In Memoriam: Memorial Instructions Let Loved Ones Know Your Wishes

By June 9, 2015 No Comments

For many people, their wishes regarding the disposal of their remains at death are, understandably, a deeply personal and private affair. However, these wishes can’t be too private or else, when the time comes, loved ones will need to guess about what you would have wanted. What do you want to happen to your body when you no longer need it? What type of memorial service do you want? And, do your preferences match up with what your family wants to happen?

The disposition of your remains may be influenced by your religious beliefs, philosophical principles, environmental ideals, or whimsy. Some folks have very specific ideas on the subject. They may expect to reside next to loved ones in the family burial plot, donate their body to science or have their ashes scattered in the wind.

How will your family know what you want? It helps to create a set of instructions – Memorial Instructions, in this circumstance. A Washington State statute affirms a person’s right to control the disposition of their own remains. To be legally effective, Memorial Instructions must be signed by the person creating them in the presence of a witness. But what about the contents of those instructions?

Burial and cremation are the standard choices, but some folks would like to include composting on the list. As described in an April New York Times story, the Washington nonprofit organization Urban Death Project, is at work developing a system for composting human remains that is both better for the environment than burial or cremation and sensitive to the emotional needs of loved ones left behind to mourn and bid an appropriate farewell.

What about burial in your own front yard? An Alabama man was sued by the municipal authorities in his town for burying his wife’s remains where she wanted to be buried: in the front yard of the home they shared for more than 30 years. It is a very sweet tale about enduring love and devotion, as well as a lesson in the bureaucratic hurdles that need to be cleared to lay a loved one to rest outside a cemetery.

Alabama, like many states, does not have a law against burying human remains on private property, but municipalities often have ordinances that prevent it. In Washington State, however, the law is clear: Burial of human remains outside a licensed cemetery is a misdemeanor. Cremated remains may be disposed of on private property with the property owner’s consent, or on public lands or waters with “the approval of the government agency that has either jurisdiction or control, or both, of the lands or waters.”

What does this mean in practical terms? If your heart is set on burial outside your family cabin, your loved ones will be breaking the law to honor your wishes. Having your cremated remains scattered on the family land outside the cabin is fine. But, if you want to have your remains scattered at sea – or from the top of the Space Needle – your family will need to contact the appropriate authorities for permission (the federal Environmental Protection Agency to scatter ashes in ocean waters at least three nautical miles from shore, or the City of Seattle for the Space Needle).

Washington allows cremated remains to be scattered in the State’s navigable waters, such as Puget Sound. A burial at sea is also in fact possible off the Washington coast in federal waters (more than three nautical miles from the coastline) and in waters at least 600 feet deep. (There is no depth restriction for scattering cremated remains.) A federal general permit for burial at sea and timely notice to the EPA within 30 days of any such burial at sea is required.

Our office is happy to work with you in preparing your Memorial Instructions.

Photo credit: Jo Naylor on Flickr

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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