If Hollywood movies and true crime podcasts have taught us anything, it’s that there are only two types of people who bury folks in their yard: murderers and ghosts.
However, with the average funeral in the US costing as much as $8,000, plenty of us are looking to cut costs while still honoring our loved ones’ memories. Or perhaps the opposite – maybe your aunt Gladys kicked it recently and you don’t want to spend a penny more than you have to dealing with the body.
Either way, the question may have occurred to you: what if I just… bury them in the backyard? Can I do that?
Yes, you can technically bury somebody in your back yard – but it’s difficult
Like a lot of questions surrounding what you can and can’t do with corpses, “home burials” live in a bit of a legal gray area.
“Burying dad in the back yard can be legal,” explained Ask a Mortician mortician Caitlin Doughty. “But it can also be kind of a bureaucratic nightmare.
“Every country, city, state, town, whatever, has different laws when it comes to this, and many have no laws on the books at all,” she said.
In the UK, for example, there are no laws whatsoever stopping you from burying someone in your back yard – or anybody’s back yard for that matter. The only stipulations are that you have the permission of the landowner and that the grave is far enough away from any water source so as to not cause any contamination.
Back in The Land Of The Free, you’re likely to run into some significant hurdles. If you live in Indiana, Washington, or the District of Columbia, for instance, burying somebody at home is explicitly forbidden by law. The same is true in California, where, according to state health codes, “every person who deposits or disposes of any human remains in any place, except in a cemetery, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Even the rich and famous have fallen foul of this ruling: when Michael Jackson died back in 2009, there were initial reports that he would be buried at his Neverland Ranch home. After it became apparent that the plan would require a weeks-long rezoning process to establish a state-sanctioned cemetery on the site, he was eventually interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a Glendale cemetery that holds many of Hollywood’s most famous corpses.
Elsewhere in the US though, things are more relaxed. Tennessee, for example, has no state laws ruling out home burial – which is why you can visit Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland.
Other states, including New York, Michigan, and Louisiana, take a middle tack, allowing you to bury a body on your property so long as an official funeral director is present. That may seem like an imposition, but it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise – and that’s because…
How do I go about burying a body in my back yard?
If you don’t deal with burying bodies every day, there are going to be a lot of rules and regulations you aren’t aware of. Like the UK, even the American states which allow home burial usually have restrictions on exactly where the body can go.
“For instance, they may outline how far from your neighbor’s property you can place a gravesite, how deep the grave must be, how close to a water source such as a stream or a lake you can bury the body, and various other restrictions,” explains Pennsylvania funeral directors Rome Memorials.
“Most states let you do it all on your own, but you still have to abide by the statutes, rules and regulations concerning your state and locality.”
You’re more likely to be able to bury somebody on your property if you live in a rural area with lots of land – especially if you intend on staying there for a long time. What you don’t want, explains Doughty, is to live in a family home in the suburbs or a city.
“I am very [in favor of] ‘do it yourself’ death,” she said, “but I kind of see the logic there. Imagine you live in a suburb, and you bury dad in the back yard – then you have that third kid, and you want a bigger place, so you move out, then the new owner is trying to put in a new sprinkler system and it’s like ‘oh dear god, dead skull!’”
Even if you aren’t that concerned about freaking out your future buyers (or current neighbors), there are some pretty practical reasons not to go burying dead bodies on your property – unless you plan on living there forever. “Having dead bodies on your property isn't exactly a boon where real estate is concerned,” Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance, told How Stuff Works.
It turns out that most people aren’t exactly jazzed about paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to live in a house with someone else’s grandpa decomposing under the lawn. Taking bodies out of graves is a lot more regulated than putting them in – under federal law, once you’re in the ground, you’re staying there.
So, should I have a home burial?
If you live somewhere home burials are allowed, and you’re not scared of paperwork, you may want to consider a home burial – with natural or “green” burials rapidly growing in popularity, and various “death positive” movements aiming to help people die at home rather than hospitals, it seems burying our loved ones at home is just the logical next step.
Just be aware – it will mean living in a cemetery for the rest of your life.
“If you put a dead body on a piece of property, it becomes a cemetery,” cautioned Webster. “This has to do with anti-desecration law and cemetery law that goes way back to Roman times.”