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 North Carolina.
You may need copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. You might want a copy for your personal records or, if you're in charge of wrapping up the deceased person's affairs, you might need multiple, official (certified) 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; usually this will be a funeral home, mortuary, or crematory. If you're the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least 10 certified copies.
If you need to order more copies later, visit the North Carolina Department of Public Health, where you can find options to order death certificates online, in person, by phone, or using a downloadable 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 North Carolina death certificate costs $24; additional copies cost $15 each.
In North Carolina, certified copies of a death certificate may be issued only to the following individuals:
For more details, see North Carolina General Statutes § 130A-93.
In North Carolina, a death certificate must be filed with the county registrar within five days. (North Carolina General Statutes § 130A-115.) This is usually done by the funeral home, mortuary, or crematory.
Typically, the funeral director gets personal data from the deceased person's next of kin. The funeral director must also obtain the medical certification of the cause of death. The physician in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that resulted in death completes the death certificate. If the physician is not available or gives permission, the doctor performing the autopsy can complete the death certificate as long as the death was due to natural causes, the doctor had access to the deceased person's medical history, and the doctor viewed the deceased person at the time or death or after the death. The doctor must complete the medical certification within three days from the date of death. (North Carolina General Statutes § 130A-115.) If the death was not due to natural causes, the case is referred to the medical examiner, who completes the death certificate.
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though embalming is still fairly common, it is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In North Carolina, 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. 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" 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.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.136 made alkaline hydrolysis an acceptable method of final disposition in North Carolina in 2018. It also provided the following definition for alkaline hydrolysis:
The technical process using water, heat, and other chemicals to destroy, dissolve, or reduce human remains to simpler or essential elements.
A license is necessary to operate an alkaline hydrolysis machine in North Carolina. The North Carolina Board of Funeral Service provides licenses to facilities that offer alkaline hydrolysis as a method of human disposition.
While water cremation or aquamation is recognized by North Carolina law, you might be able to find only a small number of facilities offering the service in North Carolina, which might mean traveling a distance to access it. 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 around $1000-3200 more than traditional cremation. (See this 2003 NPR interview on water cremation.)
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but there are no state laws in North Carolina that prohibit burial on private property. Local governments may have rules governing private burials, however. Before conducting a home burial, check with the town or county clerk and local health department for any rules you must follow.
If you do 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.
In North Carolina, there are few restrictions on scattering or storing cremated remains. (The rules are set out in North Carolina General Statutes § 90-210.130.) According to state law, ashes may be placed in a crypt, niche, or grave—or kept at home. Ashes may also be scattered in any of the ways listed below. Generally, use common sense and refrain from scattering ashes in places where they would be obvious to others. If the remains are not claimed within 30 days after cremation, the crematory is authorized to scatter the 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, North Carolina law requires that you obtain written permission from the landowner and give it to the crematory.
Scattering ashes on uninhabited public land. North Carolina law allows you to scatter ashes on "uninhabited public land." If you aren't sure whether a particular place qualifies as "uninhabited" under the law, you may wish to check city and county regulations and zoning rules before proceeding. 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. 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.
North Carolina law states that you must remove cremated remains from their container before scattering.
For more information, including the contact information for the EPA representative in North Carolina, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
Scattering ashes by air. In North Carolina, ashes may be scattered from a plane. Federal aviation laws do prohibit dropping objects that might cause harm to people or property, but 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 North Carolina, see North Carolina 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.