What Does 'Final Disposition' Mean When Someone Dies?

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If you find yourself dealing with the whirlwind that occurs when someone passes away, you’ll undoubtedly hear the term “final disposition.” Someone might ask you about it, you might need to specify it on paperwork, or official documents will require you to record it.

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Whether you’re wading through paperwork as you read this or you’re planning for your own end-of-life affairs, read on for everything you need to know about someone’s final disposition.

Definition of Final Disposition of Body After Death

The term “final disposition” refers to what is planned to occur to a loved one’s remains after they have died. This includes the method of disposition chosen, such as cremation or burial, and other associated events such as the scattering of ashes or in-ground burial.

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Where Will You Find the Term 'Final Disposition' After a Loved One Dies?

You’ll find the term “final disposition” in a number of places when dealing with the death of a loved one.

Funeral and Final Disposition Application: If you’re planning to apply for funeral benefits from your state, you’ll fill out an application. On the application, you’ll be asked to specify your loved one’s final disposition.

VA Funeral Benefits Application: Families of those who served in the U.S. military may be eligible for some degree of reimbursement for funeral expenses. The application will require you to specify the service member’s final disposition.

Death Certificate: You won’t find a section to fill out labeled “final disposition” on a death certificate, but you will specify the burial or cremation place.

Funeral Paperwork: When first determining what you will do with your loved one’s remains, you’ll likely be asked to specify preferences for their final disposition on funeral home or crematory paperwork.

End-of-Life Paperwork: If your loved one spent some time getting their end-of-life affairs in order, they might have written down wishes for their final disposition. Be sure to scan paperwork and files provided by your loved one for this phrase.

Common Disposition Options

Determining a person’s final disposition is just one of many things to do when someone dies. If you can, talk with your loved ones ahead of time and ask them what they want to happen. If talking with them about this decision is out of the question, then consider what they would prefer and what is best for you and your family. Choosing a person’s final disposition ahead of time can greatly relieve stress later on when the decision needs to be made.

If you’re thinking ahead and planning for your affairs, consider creating an end-of-life planning checklist to help you keep all the to-dos in one place. Figuring out your final disposition is just one of many items you’ll need to write down and give to an executor or trusted relative.

Here are several common disposition options to consider for yourself or a loved one.

Traditional in-ground burial

Traditional burial is what many people think of when it comes to methods of final disposition. Burial includes placing someone in a casket made of metal or wood, lowering them into the ground a minimum of six feet, and covering the opening back up with dirt.

Most traditional burials occur in a cemetery. However, if you have private land and your state permits it, traditional burial can occur on private property, as well.

Above-ground burial

There are many types of above-ground burials, but the one most people think of occurs when you place a body in a casket, then into a mausoleum. Mausoleums come in a variety of shapes and sizes including single, double, and family-sized options. Building your own family-owned mausoleum can be quite expensive, whereas a cemetery-owned mausoleum provides a budget-friendly alternative to above-ground burial.

Green burial

A green burial varies slightly from a traditional in-ground burial for a few reasons. For one, there isn’t a traditional casket associated with green burial. Instead, the deceased is typically placed into a biodegradable wicker casket made of a material such as willow, bamboo, or seagrass.

Other elements that are unique to green burials can include things like:

  • Having no casket at all
  • Burial in a shroud
  • No headstone or physical grave marker
  • A geolocator tag or coordinates for a grave marker

Green burials are focused on laying the deceased to rest in as “natural” a place and manner as possible.

Burial at sea

Though traditionally reserved for sailors or members of the military, burials at sea are becoming increasingly popular among civilians, as well.

For civilians and military members, burial at sea can be a deeply meaningful method of final disposition. Rather than burial in the ground, burial at sea takes place at least three miles from shore. Done properly, the deceased is laid to rest in the sea and covered by 600 feet of water. The event is often accompanied by a short funeral ceremony on the ship with friends, family, the captain, and the crew.

Traditional cremation

When most people mention cremation, they’re referring to traditional cremation or flame-based cremation. This is a process where a body is placed into a chamber and undergoes a decomposition process at extremely high temperatures. In the end, the soft tissue is gone and what remains are bones. The bones are then ground into a fine powder and returned to the family. This is what is commonly referred to as “ashes.”

Families might choose to place a loved one’s ashes in an urn and keep it at home, place it in a columbarium, or even place it into a small in-ground burial chamber.

Pro tip: Depending on an individual’s or family’s religion or traditions, choosing cremation vs. burial can be a delicate subject. It’s important to discuss all options with loved ones so everyone is on the same page.

Aqua cremation

In water-based cremation, the body is placed into a chamber along with a mix of water and alkaline chemicals. For several hours, the water and chemicals act on the body to break it down until nothing remains but bones. 

This process is similar to the way a body would naturally break down if buried directly in the ground and is more eco-friendly than traditional cremation. No heat is used and families receive more “ashes” when the process has been completed than in flame-based cremation.

Scattering at sea

Similar to burial at sea, scattering at sea is a method of disposition for a loved one’s cremains. This can be done by the Navy, if you or your loved one is/was a member of the U.S. military, or by a private company. You can also conduct scattering-at-sea ceremonies on your own by renting a boat or sailing your own vessel. 

Donate body to science

This method of disposition isn’t for everyone, but if you or your loved one is passionate about furthering science, understanding how the human body functions, or helping cure diseases, a donation to science might be the answer.

When you donate a body to science, you may not know the details of how the donation furthered a scientific study, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your legacy will continue through the scientific community. 

When the science community is finished, the remains are cremated and ashes are returned to the family.

Unique Disposition Options

In addition to some of the burial alternatives mentioned above, there are a growing number of unique options available today. Here are several you might consider choosing for yourself or a loved one.

Reef burial

Do you or your loved one have a particular affinity for the ocean? Is a traditional scattering at sea not enough of an ocean experience? If so, then consider a reef burial. 

An eternal reef is an option that takes the cremains of you or your loved one and combines them with an environmentally safe cement mixture. The mixture is then cast into a bell shape to create an artificial reef. 

The reef bell is taken out to sea and placed in an approved location chosen by the family with other bells to form a reef. Over time, fish and other sea life make the reef their home and a new underwater ecosystem is created.

The making of an eternal reef can use all or a portion of cremains depending on family wishes.

Cryonic preservation

Cryonics is one of the more unusual methods of disposition since it’s the only method with the end goal of bringing someone back to life. Cryonic preservation uses a process that carefully and slowly brings a person’s body temperature down to -320° Fahrenheit, a temperature at which all cells are indefinitely preserved from decay.

The hope of those working in the cryonics field is to one day understand how to repair a body of disease and decay and eventually resuscitate those who have been frozen in time and bring them back to life, healed of all their diseases—and even healed of death.

Space burial

Have you ever wished you could climb aboard a rocket ship and fly off to the moon? Well, now you can. Or, rather, part of you can. 

Several programs are available to take a small portion of your cremains into space via a satellite. One option allows your ashes to orbit Earth until the satellite reenters Earth’s atmosphere and burns up upon re-entry, similar to a shooting star. Another option sends your ashes to the moon. And still, a third option allows your ashes to travel into deep space where no human has gone before.

Tree pod burial

For those with a deep love of all things nature, if an eco-burial isn’t enough, you could have your ashes or your body placed into a tree pod and buried. As your body decomposes, the tree will receive nutrients and you will go on living, a permanent green reminder of your life and legacy.

A Final Tribute

Choosing a method of final disposition for yourself or your loved one is an important step in saying goodbye. Whether you can make this decision together or not, choose a method that will honor your or your loved one’s life, legacy, hopes, wishes, and preferences.

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