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 Pennsylvania.
If you'll be wrapping up the deceased person's affairs, you'll need 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 (typically 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 after the time of death has passed, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Health, where you'll find options to order death certificates online, in person, or using a downloadable mail-in order form.
In Pennsylvania, you must provide a copy of your government issued photo ID or other acceptable identification at the time you order the death certificates. Each copy of Pennsylvania death certificate costs $20 (with additional fees for online processing), but the fee does not apply to requests for military members.
In Pennsylvania, anyone can obtain a copy of a death certificate if the death occurred at least 50 years ago. Otherwise, you can obtain a certified copy of a death certificate if you are over 18 and:
For more information, see the Pennsylvania Department of Health FAQ.
In Pennsylvania, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within four business days of death or of finding the body. (35 Pa. Stat. § 450.501.) 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 attending physician who provided medical care for the deceased person's final illness or condition completes the medical certification portion of the death certificate unless this person is related to the deceased, in which case another qualified physician completes the medical certification.
If the attending physician is unavailable or unwilling to complete the death certificate, the death occurred without medical attendance, or the death is due to other than natural causes, the case is referred to the coroner in the county where the deceased person died. However, the coroner can't sign the death certificate if the deceased person is related to the coroner. (35 Pa. Stat. § 450.502.)
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it is still common, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In Pennsylvania, embalming is never absolutely required. Pennsylvania rules do, however, require a body to be embalmed, placed in a sealed casket, or refrigerated if final disposition (burial or cremation) does not occur within 24 hours. If refrigeration is chosen, final disposition must occur within five hours of removal from refrigeration. After 36 hours of refrigeration, public viewing is discouraged. (49 Pa. Code § 13.201.)
In addition, if the death was due to a noncontagious disease and the body will be shipped by common carrier (such as an airplane) to a place that can't be reached within 24 hours after death, the body must be either embalmed or placed in a specially sealed container. (28 Pa. Code § 1.23.)
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. 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 the casket, if you prefer.
You must obtain a permit from the local registrar or State Registrar of Vital Statistics before you bury or otherwise dispose of a body. (35 Pa. Stat. § 450.504.) Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Pennsylvania. Before conducting a home burial or establishing a family cemetery, check with the county or town clerk for any local zoning laws you must follow. 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.
Pennsylvania law also requires that you obtain a permit from the local registrar or State Registrar of Vital Statistics before you cremate a body. (35 Pa. Stat. § 450.504.) In Pennsylvania, 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 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, start with 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 contact information for the EPA representative for Pennsylvania, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
Scattering ashes by air. There are no state laws on the matter, but federal law prohibits dropping 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 Pennsylvania, see Pennsylvania 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.