Burial & Cremation Laws in the District of Columbia

Everything you need to know about burial, cremation, and other post-death matters in Washington, D.C.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Arkansas School of Law

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 the D.C.

How do I get a death certificate in Washington, D.C.?

If you'll be wrapping up the deceased person's affairs, you'll need multiple official copies to carry out your job. For example, you'll 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 (typically the funeral home, mortuary, or crematory) to order them for you at the time of the death. If you're 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 some time has passed, visit the Vital Records page of the D.C. Department of Health. From there, you can order death certificates by mail, by phone, or online. A certified copy of a D.C. death certificate costs $18.

Who can order a death certificate in the District of Columbia?

In the District of Columbia, the following people may order a certified copy of a death certificate:

  • the deceased person's spouse or domestic partner
  • the deceased person's parent, child, grandchild, sibling, or grandparent
  • the deceased person's legal guardian or legal representative
  • law enforcement with a court order or subpoena, or
  • any other person who can prove a "tangible interest" in obtaining the certificate (in other words, they need the certificate to establish personal or property rights).

(See the District of Columbia Department of Health.)

In D.C., who completes the death certificate?

In the District of Columbia, a death must be electronically reported to the local or state vital records office within five days of death and before the body is buried or cremated. (D.C. Code § 7-231.12.) 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 funeral director completes part of the death certificate. Then the physician in charge of a person's care for the condition that resulted in death must complete and return the medical certification portion of the death certificate to the funeral director within 48 hours, unless the cause of death was not due to natural causes. In that case, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner takes charge of the case and completes the medical certification. (D.C. Code § 7-231.12.)

Is embalming required in D.C.?

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.

In the District of Columbia, there are no laws that require embalming.

In the District of Columbia, is a casket necessary for burial or cremation?

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.

In the District of Columbia, 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 D.C.?

In the District of Columbia, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. Because of the District of Columbia's urban nature, home burial—that is, establishing a new family cemetery—is probably not feasible. The laws governing burial locations and cemeteries are set out in Title 43 of the District of Columbia Code.

Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation in the District of Columbia?

There are no laws in D.C. restricting how 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. 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, campsites, 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 The District of Columbia, 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.

More Resources

For more information about funeral laws in D.C., see District of Columbia 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.

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