Digging graves for dead bodies in one’s own backyard might sound like a plot point from a scary movie. But the desire to be buried at home isn’t quite as far-fetched as it might sound. For many years, family cemeteries, mostly on farms and large plots of land, were very common in the United States. Of course, cultural attitudes toward burials in America have changed somewhat since then.
Burying ain’t what it used to be
But in the last 20 years or so, they’ve changed yet again. Most people in the United States, in fact, aren’t being buried at all these days. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, as of 2015 more than half of people chose cremation over any type of burial. That’s up from just less than four percent in 1960. And with average traditional funeral and standard burial costs between $7,000 and $10,000, the percentage of those choosing cremation should continue to rise rapidly.
But even those still choosing the burial route are looking for alternatives to the embalmed-body, open-casket affairs that were the norm in the United States. One of the most popular, according to Reuters, is the “eco-friendly green burial.”
In this alternative, the body is buried in as “natural” a manner as possible. There’s no embalming. And if there is a casket, it’s made of a material like cardboard or bamboo that will biodegrade right along with the body. But while an eco-friendly burial in an established cemetery will be less expensive than a traditional burial, there are only around 90 sites in the United States that host these types of burial.
Which means, if you’re really attached to going back to the earth the natural way (and saving money), your backyard might be a viable alternative. In fact, costs associated with a backyard burial can be as low as a couple hundred dollars. It all sounds reasonable in a way, but also creepy and possibly, well…unsanitary. Is this really a thing people can do and not get arrested? That depends.
Results may vary
The reason it depends is because laws relating to disposal of a body vary quite a lot from state to state, and even between municipalities. Here are a few highlights.
- If you live in California, Indiana, or Washington State, you can forget about being buried at home. California, in particular, has the strictest laws in the nation relating to disposal of human remains.
- Meanwhile, Oklahoma and Vermont have some of the most relaxed regulations in the nation regarding home burial. All regulations are left to local municipalities, with the primary state regulation being that the burial location be listed on the person’s death certificate.
- Family cemeteries are fairly common in Texas—although they’re only allowed in rural areas, and there are a few rules that need to be followed.
- Connecticut is like a lot of states. Backyard burials aren’t illegal, but by the time you’re done wading through all the red tape, you might give up altogether.
If you’re seriously interested in burying a loved one—or being buried yourself—at home (or just morbidly curious), your best bet is to make your wishes firmly known and do your own homework in advance, keeping in mind that the laws and regulations vary greatly from state to state. There isn’t any one established entity who will be able to answer all your questions, so you’ll need to make sure you don’t run afoul of state law, county statute or city law, and local zoning ordinances.
A local funeral service might be able to help with information and advice, but when seeking advice from someone with a vested interest in the outcome, it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion—like that of a local land use and zoning attorney.
Whatever you do, don’t end up like Alabama resident James Davis, who just went ahead and buried his wife in the yard—the front yard, at that—when she died. After a four-year battle with his town, he ended up having to dig her up and have her cremated. Anybody who has seen the movie ‘Poltergeist’ knows that’s a situation to be avoided.