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 Tennessee.
You may want copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. If you're in charge of wrapping up the deceased person's affairs, you might 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.
In Tennessee, a death certificate must be filed with the office of vital records within five days of the death and before final disposition of the body. (Tenn. Code § 68-3-502.) 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 copies of a death certificate later, visit the website of the Tennessee Department of Health. From there, you'll find options for ordering death certificates online, in person, or by mail.
To order certified copies of a death certificate, you must provide an acceptable form of identification, or sign your application and have it notarized. Each certified copy of a Tennessee death certificate costs $15.
In Tennessee, a certified copy of the death certificate that includes the cause of death may be issued only to certain individuals and organizations. This group includes:
In Tennessee, the funeral director, medical examiner, or physician can file the death certificate. To fill out the death certificate, this person obtains personal data from the next of kin. The medical certification portion of the death certificate is usually filled out by the physician who was in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that caused the death. The physician has 48 hours after the death to complete it.
If the death was not due to natural causes, the case is referred to the county medical examiner for completion of the medical certification. If the cause of death can't be determined within 48 hours, the physician or medical examiner must inform the funeral director about the cause of the delay, and the body can't be buried or cremated until the physician or medical examiner approves it. (Tenn. Code § 68-3-502.)
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it's still a common procedure, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In Tennessee, 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.
Alkaline hydrolysis (more informally called "water cremation," "flameless cremation," "aquamation," 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.
In 2021, Tennessee recognized aquamation as an acceptable form of disposition when it added a definition of "alkaline hydrolysis" to its laws on funeral directors and embalmers:
While water cremation or aquamation is recognized by law, you might be able to find only a small number of facilities offering the service in Tennessee, 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 a little more than traditional cremation. (For example, see this 2023 NPR interview on water cremation in which one funeral home prices its water cremation service at $1,000 more than traditional cremation.)
Most bodies are buried in cemeteries, but there are no state laws in Tennessee 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 Tennessee, family burial grounds are protected if they are recorded with a deed. (See Tenn. Code § 46-8-103.)
In Tennessee, there are no state laws controlling where an individual 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 private land, it is wise to obtain 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. 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 Tennessee, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
Scattering ashes by air. There are no state laws on the matter, but 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 Tennessee, see Tennessee 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.