Cremation is increasingly popular in the United States as more and more people opt for this over burials. However, since it’s only recently become more common, there’s a lot of confusion and misconceptions around how cremation works and the different laws.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Long Do You Have to Wait After a Death for Cremation?
- When Does Cremation Usually Take Place After the Funeral?
- Why Delay the Cremation?
- How Long Must Families Wait to Scatter Ashes?
One of the biggest questions is how long you have to wait between death and cremation. In the United States, there are strict laws that outline the cremation of bodies, so you’ll need to know a few things to understand how cremation works.
Like with other things in the US, different states have different laws. Handling the cremation process in addition to a funeral service is stressful enough on its own. Here’s everything you need to know about how long you wait between death and cremation in the US.
Tip: If you're looking for something very unique to hold a loved one's ashes (think a game, their motorcycle, or instrument of choice), you can custom order an urn from a store like Foreverence. You submit a design idea or sketch, then the company designs and 3D prints your urn, so you get a 100% unique container.
Another unique option is transforming ashes into cremation stones with Parting Stone.
How Long Do You Have to Wait After a Death for Cremation?
When it comes to the specific amount of time you have to wait, the answer isn’t always straightforward. Different states have different waiting periods between the time of death and the time of cremation. These waiting periods are typically between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the state.
Why do families need to wait? These different state laws are based on the typical amount of time it takes to complete authorizations, like issuing a death certificate. Because the crematorium needs the death certificate before they can cremate the body, this delays the process and is built into the waiting period.
Some states also delay the cremation timeline in specific causes of death. For instance, if there is a question about the cause of death, there could be an even greater waiting period. It’s important to check with your specific state laws to determine just how long the waiting period will be before the cremation. In addition, these laws can vary by specific county.
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Different state laws for waiting periods explained
The most common waiting period set by most states is 24 hours. This is typically enough time for the death certificate to be issued, though the family can wait longer if they need to.
Some states require 48-hours to lapse between the death and the cremation of the body. Again, these laws vary by county, but these states below typically require 48 hours of waiting:
- New Hampshire
These waiting periods are often not required in the case of infectious disease or if ordered otherwise by a medical examiner.
Why are cremation laws so strict?
Why do cremation laws exist in the first place? If the family consents to the cremation, what’s the problem with holding a cremation right away?
These laws are set for a number of reasons. First, it’s simply practical since it takes between 24 and 48 hours to secure the finalized death certificate. However, this is only one side of the story.
In the past, before modern healthcare, it wasn’t always that easy to determine if someone actually died. There were many health conditions and concerns that could present similarly to death. To prevent any unfortunate accidents, it was important for families to wait before cremation.
Finally, cremation is an irreversible process. Unlike burials where the body can be recovered from the ground, cremation can’t be undone. This means there can’t be any uncertainty about the cause of death since an autopsy will not be possible once the body has been cremated.
As you can see, cremation laws exist to protect the deceased and their families and ensure enough time is available to complete the most necessary paperwork. In the meantime, bodies are kept refrigerated and safe.
When Does Cremation Usually Take Place After the Funeral?
While each family should feel comfortable making their own decisions, most cremations take place soon after the funeral. There are several steps that have to take place before the cremation occurs, even in the case of a direct cremation. This means most families wait one to three or more days to hold the cremation.
Before the cremation, the body is preserved at the funeral home or crematorium. It’s secured using refrigeration, which slows down the natural decomposition process. Some bodies are also embalmed, if the family wishes, in preparation for the funeral or cremation though this is not necessary.
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Who authorizes a cremation?
The cremation is usually authorized by the next-of-kin. This is who most states call the “authorizing agent” for cremation. The disposition of cremated remains is signed by the next-of-kin, and this authorizes the cremation.
Who is the next-of-kin? While this varies by state and specific family dynamics, it’s usually a spouse, parent, adult child, sibling, adult grandchild, nephews or nieces, grandparents, and so on. It’s based on blood relationships in descending order. If there are multiple next-of-kins (for example, multiple adult children), they all must agree and sign an authorization form.
How long does a cremation take?
A lot of people don’t realize just how long cremation takes. It’s not an instant process. In fact, a cremation takes several hours to complete. There are multiple steps crematoriums take to ensure each individual is treated with the utmost care and respect.
Once the crematorium receives the death certificate and the authorization form, they’ll complete the cremation usually within three days. Again, there are state laws about how long they can wait between receiving these authorizations. The family will be contacted when it’s time to return to the crematorium to collect their loved one’s ashes.
Why Delay the Cremation?
There are a number of reasons the family might choose to delay the cremation regardless of state laws. When you choose to cremate as soon as possible after death, sometimes before the funeral, this is called a direct cremation. However, on the other end of the spectrum, some families choose to delay cremation for any of these reasons:
- Funeral delays: Delaying a funeral sometimes happens if the family needs to travel long distances, raise funds, or simply take extra steps to prepare. If the body will be present at the funeral in an open or closed casket, the family delays cremation as well.
- Cause of death: The family won’t be able to cremate their loved one until the cause of death is determined by a public health official.
- Paperwork: Similarly, if paperwork is delayed for any reason, the cremation might need to be delayed as well.
- Family disputes: As mentioned above, it’s important for the next-of-kin to consent to the cremation. If there are multiple next-of-kins or complicated family dynamics, there might be some disagreements about whether or not to cremate.
- Transportation: It’s possible to transport a body across state lines for a cremation. This is common if the body is returning home to family, but it can lead to additional transportation delays.
- Scheduling conflicts: Last but not least, crematoriums handle a large number of cremations and each one takes several hours to complete. There might be scheduling conflicts that cause delays.
It’s important to note that some states and counties also have laws about how long families can wait before cremation. While exceptions are made in cases of paperwork delays, check with your local funeral home or crematorium to see what type of timeline is available in your location.
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How Long Must Families Wait to Scatter Ashes?
Do families need to wait to scatter ashes or store ashes after the cremation? In short, there’s no reason to wait. Once the next-of-kin has signed and picked up the ashes of their loved one, they are considered personal property.
There are a lot of ideas for what you can do with ashes after cremation. Still, local and state laws apply. For example, some states don’t allow ashes to be scattered on public property. For the most part, you can feel free to store or scatter ashes in a way that feels right to you.
Communication with your funeral home and crematorium is the best way to ensure you get your loved one’s ashes quickly and securely. Once the cremation is authorized, they’ll provide you with a timeline in which you can expect to pick up your loved one’s ashes. Make sure they have the right contact information to avoid missing a call or notification. From there, feel free to memorialize these ashes however you wish.
Cremation Timeline: What to Know
If you’re wondering how long you have to wait between death and cremation, you’re not alone. There’s a lot of confusion about the cremation process, how it works, and how long you have to wait. In reality, the answer varies by state, county, and additional factors.
Don’t be afraid to ask these questions to your funeral director. They’re familiar with your local laws and are a great resource during this time. It’s understandable that in an already emotional time, the last thing you want to do is wait even longer for closure after losing a loved one.
Try your best to stay patient and open during this time, recognizing that these laws exist for a reason. Each step forward is a way to honor your loved one and give them the final sendoff they deserve.
If you're looking to read more on cremation, read our guides on how to find the best urns for ashes and things to do with ashes that aren't expensive. Another beautiful option for keeping a loved one's memory alive is a memorial diamond created from ashes. Some companies, like Eterneva, create lab-grown diamonds and allow you to pick from several cuts and colors for your gemstone.