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.
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 10 certified copies. 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 others.
If you need to order more copies later, visit the website of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. From there, you'll find options for ordering death certificates online, by phone, by mail, and in person.
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.
In Wisconsin, the following people may order certified copies of a death certificate:
Others can request an uncertified copy of a death certificate.
The funeral director completes the death certificate with input from the next of kin and medical professionals. Within 24 hours of being notified about the death, the funeral director must send the certificate to a medical professional to complete the medical certification portion, which states the cause of death.
This medical professional is usually the physician who was caring for the deceased person for the illness or condition that caused the death. (If the physician is unavailable or approves it, the medical certification can also be completed by any other physician who assisted in attending the deceased person, the physician who performed the autopsy, or the chief medical officer of the hospital or nursing home where the death occurred. Or sometimes a coroner or medical examiner will fill this role instead.) This medical professional has five days from the time of death to mail in the medical certification, or six days to give it to the funeral director for filing. (Wisconsin Statutes § 69.18.)
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.)
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, 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. 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 contact information for the EPA representative in Wisconsin, see the EPA's page on Burial at Sea.
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.
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 Wisconsin, see Wisconsin 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.