Burial and Cremation Laws in North Carolina

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

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.

How do I get a death certificate 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 are in charge of wrapping up the deceased person’s affairs, you may require multiple, official (certified) copies to carry out your job. You will 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.

In North Carolina, a death certificate must be filed with the county registrar within five days. (North Carolina General Statutes § 130A-115.) 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 are the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least ten certified copies.

If you need to order more copies later, visit the website of the North Carolina Department of Public Health. From the DPH website, you can download a mail-in order form or find a link to order death certificates online or by phone.

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.

Who can order a death certificate in North Carolina?

In North Carolina, certified copies of a death certificate may be issued only to the following individuals:

  • the deceased person’s spouse, sibling, direct ancestor, direct descendant, stepparent, or stepchild
  • any person who needs the record to determine a personal or property right, or
  • the authorized representative of any of the people named above.

For more details, see North Carolina General Statutes § 130A-93 and the website of the North Carolina Department of Public Health.

In North Carolina, who completes the death certificate?

The funeral director gets personal data from the deceased person's next of kin. The funeral director must 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 attending 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.

Is embalming required in North Carolina?

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.

In North Carolina, is a casket necessary for burial or cremation?

A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The cost can range from $500 for a simple box to $20,000 or more for an elaborate design. 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 North Carolina, do I have to buy a casket from the funeral home?

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.

Is alkaline hydrolysis available in North Carolina?

Alkaline hydrolysis is a chemical process that reduces a body to components of liquid and bone. It is 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, effective October 1, 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.

Clay-Barnette Aquamation in Shelby, North Carolina was the first funeral home in North Carolina to offer alkaline hydrolysis for humans. It also offers the service for pets. Yadkin Valley Pet Funeral Services in Elkin, North Carolina also offers the option for pets.

Learn more about alkaline hydrolysis.

Where can bodies be buried in North Carolina?

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.

Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation in North Carolina?

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. If the remains are not claimed within 30 days after cremation, the crematory is authorized to scatter the ashes.

Cremation renders ashes harmless, so there is no public health risk involved in scattering ashes. 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, 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, 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 Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.

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.

Learn more

To learn about the federal Funeral Rule, which protects consumers in all states, visit the website of the Federal Trade Commission.

For more information about funeral laws in North Carolina, see Making Funeral Arrangements in North Carolina.

To find out more about funerals and other final arrangements, see the Getting Your Affairs in Order section of Nolo.com.

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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