Exhumations are generally rare and tend to be traumatic for the family involved. They can take a long time to arrange and are usually expensive. For these reasons, it is always best to consult with all the relatives before proceeding.
Exhumations occur for a number of reasons, including:
- movement from the original grave to a subsequently acquired family plot in the same or another cemetery
- repatriation overseas to be buried along with other family
- transfer from one cemetery to another
- court orders requiring further forensic examination.
However, it is an offence to exhume any human remains without first obtaining the necessary lawful permissions. Funeral directors can help in obtaining these. A licence must be obtained from the Home Office. Exhumation licences will also contain certain conditions that have to be observed.
If the person is buried in consecrated grounds, permission from the church in the form of a faculty must also be obtained. An Environmental Health Officer must assess the exhumation of a body to ensure that there is no threat to public health.
Decency and safety
An Environmental Health Officer may be present at the exhumation and must assess the event to ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected. The officer may 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
- health and safety of all workers is maintained. Protective clothing including masks and gloves, task lights and all other necessary equipment are provided
- 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
- satisfactory arrangements are in place for the onward transmission of the remains.
If the conditions of the licence cannot be met, or there are public health or decency concerns, the exhumation may not proceed.