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What is exhumation?
Exhumation originates from the Latin ‘from the ground' which means, in its simplest form, the removal of human remains, including cremated remains, from any place of burial.
To clarify the position - when human remains are buried the general rule is that once the remains have been interred or committed to the ground, whether in a coffin or in the case of cremated remains in a container or poured into the ground from a container, should there be any cause to require an examination, removal or disturbance of the remains an exhumation licence will be required.
Why may an exhumation be requested?
- To identify a body
- To transfer human remains from one grave to another
- To cremate a body
- To recover jewellery, documents or other artefacts
- To hold a first or a subsequent inquest at the request of the coroner
- To enable building schemes to proceed
Who may request an exhumation?
- The personal representative of the deceased
- The coroner
- The local authority
- The incumbent of the church
- The Department for Transport
The exhumation of human remains can be a very emotive and sensitive issue, particularly for relatives and friends of the deceased. It is necessary to act lawfully to ensure the health and safety of those involved in carrying out the exhumation and to control public health issues. The process of exhumation also needs to be undertaken in a dignified manner with all personnel involved acting with decency and decorum.
The information provided herewith gives an overview of the legal process involved to proceed with an exhumation of human remains. There are also emotional and financial issues to be considered, together with the practical issues of exhumation, transportation and the reburial itself.
Additional information or advice on any aspect of exhumation is available from Bereavement Services. Input from an Environmental Health Officer, a funeral director and a member of the clergy may also be necessary to ensure the exhumation proceeds in accordance with the conditions required by the licence which authorises the exhumation.
It is illegal to disturb buried human remains without lawful authority. This applies to both bodies and cremated remains buried beneath ground level. The correct legal authority for exhuming or disturbing human remains depends upon the status of the grounds in which the remains are buried and the purpose of the exhumation or disturbance.
Where the grave lies in ground consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England, a Bishop’s Faculty will be required. When the ground is not consecrated, a licence from the Ministry of Justice will be required. Consecrated ground may be found in cemeteries as well as churchyards and there are occasions when both a Bishop’s Faculty and a Ministry of Justice licence are necessary, for example when human remains are exhumed from consecrated ground and re-buried in unconsecrated ground.
The next-of-kin of the deceased should normally make application for the relevant legal authority. They will also require consent from the owner to the Grant of Exclusive Right of Burial for the grave-space.
Application for exhumation
Application for a licence from the Ministry of Justice is relatively straightforward and, provided certain conditions are met, a licence is issued, valid for 12 months, at no charge usually within two to three weeks. An application form may be obtained from:
Ministry of Justice
Coroners & Burials Division
102 Petty France
Telephone: 0203 334 6409
Obtaining a Bishop’s Faculty is not as straightforward and may take several weeks to progress, with a fee payable to prepare a petition (approximately £200). The Church of England is generally reluctant to grant faculties for exhumation, unless given just cause. An application form from the Diocese of Chichester, which assumes responsibility for consecrated ground within the district of Brighton & Hove, may be obtained from:
The Registrar & Legal Secretary
to the Bishop of Chichester
The Corn Exchange
Telephone: 01243 813238
The Coroner may also order an exhumation of the remains of a person who is buried within their district where it appears necessary for the body to be examined. This may be for the purpose of holding an inquest into the person’s death or for any criminal proceedings in respect of the death. A Coroner’s warrant to exhume would be required to legally permit the exhumation to proceed.
Health and safety
Both licences and faculties are issued with conditions, which must be complied with. The Ministry of Justice sends a copy of each licence to the local district council Environmental Health Officer to ensure the conditions of the licence are met.
The licence recognises the authority of the Environmental Health Officer to impose additional conditions in the interests of public health and the safety of those undertaking or affected by the work.
In the case of consecrated ground in a cemetery, the Bereavement Services Manager or representative is responsible for overseeing the exhumation. In a churchyard, the local clergy concerned would be expected to assume this responsibility.
Reburial or repatriation
In the case of reburial, if the original coffin is irreparably damaged, a fresh container/shell is normally used. Transportation also needs to be considered.
Where the exhumed remains are to be repatriated and taken out of the country, additional arrangements will need to be made. These involve the Coroner and the Embassy Consular Office (the Foreign & Commonwealth Office can assist in locating a British Consulate and also provide helpful information about deaths abroad). The receiving country, a funeral director and the relevant airline or shipper will also need to be involved with the arrangements.
Cremation of exhumed remains
Where the exhumed remains are to be cremated, they should be placed in a fresh wooden coffin or container. Appropriate documentation must be provided to the crematorium, dependant upon the duration between the original burial and exhumation.
Commonwealth War Graves
If an exhumation is required from a Commonwealth War Grave then, in addition to the legal requirements previously mentioned, permission must also be sought from:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 Marlow Road
Telephone: 01628 634221
It must always be remembered that when the original interment took place it was regarded as the final resting place of the deceased and careful consideration, both ethical and emotional, must therefore be given before an exhumation takes place.