Exhumations are generally rare and tend to be traumatic for the family involved. They can take a long time to arrange and may be expensive.
It is always best to consult with all the relatives before proceeding. If the body is in a common grave, written consent from the nearest surviving relative of others buried in that grave must be obtained.
Advice regarding exhumations should be sought from the Home Office. The Funeral Director you employ will also be able to help with anything requested by the coroner. If the body is to be moved abroad they will also be able to offer advice regarding the requirements of Authorities in the relevant country.
Exhumation of both buried and cremated remains generally requires a Home Office licence.
Exhumations can occur for a number of reasons, for example:
- The re-opening of grave for a medical or criminal investigation
- To establish the identity of a body
- To recover jewellery or documents
- To open an inquest
- To enable road schemes to proceed
- To cremate a body
- To transfer a body from one grave to another
- Public health
It is however an offence to exhume any human remains without first obtaining the necessary lawful permissions.
- A Licence must be obtained from the Home Office. Exhumation licences will contain certain conditions that have to be observed. For example an Environmental Health Officer may have to be present at the exhumation of a body to ensure that there is no threat to public health.
- If the person is buried in Consecrated grounds, permission from the church must also be obtained.
- Occasionally Cadaver Certificates are required in addition to exhumation licences. A Cadaver Certificate, if issued confirms that no epidemic of infectious disease occurred in the borough for three months preceding the death. Some countries require this certificate before they will allow the body into the country for burial. The formality of obtaining a certificate is normally handled by the undertaker who is making the arrangements on behalf of the relatives, however anybody can apply. The certificate is issued by the Environmental Health Officer for the Council in whose area the person died, or is to be exhumed from before reburial elsewhere.
An Environmental Health Officer must normally be present at the exhumation and supervises 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
- The health and safety of all workers is maintained e.g. 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 Home Office Licence cannot be met, or there are public health or decency concerns, the exhumation may not proceed.