Exhumation of the remains of a deceased person
The removal of a dead body from the ground after it has been buried is known as exhumation. In Ireland, exhumation can take place only in particular circumstances. When an exhumation is required, it can be difficult time for the family and friends of the deceased person. At all times, the person who has died must be treated with respect, and the privacy of their family and friends must be protected.
Examples of situations where exhumation may occur include:
- When a court orders an exhumation as part of a criminal investigation
- For public health reasons (for example if a graveyard or cemetery is being moved)
- For family reasons (for example if the family of the deceased person asks for the remains to be moved to another burial ground, another part of the country, or abroad)
The following information is about arranging an exhumation for the purpose of reburial elsewhere.
- You must apply to the local authority responsible for the upkeep of the burial ground where your family member is buried.
- The local authority will issue a licence for exhumation if your application complies with strict requirements.
- An Environmental Health Officer must attend the exhumation to ensure privacy and protect public health.
- The remains must be reburied or cremated within 48 hours of exhumation.
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.
When would an exhumation licence be withheld?
A local authority will refuse an exhumation licence in the following circumstances:
- The consent of the next of kin has not been given.
- The person died very recently.
- The burial plot cannot be identified.
- The remains lie unidentified in a common plot (for example the burial plot of a religious order).
- Due respect to the person who died 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.
- Ground conditions in the graveyard would make an exhumation difficult or unsafe.
- Conditions attached to the exhumation licence cannot be complied with.
Role of the Environmental Health Officer
When the local authority receives your request for an exhumation, the Environmental Health Officer (EHO) visits and inspects the grave of the deceased person and may ask the cemetery managers and the undertakers for further information as required.
- The EHO attends and supervises the exhumation to ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected.
- If the remains are to be reinterred (reburied) in the same local authority area, the EHO also supervises the reinterment.
- If the remains are to be reinterred elsewhere, the EHO will ensure that the appropriate local authority receives all the details it needs.
During the exhumation, the EHO ensures that:
- The correct grave is opened.
- The exhumation starts as early as possible in the morning to ensure maximum privacy.
- The plot or burial ground is screened as appropriate
- All workers wear protective clothing, including gloves, overalls and face masks.
- 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.
Arrangements for exhumation
- When your local authority has granted an exhumation licence, the exhumation 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 before the exhumation (to give the EHO time to inspect the plot or grave).
- The EHO must also be told the arrangements for the transport and storage of remains between the time of exhumation and reburial.
- The EHO must be present at the exhumation. 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. If necessary, an area of the graveyard is cordoned off from public view to ensure privacy.
- Workers must treat the neighbouring burial plots with care.
- Disinfectants and disposable protective clothing (including respiratory facemasks) must be available to workers and disposed of safely after the exhumation.
- The exhumed remains (including the existing casket) are placed in a new casket (the ‘shell’). This new casket (or shell) is made of timber, tarred on the inside, lined with zinc and then 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. The EHO must approve this new casket before the date of exhumation.
- Any other remains in the same burial plot that may have been disturbed during the exhumation 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. You should ask your local authority for an application form and return the completed form with the following:
- The appropriate fee
- A copy of the death certificate of the deceased person
- A completed certificate from the Director of Public Health at your local Health Office.
- A completed form of consent from the cemetery management.
If you have queries or need more information on applying for an exhumation licence, contact the Environmental Health Officer of your local authority.