Casey Anthony claims she buried her drowned daughter in the woods. Is DIY burial legal?

Casey Anthony claims she buried her drowned daughter in the woods. Is DIY burial legal?

Casey Anthony claims she buried her drowned daughter in the woods. Is DIY burial legal?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 6 2011 5:21 PM

DIY Burial

Is it legal to bury a deceased loved one on your own?

Casey Anthony. Click image to expand.
Casey Anthony

A Florida jury acquitted Casey Anthony on Tuesday of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. Anthony's lawyer claimed that the child drowned accidentally and that the girl's grandparents concealed her death. * The child's body was found months later in a wooded lot. Are do-it-yourself burials legal?

They are in Florida, if you jump through the right hoops. Americans have been burying their dead in the backyard for centuries. Today, just eight states—Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York—require a funeral director to be involved at some point in the burial process. Even where it's legal, though, do-it-yourself burial requires more than a shovel and some open space, and Casey Anthony's described interment clearly violated several state laws. In Florida, the medical examiner has to determine the cause whenever someone dies unexpectedly. Even if a doctor is present at the time of passing, a death certificate is required prior to burial. The interment must occur within 24 hours, unless the body is embalmed or refrigerated at less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You need a permit to move the body to its final resting place, and the transportation container must "prevent the seepage of fluids and escape of offensive odors."

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Laws on burial location vary by county. A handful of localities in DIY-friendly states prohibit DIY burial anywhere other than a public cemetery.  Some counties are OK with burial on land that is zoned for agricultural use, but not on residential land. There's usually a minimum acreage requirement of between two-and-a-half and 10 acres, and the county typically requests a map showing exactly where the body is buried, so that any future land buyers will know there's a corpse on the property. (Construction companies turn up entire families of corpses fairly regularly, and there are gravediggers who specialize in moving bodies for builders.) Some counties ask for a surety to pay for future maintenance if the family can no longer care for the gravesite.

As for the actual digging, some state and local governments oblige individuals to comply with the regulations governing public cemeteries. The depth requirement varies substantially. Some states require only 12 inches of cover, others five feet. (The "six feet under" rule, which arose in London during the Bubonic plague, doesn't seem to apply in any U.S. state, and hasn't for some time. A Boston ordinance from 1885, for example, imposed a three-foot requirement.) In some places, the commercial cemetery rules don't specifically apply to amateur interments. Green-burial advocates say a depth of three feet or less encourages decomposition and helps plants make use of the nutrients. Don't worry about scavengers: Few animals can smell anything more than 18 inches underground. It also helps to add sticks and twigs to the soil on top of the body to encourage the nutrients to rise to the surface. Since burying a single body doesn't raise serious ecological concerns, DIY-ers don't have to obtain hydrology or other studies to ensure environmental safety, as commercial cemeteries do. Some states, however, forbid burial close to a body of water.

If you want to bury your loved one at home, but all of these rules are too much for you, there is a burgeoning "death midwife" industry that has gotten significant media attention in recent years. A death midwife will handle all the paperwork and logistics of interring your loved one for somewhere between a few hundred dollars and $2,000. If you plan to be buried on your own property, you should probably get cracking on the paperwork now.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jessica Hammonds of the Florida Department of Health, Jessica Koth of the National Funeral Directors Association, and Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council.

Correction, July 8, 2011:The original stated that Casey Anthony's attorney argued that Anthony herself disposed of the victim's body. In fact, the defense attorney blamed the child's grandparents for the concealment. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.