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Exhumations Australia.


What do I need to know?

In the following page you will find information on the organisation, administration and conduct of an exhumation - from the family's responsibilities right through to the various legal requirements for this process. We hope you find it helpful. 

Long and serious thought.

Disturbing someone you love from their place of burial whether they have been there for a long or short period of time is not something that should be considered lightly. It is an extremely important decision that requires long and serious thought and should be arrived at without frivolous intentions. We all have the goal of respectfully leaving our loved ones in peace and keeping intact our memories of their last farewell.


Reasons why we sometime need to exhume.

There are many reasons why we are faced with the prospect of an exhumation. Some ethnic and cultural groups bury their loved one in Australia and after a period of time exhume their loved one and return them to their country of origin. Some Religious faiths have a similar process. 

The person is buried for a period of time, then exhumed and cremated. In some cases, the bones are then washed and placed in a vessel of significance (e.g. Greek Orthodox Faith). Sometimes families will seek to bring together all their deceased family members to be buried in the one place of significance. Families may lose contact with a family member only to find many years latter they have passed away and been buried away from family and loved ones. Once discovered, families may choose to exhume their loved one and have them reunited in family graves. Town planning and community growth sometimes make exhumation necessary.

At times, the historical way we care for our loved ones has to make way for the needs of the future and either entire cemeteries or sections of cemeteries need to be transferred or moved to accommodate community infrastructure and transport expansion. It is an unhappy thought but nevertheless a fact that sometimes progress takes precedence over historical and even deeply personal matters. Occasionally people emigrate or move states within Australia and cannot bear the thought of leaving their loved ones behind. They make a practical decision to take their loved one with them. 

This would generally be the case with a very permanent move. The last problem and the unhappy reason we would have to perform an exhumation is where a mistake has been made. With the best will and intention and extreme care all funeral directors and cemetery management staff work hard to bury a deceased person in the right grave. Unfortunately, though rarely, mistakes can happen. Most families faced with such an emotionally distressing event would seek to involve a third party to solve the problem and correct the mistake. 

The process.

Whilst every state in Australia and many cemeteries have by-laws in their governing rules, generally the process is the same and the following steps must be undertaken by the family and the undertaker:


The exhumation licence.

The person or family desiring the exhumation must apply to the State Health Department for an exhumation licence because of the risks associated with an exhumation. Firstly the Health Department must be advised of the intent to exhume. Exhumations Australia will help you complete the licensing application. Generally this licence is given by the local council as an authorised agent of the Health Department. The various parts of this licence are interwoven with most cemetery by-laws and Health Department regulations. Because public health and safety is involved, the practical parts of the process at the exhumation site must conform to work place health and safety requirements. In some states of Australia the Health Department gives the licence independently of the cemetery authority and then supervises the process on the day the exhumation is performed. The term "next of kin" in this instance applies to all family members. In the instance where there are more than one next of kin involved they all must consent in writing to the exhumation. An executor of the person who has died may also need to give consent and approval in writing.  Where the next of kin is not the owner or signed guarantor of the grave, they must seek permission from the owner or the person who has the right of burial in the grave where the intended exhumation may take place. The licence must state what is going to happen to the remains once they are exhumed. Are they to cremated, re-buried locally or repatriated interstate or overseas? The intended new burial ground must be stated in the application. A significant part of the licence is a letter from the next of kin giving the reason for the exhumation. As previously mentioned, this task should not be undertaken lightly or without good reason. The reasons can be heart motivated as we have previously said; they can be religious; they may be for reuniting family together; or for repatriation interstate or overseas. To give the licence, the Health Department needs to see, understand and approve the given reasons for the exhumation. The next part of the licence application is a letter from the funeral director carrying out the exhumation, giving written confirmation that the company has sufficient understanding of the process, professional standards and the necessary qualifications, equipment and training to carry the task to completion. Some Health Departments and municipal councils may then impose on the process further safety regulations that they feel are helpful to the cemetery staff and funeral directors carrying out the task. These authorities do this for the benefit of those involved in the task as well as the health and safety of the public. A Certified Death Certificate is required to be given as part of the licensing process, to validate the relationship of the deceased to the applying person or family. The day and time for the exhumation must be determined by agreement with the cemetery authority. Once approved, the exhumation must be carried out on the day and at the time specified. Most Health Departments and cemetery authorities will then appoint a health inspector or supervisor to be present at the exhumation to ensure the process is carried out in accordance with the licence granted. 

An approved exhumation licence.

Once the licence is granted, it then becomes in effect a warrant or legally actionable document giving permission to carry out the exhumation on a particular day and time. It should be noted that cemetery staff do not conduct exhumations. They excavate graves and maintain cemeteries and funeral directors care for the handling of the human remains at the exhumation site. This means that the funeral director enters the grave to remove the remains from the grave site carefully and to work in conjunction with cemetery staff. This means that the actual grave must have shoring and other safety procedures set in place to prevent the possibility of cave-in or collapse of the grave. You need to be aware that cemeteries are built on all types of land, from soil to sand to clay. A confined space qualification must be held by the funeral director and in some cases a supervisor who has a confined space qualification may be required to attend the exhumation as well.

This regulatory training qualification is to enable people in all walks of life who are required to enter trenches and in-ground cavities over a certain depth to remain safe and to be removed safely in the event of a collapse. Exhumations are carried out very early in the morning, the justifiable reason for this being that people visit cemeteries to pay respect to their loved ones and the potential unpleasantness of an exhumation could cause distress to these other cemetery visitors. One of the rules of an exhumation is that only the necessary parties to the task may be in attendance. This means that family members can not be present at the exhumation site. Obviously some of the things a family may see involving their loved one after a period of time could cause lasting emotional damage. There is also the issue of health and safety. You may have a witness to the exhumation but the law requires that this person have a certain standing in society. Generally they must be a police officer, priest or other clergyman.

The question of what will remain.

What the funeral director will find when the grave is opened for exhumation is affected by several factors. The material used in coffin or casket construction, the composition of the surrounding soil, the location of the grave in either wet or dry surroundings and the temperature range of the locality are the major determinants.

While we may make assumptions based on stories of archaeologists' findings after centuries of burial, no guarantee of what will be found can be given. Exhumations Australia can guarantee to treat all human remains in whatever condition with the utmost respect.

 Integrity Funerals- Exhumation


Christophers Story.

 "In January, 1982, the youngest of our seven children drowned at the age of 2 years, 7 months and 8 ½ days. He was utterly adored and cherished by us all. We were totally overwhelmed at the time and took poor advice on his burial site. Because we quickly grew to dislike the administration of the cemetery, we were never at ease even though we worked through the dreadful years of grief and incorporated his death into our lives. more


Form 4 - Application to Exhume Human Remains

Application to Exhume Human Remains


Rowan Steer

Please contact Rowan if you have any enquiries:

Tel: 1800 995 352


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