Burial and Cremation Laws in Montana

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

Updated by , Attorney University of Arkansas School of Law
Updated 4/19/2023

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 Montana.

How do I get a death certificate in Montana?

In Montana, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within 10 days. (Mont. Admin. R. § 37.8.801.) 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 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'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, visit the website of the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services. From there, you'll find information on how to order death certificates online, by phone, or by mail.

To obtain certified copies of a death certificate, you must provide a photocopy of both sides of an acceptable form of identification, such as a government-issued photo ID, and state your reason for needing the record. Each certified copy of a Montana death certificate costs $16 by mail; additional fees apply for other methods of ordering.

Who can order a death certificate in Montana?

Anyone who submits a completed application, establishes their identity, and lists the reason for needing the death certificate can receive a copy of a death certificate in Montana. If the death certificate lists the cause of death as "pending autopsy" or "pending investigation," the applicant will receive the certified copy with the cause of death information removed.(See Mont. Admin. R. § 37.8.126 and the Montana death certificate application.)

In Montana, who completes the death certificate?

Two separate people need to complete the death certificate. First, the funeral director or other person in charge of disposition of the body fills in the demographic information on the death certificate. Then the funeral director sends the death certificate to the deceased person's treating physician, advanced practice nurse, or the coroner within three working days of (1) being notified about the death or (2) receiving authorization for final disposition, whichever occurs sooner. This medical professional must then complete the remainder of the death certificate (filling out the cause of death) and return it to the funeral director within 48 hours of receiving it. (Mont. Admin. R. § 37.8.801.)

Is embalming required in Montana?

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 not usually necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.

In Montana, embalming is never strictly required. However, a body must be either embalmed or refrigerated in the following circumstances:

  • if the body will be transported by common carrier (such as train or airplane) and it will be en route for more than eight hours, or if the journey will end more than 36 hours after the time of death, or
  • the body will be transported by a private carrier and the body will not reach its destination within 48 hours after the time of death.

(Mont. Admin. R. § 37.116.103.)

In Montana, 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 tell you that you may use another kind of container, and to make such containers available to you. An alternative container may be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.

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

No. In fact, 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 Montana?

Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Montana. Before conducting a home burial or establishing a family cemetery, check with the county clerk and local health department for any local rules you must follow. These local rules might include filing a notice of private burial grounds with the county land records office (called the County Clerk and Recorder's Office), burying remains at a specified depth, keeping a minimum distance from property lines, and more. (See, for example, a resolution establishing guidelines for home burial in Madison County.)

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

In Montana, there are no state 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.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, start at the website of the National Park Service.

Scattering ashes at sea. If you want to scatter ashes at sea instead of in Montana, federal law applies. 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, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.

Scattering ashes by air. Federal aviation laws 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

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 Montana, see Montana 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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