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 Rhode Island.
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 some time has passed, visit the Vital Records page of the Rhode Island Department of Health. From there, you can find instructions for ordering death certificates online, by mail, by phone, or in person.
You must provide a copy of a valid, government issued photo ID or other acceptable identification at the time you order the death certificate. For Rhode Island death certificates ordered in person, the first certified copy costs $22, and additional copies ordered at the same time are $18 each. Copies obtained by mail, by phone, or online cost a little more.
In Rhode Island, you can order copies of a death certificate only if you can show that you have a "direct and tangible interest" in the record. Such people include:
For more information, see the Rhode Island Department of Health.
In Rhode Island, a death certificate must be filed within seven days of death and before the body is removed from the state. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 23-3-16.)
After a death, the funeral director collects information about the deceased person from the person's next of kin. The funeral director also obtains the medical certification from a medical professional who has knowledge of the cause of death—the attending physician, the physician who declared the person dead, or a hospital medical officer if the death occurred in a hospital. If the death occurred without medical attendance or is suspected to have a cause other than natural causes, the medical examiner must investigate the cause of death and sign the medical certification within 48 hours of taking charge of the case. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 23-3-16.)
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
Rhode Island usually offers an option of either embalming or refrigeration; a body that's held longer than 48 hours after death must be either embalmed or refrigerated. But if a body will be shipped by a common carrier, such as an airplane or train, it must be embalmed. If embalming is not possible, the body must be enclosed in a "strong, sealed outer case." (R.I. Code R. §216-40-25.5.6.)
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. 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.
Before burying a body in Rhode Island, the funeral director must prepare a burial-transit permit. The funeral director and certifying physician must sign this permit. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 23-3-18.)
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Rhode Island. City or town councils have the authority to regulate burial grounds in the state. (Rhode Island General Laws § 23-18-10.) Before conducting a home burial or establishing a family cemetery, check with the city or town clerk to see if burial is allowed and, if so, whether there are zoning rules 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.
Rhode Island law requires that the crematory obtain a burial permit and a cremation certificate (issued by the Rhode Island office of state medical examiners) before a body can be cremated. A body should not be cremated within 24 hours of death unless the person died from a contagious or infectious disease. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 23-38-18.)
In Rhode Island, 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. 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, 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, 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 Rhode Island, 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 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 Rhode Island, see Rhode Island 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.