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 Washington.
You may need to obtain copies of a death certificate for a number of reasons. If you are in charge of wrapping up the deceased person’s affairs, you may require multiple, official copies to carry out your job. You will 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 Washington, a death certificate must be filed with the local registrar within three business days after the death and before the body is buried or cremated. (See RCW § 70.58.160.) 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 are the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least ten certified copies.
If you need to order copies of a death certificate after the time of death has passed, visit the website of the Washington State Department of Health. From the DOH website, you can download a mail-in order form or find information about ordering death certificates in-person, online, or by phone. Each copy of a Washington death certificate costs $20.
Washington death certificates, unlike those in most other states, are considered public records. Anyone can order a certified copy of a death certificate.
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 physician who was last in attendance usually completes the medical certificate that states the cause of death. If the death occurred without medical attendance, the health officer, medical examiner, coroner, or prosecuting attorney who has authority under the law certifies the cause of death. The medical certification must be signed or electronically approved within two business days of receiving the death certificate. (RCW § 70.58.170.)
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 Washington, a body must be embalmed or refrigerated until the time of burial or cremation. Before embalming a body, the embalmer must obtain permission from a family member or the legal representative of the deceased person. (RCW § 18.39.215.)
A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. A casket can range from a simple $500 box to one that costs $20,000 or more for an elaborate design.
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.
In Washington, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. All cemeteries must be run by corporations. You can only bury a body on private property if you meet all of the licensing requirements to establish a cemetery. You can find the rules governing cemeteries in Chapter 68.20 of the Revised Code of Washington. The funeral director must give the completed death certificate to the local registrar to receive a burial-transit permit. Then, the funeral director gives this permit to the person in charge of the burial or attaches it to the container carrying the body if a company ships it to another destination. (RCW § 70.58.240.)
In Washington, 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.
Washington provides guidance for cremation, including the scattering of ashes, on the Funerals and Cemeteries page of the Washington State Department of Licensing.
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 may 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. The Washington State Department of Licensing states that ashes may be scattered on state trust uplands if you receiver permission from the regional manager for each scattering. When it comes to scattering on public state or local land, 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, 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.
For more information, including the EPA contact person for Washington state, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.
Scattering ashes on state-controlled waterways. The Washington State Department of Licensing states that ashes may be scattered over “public navigable waters under state control, including Puget Sound . . . rivers, streams, and lakes.”
Scattering ashes by air. While there are no state laws on this issue, federal aviation laws prohibit dropping objects that might injure people or damage 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 Washington, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Washington.
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.