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Exhuming a deceased body

Exhumations are generally rare and tend to be traumatic for the family involved. However, if necessary they can take a long time to arrange and are usually expensive. For these reasons, it is always best to consult with all the relatives before proceeding. The law requires that any exhumation is only carried out with a Ministry of Justice licence.

In addition to this approval, exhumations will only take place if one of the following apply: 

  • movement from the original grave to a subsequently acquired family plot in the same or another cemetery
  • repatriation overseas to be buried along with other family
  • transfer from one cemetery scheduled for development to another 
  • court orders requiring further forensic examination

What you must do

It is an offence to exhume any human remains without first obtaining the necessary lawful permissions. Funeral directors can help in obtaining these. Therefore, you must comply with the following:

  • A licence must be obtained from the Ministry of Justice licence
  • Any conditions contained in the exhumation licence must be observed
  • If the person is buried in consecrated grounds, permission from the church must also be obtained
  • An environmental health officer must be present at the exhumation of a body to ensure that there is no threat to public health

Occasionally cadaver certificates are required in addition to exhumation licences

What happens next?

An environmental health officer must be present at the exhumation and supervise the event to ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected. The officer will also ensure that:

  • the correct grave is opened
  • the exhumation commences as early as possible in the morning to ensure maximum privacy
  • the plot is screened as appropriate for privacy
  • health and safety of all workers is maintained, for example, use of protective clothing including masks and gloves, task lights and all other necessary equipment
  • everyone present shows due respect to the deceased person and to adjoining graves
  • the nameplate on the casket corresponds to that on the licence
  • the new casket has been approved by the environmental health officer
  • all human remains and all the pieces of casket are placed in the new casket
  • the new casket is properly sealed
  • the area of exhumation is properly disinfected, and
  • satisfactory arrangements are in place for the onward transmission of the remains

If the conditions of the licence cannot be met, or there are public health or decency concerns, the exhumation may not proceed.

Further information

You may also need to contact the local Church of England faculty, depending on the location of the burial site.

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