Burial & Cremation Laws in Iowa

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

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 Iowa.

How do I get a death certificate in Iowa?

In Iowa, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within three days and before final disposition of the body. (Iowa Code § 144.26.) Typically, the funeral home, mortuary, cremation organization, or other person in charge of the deceased person's remains prepares and files the death certificate. The easiest way to get copies of a death certificate is to ask this person or organization to order them for you at the time of the death.

If you are the executor of the estate ( in charge of wrapping up the deceased person's affairs), you should ask for at least 10 certified copies. 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.

If you need to order copies of a death certificate after some time has passed, contact the recorder's office in the county where the death occurred or go to the website of the Iowa Department of Public Health. On the IDPH website, you can find options for ordering death certificates online, by phone, in person, or by mail.

In Iowa, you must provide a copy of your government-issued photo ID and a notarized copy of your signature at the time you order a certified copy of the death certificate. Each copy of an Iowa death certificate costs $15. Additional fees apply for online orders.

Who can order a death certificate in Iowa?

In Iowa, you can obtain a certified copy of a death certificate if you are at least 18 years old and can show that you are legally entitled to the record. Entitled people include:

  • the deceased person's spouse
  • the deceased person's children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren or siblings
  • a legal representative of the deceased person or of any of the people named above.

Legal representatives and siblings must provide additional proof of entitlement.

For more information, see the Application for an Iowa Vital Record.

Who can complete a death certificate in Iowa?

The funeral home, mortuary, or cremation organization usually prepares and files the death certificate. But the medical certification portion (including cause of death) must be completed by a medical professional. Specifically, the physician, physician assistant, or advanced registered nurse practitioner who was in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that caused death completes the medical certification within 72 hours of receiving the death certificate from the funeral director—unless the county medical examiner requires inquiry. If inquiry is required, the medical examiner investigates the cause of death and completes the medical certification within 72 hours after determining the cause of death. (Iowa Code § 144.28.)

Is embalming required in Iowa?

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 Iowa, embalming isn't required if the body will be buried or cremated within 72 hours of death. If the body is refrigerated, that timeline is extended by another 72 hours (for a total of six days). After that, embalming is required if final disposition of the body still hasn't occurred (Iowa Admin. Code § 645-100.6(3).)

In Iowa, 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 Iowa, do I have to buy a casket from the funeral home?

No. Funeral homes must, under federal law, accept caskets that consumers have purchased from another source, such as an online retailer. You may also construct a casket yourself.

Where can bodies be buried in Iowa?

Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property is possible in Iowa. 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. 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.

Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation in Iowa?

The Iowa Administrative Code states that scattering of cremated remains is subject to any applicable local ordinances or cemetery rules. The law prohibits you from scattering ashes on public property or on private property without permission of the property owner. (Iowa Admin. Code 641-97.13(3).)

Here are some additional tips on common options for scattering ashes. Whichever you choose, 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 land, you should get permission from the landowner, as described in the law above.

Scattering ashes on public land. The Iowa Administrative Code indicates that scattering ashes on state property is not permitted. (Iowa Admin. Code 641-97.13(3).) 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.

Scattering ashes on federal land. Officially, you should request permission before scattering ashes on federal 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. 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 Iowa, 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.

Other Resources

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 Iowa, see Iowa 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.

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