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 Maryland.
In Maryland, a death must be registered with the vital statistics office within 72 hours. (Md. Code, Health-Gen. § 4-212.) 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. If you need copies of a death certificate shortly after the death, the easiest way to get them is to ask the funeral home to order them for you at the time of the death.
If you're 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, go to the website of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. From there, you'll find options for ordering death certificates online or by mail.
You must provide a copy of your government issued photo ID or other acceptable identification at the time you order the certificate. The first certified copy of a Maryland death certificate costs $10; additional copies cost $12 each. Online orders are slightly more expensive.
In Maryland, only people or agencies with a direct "tangible interest" may order a certified copy of a death certificate. This group includes:
For the full list of eligible people, see Code of Md. Regs. § 10.03.01.08.
The physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner who was in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that resulted in death completes the medical certification portion of the death certificate within 24 hours after receiving it. If the attending physician is unavailable or gives permission, the physician performing the autopsy can complete the medical certification.
The case must be referred to the medical examiner if the cause of death is unknown or was caused by:
Once the medical examiner takes charge of the body, the medical examiner is responsible for completing the death certificate. If the medical examiner can't determine the cause of death within 24 hours of taking charge of the body, the medical examiner marks that an investigation is pending. The medical examiner must update the cause of death information once it's available. (Md. Code, Health-Gen. § 4-212.)
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 Maryland, there are no laws or regulations 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. Maryland law does not require a casket. However, you should check with the cemetery; it may have rules requiring a certain type of container.
Cremation. Maryland law states that a crematory can require a casket to be used before, during, or after cremation or ban a casket for the cremation process. (Maryland Code, Health-General, § 5-505.) 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.
Maryland legalized alkaline hydrolysis in 2010, when the state explicitly defined cremation to include processes other than heat and flame:
"Cremation" means the process of reducing human remains to bone fragments through intense heat and evaporation, including any mechanical or thermal process.
While water cremation or aquamation is recognized by Maryland, you might be able to find only a small number of facilities offering the service. The equipment is expensive and public demand is still small, though it's growing. With time, facilities offering water cremation are likely to become more commonplace.
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.)
Maryland requires that bodies be buried in an established cemetery or in a family burial plot or other area allowed by a local ordinance. (Md. Code, Health-Gen. § 5-514.) Before establishing a family cemetery, check with the county health department and the county or town clerk for any local zoning laws you must follow.
Ashes may be stored in a crypt, niche, grave, or container at home. If you wish to scatter ashes, you have many options. In Maryland, there are no state laws restricting where you may keep or scatter ashes. Generally, use common sense and refrain from scattering ashes in places where they would be obvious to others. Here are some additional tips on scattering ashes.
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. 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 Maryland, 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 Maryland, see Maryland 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.