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.
In Washington, the person in charge of final disposition (usually a funeral director) must file a death certificate with the local registrar within five days after the death and before the body is buried or cremated. (RCW § 70.58A.200.)
The easiest way to get copies of the death certificate is to ask the person or organization that files the certificate (usually the funeral home, mortuary, or crematory) to order them for you at the time of the death.
You might need to obtain 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. 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 Washington State Department of Health. From there, you'll find options for ordering death certificates online, by phone, by mail, or in person. Each copy of a Washington death certificate costs $25.
Only those individuals or organizations who have qualifying relationships to the deceased person can order a death certificate in Washington. This group includes:
The funeral director completes the death certificate by collecting personal information about the deceased person from the next of kin. The director also obtains the medical certification from the medical professional who has information about the person's time of death and cause of death. This medical professional is usually the physician, physician's assistant, or advanced registered nurse practitioner who last attended the deceased person. The funeral director has two days to provide the medical certification to the physician, and the physician has two days to return it. The funeral director then files the completed death certificate with the local registrar.
If the death occurred without medical attendance, the medical examiner, coroner, or local health officer who has authority under the law certifies the cause of death instead of the physician. (RCW § 70.58A.200.)
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 can be either 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. 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 2020, Washington recognized aquamation when it explicitly added alkaline hydrolysis as a method of of final disposition. (See RCW § 68.50.110.) It also included a definition of "alkaline hydrolysis" in its laws on cemeteries, morgues, and human remains:
"Alkaline hydrolysis" or "hydrolysis" means the reduction of human remains to bone fragments and essential elements in a licensed hydrolysis facility using heat, pressure, water, and base chemical agents.
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 Washington, 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.)
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.
Before a body can be buried or cremated, the funeral director or other person with the right to control the disposition of remains must have a burial-transit permit. (This permit is issued after the completed death certificate is filed with the local registrar.) The funeral director gives this permit to the person in charge of the burial or attaches it to the container carrying the body if it is being shipped to another destination. (RCW § 70.58A.210.)
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. Generally, 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, 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.
For more information, including the EPA contact person for Washington state, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
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 rule on funerals, which protects consumers in all states, visit the FTC's Funeral Rule page.
For more information about funeral laws in Washington, see Washington 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.