Each state has laws affecting what happens to a body after death. These laws commonly cover embalming, burial or cremation, scattering ashes, and how to get a death certificate. Here are some answers to common questions about these matters in West Virginia.
In West Virginia, a death certificate must be filed with the vital statistics office within five days of the death and before the final disposition of the body. (West Virginia Code § 16-5-19.) 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 are in charge of wrapping up the deceased person’s affairs, you'll probably need at least ten certified copies of the death certificate. You will need to submit a certified copy 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 others.
If you need more copies later, visit the website of the West Virginia Health Statistics Center. There, you can download a mail-in order form or find information about ordering death certificates in person, online, or by phone. Each certified copy of a West Virginia death certificate costs $12.
In West Virginia, the following people may order certified copies of a death certificate:
If the death record is at least 50 years old, anyone may obtain a copy, but it will not show the deceased person’s Social Security number. (West Virginia Code § 16-5-27.)
The funeral director completes the death certificate with input from the next of kin and medical professionals. The funeral director obtains the personal data regarding the deceased person from the next of kin and the medical certification of the cause of death from the appropriate medical professional. Within 48 hours of death, the funeral director gives the death certificate to the attending physician who provided medical care for the deceased person's illness or condition that resulted in death. The physician has 24 hours to complete the medical certification. If the death was not due to natural causes, the state medical examiner, county medical examiner, or county coroner in the county where the death occurred determines the cause of death and completes the medical certification within 48 hours after taking charge of the case. If the medical examiner or coroner can't determine the cause of death within 48 hours, he or she writes "pending" on the certificate and later supplements the certificate once determining the cause of death. (West Virginia Code § 16-5-19.)
West Virginia has no laws or regulations requiring embalming, the process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Though it is still common, embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose.
A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death. The cost can range from around $500 to $20,000.
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 is sometimes possible in West 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. You must obtain written authorization from the physician, state medical examiner, county medical examiner, or other official before burying a body in West Virginia. (West Virginia Code § 16-5-23.)
In West Virginia, no state laws control 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 them, 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. You must obtain authorization from the state medical examiner, county medical examiner, or county coroner before cremating a body in West Virginia. (West Virginia Code § 61-12-9.)
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, 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, see Burial of Human Remains at Sea on the EPA website.
Scattering ashes by air. Federal 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 West Virginia, see Making Funeral Arrangements in West Virginia.
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.