death.
Getting copies of the death certificate. You may need to obtain copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. You might simply want 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 (often a funeral home) 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, contact the health department in the county where the death occurred or visit the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's vital records page. From there, you can download a mail-in order form or order death certificates online.
In Colorado, you can obtain a death certificate if you are related to the deceased person or if you can prove that you have a legal interest in the death certificate. For example, you may be able to obtain the death certificate if you are the:
For a complete list of who can order certificates and the documentation you must provide, see CDPHE's Table of Eligibility for Receipt of Death Certificate.
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it's still a common procedure, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In Colorado, except in very limited circumstances, embalming is not required. However, Colorado's statutes do make it necessary to "embalm, refrigerate, cremate, bury, or entomb" human remains within 24 hours of death. (Colorado Revised Statutes § 12-135-106.)
If the body will be transported out of state by common carrier—for example, by plane or train—it must be either embalmed or shipped in a hermetically sealed container. (Colorado Revised Statutes § 12-135-105(l).)
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. Although funeral homes may sometimes be very pushy about getting you to buy caskets from them, federal law requires funeral homes to accept caskets that consumers have purchased from another source, such as an online retailer. (Learn more about your consumer rights under the FTC Funeral Rule.) You may also build your own casket, if you prefer.
Alkaline hydrolysis (more informally called "water cremation," "flameless cremation," "aquamation," and many other terms) is a chemical process that reduces a body to components of liquid and bone. It's considered a greener alternative to cremation because it uses less energy than cremation and does not release matter into the atmosphere.
Colorado was one of the first states to allow alkaline hydrolysis. In 2011, when it passed a law removing the phrase "direct exposure to intense heat" from its definition of cremation. That definition now reads:
"Cremation" or "cremate" means the reduction of human remains to essential elements, the processing of the remains, and the placement of the processed remains in a cremated remains container." (Colorado Statutes § 12-135-103.)
If you're interested in this option for yourself, you may want to explore pre-planning your final arrangements. Water cremation tends to cost a little more than traditional cremation. (For example, see this 2023 NPR interview on water cremation in which one funeral home prices its water cremation service at $1,000 more than traditional cremation.)
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but there are no state laws in Colorado that prohibit burial on private property. Burials on private property must be recorded with the county clerk within 30 days. (Colorado Revised Statutes § 25-2-111.) The county recorder or coroner should be able to supply you with a form you can use for this purpose. The funeral director or person who has custody of a dead body must get authorization to dispose of the body (including burial or cremation) before doing so, usually from a county health unit or coroner. (Colorado Revised Statutes § 25-2-111.)
Note that local governments may have additional rules governing private burials. Before burying a body on private land or establishing a family cemetery, you should check county and city zoning rules.
In Colorado, there are few limits on 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 them, you have many options. Generally, 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. 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 for some national parks. For example, Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park offers a downloadable application for a permit to scatter ashes in the park.
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 contact information for the EPA representative in Colorado, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
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.
To learn about the federal rule on funerals, which protects consumers in all states, visit the FTC's Funeral Rule page.
For more information about funeral laws in Colorado, see Colorado Home Funeral Laws.
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.