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
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
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
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.
"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. ..read
Form 4 - Application to Exhume Human Remains
Application to Exhume Human