Exhumation means the removal from the ground of a body or cremated remains. It also covers the disturbance of remains within a grave, particularly when a grave is re-opened for burial.
It is unlawful to disturb any human remains without first obtaining the necessary legal authority. This includes any cremated remains.
From time to time, due to varying circumstances exhumations may be necessary. 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.
The cost of an exhumation can be substantial, so the financial implications should be clearly established from the outset. This can include:
- memorial removal costs
- funeral director’s charges including the cost of a new coffin or cremated remains casket
- cemetery fees and charges for exhumation and re-interment
You need a licence to exhume both buried and cremated remains. In certain circumstances an environmental health officer may also be required at the site of exhumation. They will supervise the event and ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected.
There are two types of licence available for exhumation:
- A Bishops Faculty licence
- A Home Office licence
Normally you will need either one or the other, although there are certain circumstances where you may require both. The type of ground from which remains are to be exhumed, and where they are going to be exhumed to, determines the exhumation licence that is required.
Determining what sort of licence you need
Within burial grounds the land is termed either consecrated or unconsecrated. Consecrated means dedicated to the service of God according to the rites of the Church of England. A Bishop to the Church of England carries out consecration of land.
If human remains are to be exhumed from a grave in consecrated ground to be re-interred in consecrated ground in another burial ground you will only need to apply for a Bishops Faculty licence.
If an exhumation is to be carried out from unconsecrated ground to either consecrated/consecrated ground, only a Home Office licence is needed.
Under certain circumstances where remains are being moved from consecrated ground to be either re-interred in the same consecrated grave plot or unconsecrated ground, both a Bishops Faculty and a Home Office Licence will be required.
Apply for a Bishops Faculty Licence
A Bishops Faculty can be obtained by application to the Church of England Diocese for the area where the deceased is interred. The address can be found in the Crockford's Clerical Directory. There may be a charge for the application, which can take 4 to 6 weeks to come through.
Apply for a Home Office Exhumation Licence
You can get a copy application from York Crematorium, which may speed the process, as the local authority must complete some sections on the application form before it is submitted for consideration.
Alternatively you can download a Home Office Exhumation Licence application form directly from GOV.UK.
Written authorisation must also be sent from the cremation authority if the remains are to be cremated after being exhumed. Normally in the case of exhumation of a cadaver, a specialised exhumation firm will carry out the removal of the remains with the Environmental Health Officer being present. In the case of cremated remains this will be carried out by our staff. In both cases the exhumation will take place whilst the cemetery or crematorium is closed.
What happens at the exhumation
An environmental health officer and cemeteries officer can be present at the exhumation. They will supervise the event to 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 (if necessary) 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
- 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
- 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. All exhumation applications and requests are dealt with individually.
Ministry of Justice
Coroners Unit, Burial Team