Civil Funerals

Legal Requirements

There is no law that says you have to have a funeral, but the law does state that you must “dispose of the body of the person who has died by burial, cremation or any other means”

Some points of interest include:

  • No law requires you to use an undertaker. An undertaker is your agent, your deputy, your colleague. You are the funeral director.
  • The personal representative (executor or administrator) has a prior right to take charge of a dead body unless i) the coroner wishes to examine the body or ii) the person died of a disease which makes the body infectious
  • The right to take possession starts at the moment of death
  • There is no legal requirement to hold a funeral
  • Dead bodies are not infectious (except in certain circumstances)
  • You do not have to accept responsibility for disposing of someone who has died
  • If no one accepts responsibility for disposing of a dead person, it becomes the job of the state
  • Funeral wishes in wills, unlike gifts such as money, are not legally binding (though may be used to build a case in court if, for example, the disposal method is disputed)
  • An executor or administrator can be replaced under certain circumstances
  • The death must be registered
  • Failure to dispose of a body may result in prosecution
  • The person who engages an undertaker is responsible for paying the bill
  • You may bury a dead person on your own land
  • A buried body can only be moved with permission
  • Ashes are defined as ‘all the material left in the cremator after a cremation following the removal of any metal and any subsequent grinding or other process which is applied to the material’.
  • Under certain circumstances it may be necessary to seek permission to exhume ashes
  • The application procedure for cremation is designed to rule out foul play
  • You don’t have to bury or cremate someone who has died. You can preserve them
  • A one-off open-air funeral pyre is probably not illegal
  • There is no statutory bereavement leave

For additional information on what is required – visit the following sites:

*       Government Site

*       Citizens Advice

*       The Good Funeral Guide

Funeral Locations

*       Crematoriums

The definition of cremation is:

‘The disposing of a human body by means of burning and reducing it to ashes’

The majority of crematoriums are owned and run by local authorities, but an increasing number are being sold to private companies. There are currently 289 operating crematoriums in the UK.

One important note is that depending on the locality and population around some crematoriums, available ‘slots’ for a service can vary from 30 – 45 minutes (from entry to exit and clearance of mourners).

*      Burial Grounds

Most burial grounds are either:

    • Churchyards
    • Municipal Cemeteries administered by local authorities
    • Privately owned including
      –  Commercially Owned Cemeteries
      –  Burial Grounds for specific religions
      –  Burial Grounds on former estates
      –  Natural / Woodland Burial Grounds
    • Long Barrows

There is an increasing shortage of burial space and the re-use of old graves in some areas is receiving increasing attention.

*       Burials At Sea

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 lays out the legal requirements for burials at sea.

Click on link for more information

Sea burials are only permitted in three British Coast Regions. Off the coasts of:

–   East Sussex (Between Hastings & Newhaven)

–    Isle of Wight (off The Needles)

–   Tynemouth (in North Tyneside)

*       Back Garden Burials

It is possible to bury someone on private land such as a domestic garden, and the law on this is contained in the Burial Laws Amendment Act of 1880.

Before undertaking such a burial, individuals must give serious consideration to the advantages and disadvantages such as future sales of the property etc.

The burial does need to be recorded (simple process) and a plan showing the exact location must also be retained with the deeds.

Planning permission is not required for such burials provided the land is not to be used for more than two burials and, providing it is not too near a highway or over a certain height, planning permission is not needed to put up a headstone in a garden.

*       Other Types


It is possible for a family to arrange all the practical details (purchase of coffin, transport for coffin, negotiations with a cemetery or crematorium) themselves.

The Natural Death Centre can provide free information and help.

Council / Public Health

This is where a family chooses to refuse to dispose of the body, in which case the local council have a statutory obligation to bury or cremate it and then attempt to recover the cost from the estate.

If the estate has no money, the council has to pay for this ‘public health funeral’ (modern term for a ‘pauper funeral’).

Council Funeral

Some councils have contracted with a particular local funeral director to arrange a ‘council funeral’.

This option severely reduces choice, not least the choice of funeral director and the total cost may still exceed what the government’s Social Fund (Funeral Payment Scheme) can cover.


There are various protocols where military funerals are involved including involving either representatives from the deceased’s unit, British Legion etc. Also, if there are to be standards and pipers / bugler and what actions they take.

Note: Anyone can request that the coffin is draped with the Union Flag although generally this takes place at the funeral of a serving or veteran member of the armed forces, police or fire service.