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 Illinois.
In Illinois, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within seven days of death and before the body can be cremated or removed from the state, unless the death is under investigation by the coroner or medical examiner. (410 ILCS 535/18.) 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. 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 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 the time of death has passed, visit the Illinois Department of Public Health. From there, you can find options for ordering a death certificate online or downloading a mail-in order form.
You must provide a photocopy of a government issued photo ID at the time you order a death certificate, along with proof that you have a right to it (see below). The first certified copy of an Illinois death certificate costs $19; additional copies cost $4 each. (Uncertified copies for genealogical research cost less. Extra fees are added for online or rush requests.)
In Illinois, you (or your authorized agent) can obtain a death certificate if you have a genealogical, legal, personal, or property right interest in the record. To order a certified copy, you must submit documentation to prove your interest in the record. To obtain a noncertified, genealogical copy of a death certificate, the record must be more than 20 years old.
You must also indicate your relationship to the deceased person and how you intend to use the copy of the death certificate. For more details, see the Illinois death certificate application form and 410 ILCS 535/25.
The funeral director who assumes custody of the body is responsible for filing a completed death certificate. The director gets the necessary personal data from the family. The funeral director then gets the medical certification section completed by the physician who was in charge of the patient's care for the illness or condition that caused the deceased person's death. The medical certification must be filled out within 48 hours of the person's death. If the treating physician is not available or gives approval, the associate physician, advanced practice registered nurse, physician assistant, chief medical officer of the institution where the death occurred, or the physician who performed the autopsy can complete the medical certification. (410 ILCS 535/18.)
If the death wasn't due to natural causes, there was no treating physician, or when the death is subject to an investigation by the coroner or medical examiner, the coroner or medical examiner completes the medical certification. (410 ILCS 535/18.)
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 Illinois, there are no laws requiring embalming.
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.
Water cremation or aquamation (also called "alkaline hydrolysis," "flameless cremation," 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.
Water cremation was legalized in Illinois in 2012, when the legislature redefined "cremation" to specifically include "alkaline hydrolysis." (See 410 ILCS 18/5.)
While the majority of funeral homes don't yet offer alkaline hydrolysis, it's possible to find several in Illinois that do. 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 burial on private property may be possible in Illinois. Before conducting a home burial or establishing a family cemetery, check with the county or town clerk for any local zoning laws you must follow. The funeral director or person with custody of the body must obtain a permit from the registrar of the district where the death occurred before disposing of the body. (410 ILCS 535/21). If you 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.
Illinois law states that you may store cremation ashes in a grave, crypt, or niche. If you wish to scatter ashes, you may do so in a legally established scattering area—for example, a scattering garden in a cemetery—or "in any manner whatever on the private property of a consenting owner." (410 ILCS 18/40.) 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, you should get permission from the landowner, as described in the law above.
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 Illinois, 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 Illinois, see Illinois 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.