Death: What happens to your body?

How to make sure what happens to your body after you die

The choice is usually between burial or cremation, although some people donate their body to medical research or for the organs to be used in transplants.

Burial

A standard burial can take place in a local authority cemetery, churchyard or private cemetery. Burials can also take place on private land.

Cremation

Local authorities own most crematoria. Ashes can be scattered almost anywhere, including at the crematorium, but to scatter them over private land, you should ask the owner’s consent.

Leaving your Body for Science

If you want to leave your body for medical research, you should make the arrangements while you are still alive. Contact the anatomy department of the university or medical school of your choice. They will give you a bequest form to fill in. Inform your family and your GP of your wish. After you die, your relatives will contact the medical school, who will advise on the next step. If your body is accepted by a medical school (not all bodies are suitable), the school can, if requested, arrange for eventual cremation.

A Costly Business

One way to spare your relatives undue burial expenses is to take out a pre-paid funeral plan. For more information contact the Funeral Planning authority.

Also, ‘do-it-yourself’ funerals (the funeral is arranged and the body transported by relatives and not by a professional funeral firm) are becoming increasingly popular using low-cost, biodegradable coffins. Contact the Natural Death Centre.

The local authority or health authority arrange funerals for people whose bodies are not claimed by family or friends.

Example

A Funeral with a Difference

Your mother has just died. She did not belong to any church, and you do not feel that a traditional religious funeral is appropriate. You are thinking, do you have the right to give her a more alternative burial.

Yes, you can do that. First, you must apply to your local county court for a registrar’s certificate or coroner’s order, without which it would be a criminal offence to bury your mother’s body.

You are then free (within reason) to bury the body as you wish. For example, you can have your mother buried: 

  • in private land, provided it does not constitute a nuisance

  • in a private cemetery

  • at sea

  • abroad – if she was French, say, and wanted to be buried in France

For burials at sea, people usually have the body cremated beforehand, then they simply scatter the ashes at sea. If you want to have your mother’s body buried at sea without cremating it first  you must contact the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for a special licence.

For burials abroad, you will need to let the coroner know what you are planning to do at least four days in advance. This is because you cannot, by law, take a body out of England or Wales without giving the coroner four clear days’ notice of removal.

Many farmers, local authorities and wildlife charities have established ‘natural’ or woodland burial grounds for people who want to bury relatives in private land. Often, their only condition is that you plant a commemorative tree. The Natural Death Centre will help you to find a ‘natural’ burial ground and to arrange an ‘ecological’ burial, in which, for example, you bury your relatives in a coffin made from environmental friendly materials such as cardboard or bamboo.

Although there is no law against being buried in a private garden, if you wish to do this, you should contact the local authority, which can issue a certificate confirming that the burial is lawful. This will avoid possible complications including suspicions of foul play.

If you have your mother’s body cremated, you can scatter the ashes in, for example, a favourite beauty spot – provided that you ask the owner’s consent. There is no legal restriction on taking ashes abroad, but some countries restrict the importation of ashes, so check first.

You should consult your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau or Law Centre, or a Solicitor, if you want to cremate your mother privately. You will need their help in negotiating the numerous legal restrictions on how and where a body can be burned.