Burial and Cremation Laws in Wisconsin

Everything you need to know about burial, cremation, and other post-death matters in Wisconsin.

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 these matters in Wisconsin.

How do I get a death certificate in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, a death certificate is usually filed with the local registrar within a few days of a death. (See Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18.) 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 the executor of the estate, you should ask for at least ten certified copies. 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 others.

If you need to order more copies later, visit the website of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. From the DHS website, you can download a mail-in order form or find information about ordering death certificates in person or online.

To order a death certificate, you must provide a copy of an acceptable form of identification, such as a government-issued photo ID. The first copy of a Wisconsin death certificate costs $20; additional copies ordered at the same time cost $3 each.

Death certificates from September 2013 to the present are also available at any Wisconsin County Register of Deeds office, the Milwaukee Health Department, and the West Allis City Health Office.

Who can order a death certificate in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, the following people may order certified copies of a death certificate:

  • the deceased person’s spouse or domestic partner
  • the deceased person’s child, parent, legal guardian, sibling, or grandparent
  • a representative authorized by the deceased person or by one of the people named above
  • any person who can show that the record is necessary to protect a personal or property right -- for example, the beneficiary of a life insurance policy who presents a copy of the policy as proof.

Direct descendants of the deceased person and others can request an uncertified copy of a death certificate.

For more information, see the Wisconsin death certificate application and Wisconsin Statutes § 69.20.

In Wisconsin, who completes the 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. If a physician was attending to the person at the time of death, the physician completes and signs the medical certification within five days from the date of death and returns it to the funeral director. If the physician is unavailable and gives permission, another physician who assisted in attending to the deceased person or the physician who conducted an autopsy on the deceased person can complete the medical certification. If the death was not due to natural causes or the deceased person was not under the care of a physician at the time of death, the coroner or medical examiner completes and signs the medical certificate and returns it to the funeral director within five days from the date of death. If the cause of death is unknown, the medical professional indicates this on the cause of death, states that it is pending, and submits an update to the state registrar within 30 days. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18.)

Is embalming required in Wisconsin?

Embalming is a process in which blood is drained from the body and replaced with fluids that delay disintegration. Embalming is rarely necessary; refrigeration serves the same purpose. In Wisconsin, there are no laws or regulations requiring embalming.

In Wisconsin, is a casket necessary for burial or cremation?

A casket is often the single greatest expense incurred after a death, costing from about $500 for a simple box to $20,000 or more for an elaborate design.

Burial. No law requires a casket for burial. However, check with the cemetery, which may require 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.

In Wisconsin, do I have to buy a casket from the funeral home?

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.

Where can bodies be buried in Wisconsin?

Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible in Wisconsin. Before conducting a home burial, check with the town or county clerk and local health department for any 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. The funeral director must prepare a report for final disposition before the body can be buried. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18.)

Where can we store or scatter ashes after cremation in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, state law permits you to place cremated remains in a grave, niche, or crypt -- or to dispose of them in “any other lawful manner” as long as the remains have been reduced to a particle size of one-eighth of an inch or less. (Wisconsin Statutes § 440.80.) The crematory must prepare a report for final disposition and obtain the written permission from the medical professional who completed the medical certification before a body can be cremated. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18.)

Wisconsin state law does not restrict how or where you may scatter ashes. If you wish to do so, you have many options. 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, 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. 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. While there are no state laws on the matter, 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.

Learn more

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 Wisconsin, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Wisconsin.

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.

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