Exhumation of the remains of a deceased person
The prospect and experience of an exhumation of interred (buried) remains of a deceased person can often be a very difficult time for the family and friends of the deceased person. It is only in strict circumstances that exhumation occurs in Ireland. At all times during the process, due regard for respect to the deceased person and privacy for the family and friends of the deceased person is protected.
Some examples of situations where an exhumation of interred remains might be required or take place include:
- When a court orders an exhumation as part of a criminal investigation
- For public health reasons (e.g. if a graveyard or cemetery is being moved)
- For family reasons (if the family of the deceased person requests that the remains be moved to another burial ground, another part of the country, abroad, etc.).
The following information relates to exhumations for the purpose of reburial elsewhere.
Your local authority (which has responsibility for the maintenance and regulation of burial grounds in your area) issues special licences that authorise exhumations but only where applications for the exhumation of interred remains comply with very strict guidelines (including permission granted by the family).
At all times, exhumations can only take place in the presence of an Environmental Health Officer from your local authority and the exhumation is supervised to ensure privacy and to protect public health.
The legislation governing exhumations in Ireland is Section 46 of the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1948 as amended by Section 4(2) and the Second Schedule of the Local Government Act, 1994.
Before an exhumation licence is granted, consideration is given to the length of time the body has been interred. As a matter of course, the exhumation of recently deceased people is not permitted. Following exhumation, the remains of the deceased person must be reburied or cremated within 48 hours of exhumation.
An exhumation licence will not be granted where:
- The consent of the next of kin has not been given
- The burial plot cannot be identified
- The remains lie unidentified in a common plot (e.g. the burial plot of a religious order)
- Due respect to the deceased cannot be guaranteed
- The remains to be exhumed are located below a body that is not to be exhumed
- Public health and decency cannot be protected
- Graveyard ground conditions are not conducive to an exhumation
- Conditions attached to the exhumation licence cannot be complied with.
Environmental health and exhumations
When a request for an exhumation is received by your local authority, the Environmental Health Officer visits and inspects the grave of the deceased person and obtains any further information required from the management of the cemetery and the undertakers involved. The Environmental Health Officer is present at the exhumation and supervises events to ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected. If the remains are to be reinterred in the same local authority area, the Environmental Health Officer also supervises the reinterment. If the remains are to be reinterred in another local authority area, the Environmental Health Officer will ensure that the receiving local authority receives all necessary details.
During the course of the exhumation, the Environmental Health Officer ensures that:
- The correct grave is opened
- The exhumation commences as early as possible in the morning to ensure maximum privacy
- The plot/burial ground is screened as appropriate
- All workers wear protective clothing, including gloves, overalls, face masks, etc.
- Everyone present shows due respect to the deceased person
- The name plate on the casket corresponds with the name on the licence
- All remains and pieces of casket, webbing etc. are placed in the new casket (shell)
- A supply of disinfectant is available and used.
Procedure for exhumation of interred remains
When an exhumation licence has been granted by your local authority, the exhumation of interred remains must take place within 12 months of the granting of the licence.
The time, date and place of exhumation must be notified to the Environmental Health Officer at least five working days prior to the exhumation (this is to ensure that inspection of the plot/grave can take place). Arrangements regarding the transport and storage of remains between the period of exhumation and reinterment should also be notified to the Environmental Health Officer.
Exhumation cannot take place unless the Environmental Health Officer is present. This is to ensure that all procedures are complied with and everyone present shows respect to the deceased person at all times.
Screens are placed around the existing grave/burial plot to protect the exhumation from public view and to guarantee privacy. Sometimes (if necessary), an area of the graveyard is cordoned off from public view to facilitate privacy.
Due care should always be taken with burial plots around the exhumation plot.
Disinfectants and disposable protective clothing (including respiratory facemasks) are made available to staff conducting the exhumation and any used protective clothing is disposed of safely following the procedure.
The exhumed remains (including the existing casket) are placed in a new casket (sometimes this is referred to as the "shell"). This new casket (or shell) is made of timber, tarred on the inside, followed by a zinc liner and then covered inside by a leak-proof plastic membrane. The zinc liner lid is sealed with isopon (a sealant). The new casket lid is then screwed or nailed in place and a nameplate giving the name and date of death of the deceased person is attached to the exterior lid of the coffin. This new casket is approved by the Environmental Health Officer prior to the date of exhumation.
Any other remains in the same burial plot that may have been disturbed during the exhumation process are reinterred in accordance with public decency and respect.
Fees for exhumation licences vary from one local authority to another.
How to apply
Exhumation licences are issued by your local authority. An application for an exhumation licence should be made to your local authority and must be accompanied by the following: