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 New Jersey.
Filing the death certificate. In New Jersey, the deceased person's physician, registered nurse, or the medical examiner will complete the "death and last sickness particulars" (the medical portion of the death certificate) within 24 hours of pronouncement of death. The funeral director in charge of final disposition will supply the "burial particulars," usually by getting the personal information from the next of kin, and file the death certificate with the local registrar using the state's electronic death registration system. (See New Jersey Statutes § 26:6-8.)
Getting copies of the death certificate. You might 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 (usually the funeral home, mortuary, or crematory) 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 later, visit the website of the New Jersey Department of Health. From there, you'll find options to order death certificates online, in person, by phone, or using a mail-in order form.
To order certified copies of a death certificate, you must provide an acceptable form of identification, such as a government-issued photo ID. The first certified copy of a New Jersey death certificate costs $25; additional copies ordered at the same time cost $2 each. Online and rush orders will incur extra fees.
In New Jersey, certified copies of a death certificate may be issued only to the following individuals or agencies:
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 New Jersey, embalming is required only in limited circumstances. If a body won't be buried or cremated within 48 hours, it must be either embalmed or refrigerated—but note you have a choice. (N.J. Admin. Code § 8:9-1.1.) However, a body must be embalmed and enclosed in a leakproof casket if it will be shipped by common carrier (such as an airplane or train) if it will not reach its destination within 24 hours. (N.J. Admin. Code § 8:9-1.7.)
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. Furthermore, New Jersey considers it a deceptive consumer practice for a funeral provider or crematory to insinuate that local or state law requires a casket for cremation or that one is necessary for cremation. (See N.J. Admin. Code § 13:36-9.10.)
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.
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in New Jersey. Before conducting a home burial or establishing a family cemetery, check with the town or county clerk and local health department for any rules you must follow. The state can prohibit any burial that would be dangerous to public health. (See New Jersey Statutes § 26:6-5.) 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. You must also obtain a burial permit before burying the body. (See New Jersey Statutes § 26:6-5.1.)
In New Jersey, 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. You must obtain a cremation permit no less than 24 hours before cremation.
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, 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 New Jersey, 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 New Jersey, see New Jersey 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.