Each state has laws affecting what happens to a body after death. For example, most states regulate embalming, burial or cremation, scattering ashes, and how to get a death certificate. Here are some answers to common questions about these matters in Georgia.
In Georgia, a death certificate must be filed with the local health department within 72 hours. (Georgia Code § 31-10-15(b).) 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.
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 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 Georgia Department of Public Health. From the DPH website, you can download a mail-in order form or order death certificates online.
The first certified copy of a Georgia death certificate costs $25. Additional copies cost $5 each.
In Georgia, the following individuals are permitted to apply for a certified copy of a death certificate:
You must provide a copy of your identification with your application.
The physician in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that resulted in death completes the medical certification part of the death certificate within 72 hours of death. If the physician doesn't complete the certification within 30 days, the funeral director can report the doctor to the medical board for disciplinary action.
If the death was due to influenza, a registered nurse (RN) who is employed by a long-term care facility, advanced practice nurse (APRN), physician assistant, home health registered nurse, or nursing supervisor who is employed at a hospital can complete the medical certification.
If the cause of death cannot be determined within 48 hours after death, the physician or coroner must give the funeral director notice and the reason of this delay. The body cannot be disposed of until the attending physician, coroner, or medical examiner authorizes it.
If death does not appear to be due to natural causes or when an inquiry is necessary under the Georgia Death Investigation Act, the person designated by law must complete and sign the medical certification within 30 days of receiving notice of death.
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 Georgia, there are no laws or regulations requiring embalming.
A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The cost of a casket can range from a simple $500 box to $20,000 or more for an elaborate design. 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. 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.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a chemical process that reduces a body to components of liquid and bone. It is considered an alternative to cremation and is believed to provide a greener alternative to it because alkaline hydrolysis uses less energy and releases no matter into the atmosphere.
In 2012, Georgia opened the door to alkaline hydrolysis when it changed the state’s definition of "cremation" to the following:
"Cremation” means the reduction of the dead human body to residue by intense heat or any mechanical, chemical, thermal, or other professionally accepted process. Cremation also includes any other mechanical, chemical, thermal, or other professionally accepted process whereby human remains are pulverized, burned, recremated, or otherwise further reduced in size or quantity.
Some funeral establishments in Georgia advertise "green" or "natural" burials, which generally refers to avoiding the embalming of a human body and the use of biodegradable casket or no casket at all. Though it may be technically legal, no Georgia facility has yet made alkaline hydrolysis available for human remains. However, there is one Atlanta-based business that provides this service for pets. To find an alkaline hydrolysis facility for a human body, you’ll have to look to one of the few states where the process is both legal and available to the public, such as Florida, Illinois, Maine, or Minnesota.
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but there are no state laws in Georgia that prohibit burial on private property. Local governments may have rules governing private burials, however. Before burying a body on private land or establishing a family cemetery, you should check county and city zoning ordinances.
In Georgia, there are few 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. Georgia law requires the funeral director to acquire a permit before cremating a body or transporting it out of state. (Georgia Code § 31-10-20.)
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, 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. If you wish to scatter ashes at sea, Georgia law requires that you do so within 50 days of cremation. You must also file a statement with the local health department, including the name of the deceased person. (Georgia Code § 31-21-4(a)(2).)
Additionally, both Georgia state law and the federal Clean Water Act require that cremated remains be scattered at least three nautical miles from land, and state law requires that you remove the ashes from their container before scattering. (See Georgia Code § 31-21-4(a)(1).) 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 Georgia, 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 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 Funeral Rule, which protects consumers in all states, visit the website of the Federal Trade Commission.
For more information about funeral laws in Georgia, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Georgia.
To find out more about funerals and other final arrangements, see the Getting Your Affairs in Order section of Nolo.com.
Get It Together, by Melanie Cullen (Nolo) helps you gather and organize the essential details of your life for yourself and your family.