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 Texas.
You might want copies of a death certificate for your own records or, if you are in charge of wrapping up the deceased person’s affairs, to carry out your job. You will need 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 Texas, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within ten days of the death. (Texas Health & Safety Code § 193.003.) 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 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. 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, go to the website of the Texas Department of State Health Services. From the DSHS website, you can download a mail-in order form or find information for ordering death certificates in-person or online.
In Texas, you must provide a copy of your government-issued photo ID or other acceptable identification at the time you order the death certificates. The first certified copy of a Texas death certificate costs $20; additional copies ordered at the same time cost $3 each.
In Texas, if the death occurred within the past 25 years, you can obtain a certified copy of a death certificate only if:
For more information, see the Texas DSHS website.
Usually, the funeral director completes the death certificate with input from the family (about personal information) and medical professionals (about the circumstances of the death).
The physician who attended to the deceased person for the condition or illness that resulted in his or her death completes a medical certification. If the death was not due to natural causes, it must be reported to the proper authority for investigation and completion of the medical certification. The medical certification must be provided to the funeral director within five days. If the cause of death can't be determined within five days, the physician or medical examiner must give the reason for delay to the funeral director. The body can't be disposed of until this person gives approval. (Texas Health & Safety Code § 193.003.
Embalming, the process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration, is seldom necessary, because refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In Texas, if final disposition will not occur within 24 hours, a body must be embalmed, refrigerated, or placed in an approved, sealed container. (25 Texas Administrative Code § 181.4.) If a death occurs and no relative or other legally approved person steps forward to take responsibility for the body, the body must be embalmed within 24 hours. (Texas Health & Safety Code § 691.025.)
A casket is often the single greatest expense after a death. The cost can range from about $500 to $20,000 or more.
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 you purchase from another source, such as an online retailer. You may also build the casket.
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Texas. 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.
The Texas Funeral Services Commission offers a helpful fact sheet about family cemeteries. Be sure to read it before taking steps to create a private burial ground.
Ashes may be stored in a crypt, niche, grave, or container at home. If you wish to scatter ashes, Texas law allows you to do so over “uninhabited public land, over a public waterway or sea, or on the private property of a consenting owner.” Unless the container is biodegradable, you must remove the ashes from the container before scattering. (Texas Health & Safety Code §716.304.)
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.
Here are some additional suggestions for scattering 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. As noted above, if you want to scatter ashes on someone else’s private land, state law requires you 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, 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. Like state law, federal rules require that nonbiodegradable containers be disposed of 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 need a permit from the state agency that manages the waterway.
For more information, including contact information for the EPA representative in Texas, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.
Scattering ashes by air. 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 Funeral Rule, which protects consumers in all states, visit the website of the Federal Trade Commission.
For more information about funeral laws in Texas, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Texas.
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.