Each state has laws affecting what happens to a body after death. For example, most states have 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 Virginia.
You might need to obtain copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. You might want a copy for your records or, 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 Virginia, a death certificate must be filed within three days of the death and before the body is buried, cremated, or shipped out of the state. (Virginia Code § 32.1-263.) 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 is a funeral home, mortuary, or crematory. If you're the executor of the estate, ask for at least 10 certified copies.
If you need to order copies of a death certificate later, visit the website of the Virginia Department of Health, where you'll find options for ordering death certificates online, in person, or by mail.
You must provide a photocopy of an acceptable form of identification, such as a government-issued photo ID. Each certified copy of a Virginia death certificate costs $12.
In Virginia, death records more than 25 years old may be viewed by anyone. To obtain a certified copy of a death certificate for a death that occurred within the last 25 years, you must be able to show that you have a "direct and tangible interest" in the record, and that the record is necessary to prove or protect a personal or property right. You are assumed to have a direct and tangible interest if you are:
For more information, see 12 Virginia Administrative Code § 5-550-470 and the Virginia Department of Health.
The funeral director completes the death certificate with input from the next of kin and medical professionals. The funeral director collects personal information about the deceased person from the next of kin, and also obtains the medical certification from the medical professional who has information about the person's death.
The medical certification portion of the death certificate is completed by a physician or autonomous nurse practitioner who is either (1) in charge of the deceased person's care for the illness or condition that resulted in death or (2) pronounced the death. This medical professional must complete the medical certificate within 24 hours of the death or being notified of the death. (Virginia Code § 32.1-263.)
If the cause of death can't be determined within 24 hours, the physician or medical examiner must notify the funeral director of the delay and the body can't be buried or cremated until the physician or medical examiner authorizes it. (Virginia Code § 32.1-263.)
Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it is still a common procedure, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
In Virginia, embalming is not required. However, if burial or cremation will not take place within 48 hours of death, the body must be either refrigerated or embalmed. A body may not be embalmed without express permission from the next of kin or a court order. (Virginia Code § 54.1-2811.1.)
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.
Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Virginia. Before conducting a home burial, check with the town or county clerk and local health department for the 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.
In Virginia, 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 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 Virginia, 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 harm 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 Virginia, see Virginia 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.