Exhumation Information

Exhumation Information

Reasons we exhume

There are many reasons why we may consider the prospect of an exhumation. Some ethnic and cultural groups bury their loved one in Australia and after a period of time exhume their loved one and return
them to their country of origin.

Some Religious faiths have a similar process. For example, in the Greek Orthodox faith, the person is buried for a period of time, then exhumed and in some cases, the bones are then washed and placed in a
vessel of significance.

Sometimes families will seek to bring together all their deceased family members to be buried in the one place of significance. Families may lose contact with a family member only to find many years later
they have passed away and been buried away from family and loved ones. Once discovered, families may choose to exhume their loved one and have them reunited in a family grave or at one cemetery.

In other cases, town planning and community growth can sometimes make exhumation necessary.

At times, the historical way we care for our loved ones has to make way for the needs of the future and either entire cemeteries or sections of cemeteries need to be transferred or moved to accommodate
community infrastructure and transport expansion. It is an unhappy thought but nevertheless a fact that sometimes progress takes precedence over historical and even deeply personal matters.

Occasionally people emigrate or move states within Australia and cannot bear the thought of leaving their loved ones behind. They make a practical decision to take their loved one with them. This would
generally be the case with a very permanent move.

The last problem and probably the most unforeseen reason we would have to perform an exhumation is in the event of a mistake being made where a mistake has been made. With the best will and intention and
extreme care all funeral directors and cemetery management staff work hard to bury a deceased person in the right grave. Unfortunately though extremely rare, mistakes can happen. Most families faced with
such an emotionally distressing event would seek to involve a third party such as Exhumations Australia to solve the problem and correct the mistake.

The question of what will remain

While we may make assumptions based on stories of archaeologists’ findings after centuries of burial, no understanding or guarantee can be given of what will be found until we are actually on site and the grave is opened on the day of the exhumation, especially if it is after a very long period of time.

What we will find when the grave is opened for exhumation is affected by many factors. The major determinants are
  • The material used in the making of the coffin or casket
  • The composition of the surrounding soil
  • The location of the grave in either wet or dry surroundings and
  • The temperature range of the locality of the cemetery

Exhumations Australia can guarantee to treat all human remains, whatever their condition, with the utmost respect.

Advice on the likely state of remains can be given by Exhumations Australia, once we are provided with locality of the cemetery where the exhumation is to be performed.

Exhumation Process The Application Process.

Whilst every state in Australia and many cemeteries have different by-laws in their governing rules, generally the principles and process in arranging an exhumation are the same and the following steps must be considered and undertaken by the family and the professionals of Exhumations Australia.

The first step in the process is to discover who has the legal right to enact an exhumation. Similar to the process when someone dies there is a hierarchical process of authority beginning with the
executor, flowing down to the spouse, children, parent or sibling. This process stays the same when an exhumation is to be considered. Briefly, an executor is put into place to ensure that someone’s will
and funeral arrangements are administered correctly. The same process of permissions would need to be given to reverse or change the original process.

Generally when there is more than one sibling involved, assurances in writing would be sought from each to ensure the decision to exhume is harmonious and supported by each sibling.

Lastly, occasionally the person who has signed and arranged the original burial may not be a family member. Most cemeteries work on the principle that the person who has organised the original burial has
the rights and authority over the grave and all matters pertaining to it in the future. If this is the case, written approval and agreement would need to be given by the burial rights holder for the
exhumation to proceed.

Making application to the local authority

Historically, for many years exhumations were only approved to proceed when an exhumation license was issued by the local Health Department. Whilst this is still the case in many municipal councils, many cemeteries now have the legal right to endorse and approve an exhumation themselves, once the proper applications have been made. The various processes are still generally interwoven with most cemetery by-laws and Health Department regulations. The reality is that approvals for an exhumation are generally given under the same general but simple set of guiding principles of safety, hygiene and professional standards which we will outline in the following pages. The professionals at Exhumations Australia have a complete understanding of what the authorities require for approvals and or licencing.

Exhumations are carried out very early in the morning, the justifiable reason for this being the cemetery must not be populated. Other families visiting the cemetery to pay respect to their loved ones must be protected from the potential unpleasantness or distress an exhumation could cause.

One of the important rules of an exhumation is that only the necessary parties to the task may be in attendance. This means that family members cannot be present at the exhumation site. Obviously some of the things a family may see involving their loved one after a period of time could cause lasting emotional damage, so this rule whilst appearing harsh is designed to protect families’ hearts and minds and future wellbeing.

You may have a witness to the exhumation but the law requires that this person have a certain standing in society. Generally they must be a police officer, solicitor, or possibly a clergyman. Often if the health department requires an officer on site this process will have a dual implication.

The day and time for the exhumation must be determined by agreement with the cemetery authority. Once approved, the exhumation must be carried out on the day and at the time specified. Some municipal councils will require an appointed health inspector or supervisor to be present at the exhumation to ensure the process is carried out in accordance with the licence granted. Once approvals are in place, this approval then becomes in effect a warrant or legally actionable document giving permission to carry out the exhumation on a particular day and time. It should be noted that cemetery staff do not conduct exhumations.

They excavate graves and maintain cemeteries, while Funeral Directors care for the handling of the human remains at the exhumation site.

This means that the Funeral Director enters the grave to remove the remains from the grave site carefully and to work in conjunction with cemetery staff. This means that the actual grave must have shoring and other safety procedures set in place to prevent the possibility of cave-in or collapse of the grave. In some states of Australia in NSW for example the cemetery staff are trained to bring the deceased to the surface and the Funeral Director must be on site ready to receive and care for the remains.

Get In Touch

“In January, 1982, the youngest of our seven children drowned at the age of 2 years, 7 months and 8 ½ days. He was utterly adored and cherished by us all. We were totally overwhelmed at the time and took poor advice on his burial site. Because we quickly grew to dislike the administration of the cemetery, we were never at ease even though we worked through the dreadful years of grief and incorporated his death into our lives. We always knew that, when we found the right place, we would do what we could to make it better for our children when we die. A couple of years ago, we came across a delightful old “rural style” cemetery on the Gold Coast.

This time, we slowly picked out a vacant area and bought several plots from the Council. Then, his daddy painstakingly crafted a new coffin over several months. We decided to put inside all the bits and pieces of his we all had kept. The coffin was lined with a quilt that had been lovingly made by friends so long ago; what was exhumed was wrapped in a quilt I had made. Then we all put in his special bits and pieces. The new coffin was beautiful so we made a simple outer box and lined it with big colour-copied photos of the family so he is surrounded still by love.

The day of the exhumation I felt so much for those who were doing the job. I went out to the site and supported them from a distance. It wasn’t upsetting, I was just so grateful. A week or so later, we collected the coffin from the undertaker and drove him to the new cemetery. Just the family and we buried him ourselves. Then we went off to a local coffee shop while the Council workers filled in the grave. The little kids were fascinated and our little boy’s brothers and sisters were full participants. We felt in control of this burial which was in such contrast to the previous one. A big thing is that there are just no loose ends for his brothers and sisters to deal with. It has been a positive experience, more so for some of us than for others but we are at peace with the situation now. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Intentions in writing – Next of Kin

The first step in making an application for an exhumation requires the Next of Kin to provide a “letter of intention” stating the reason for wanting to exhume. We began our website with some of the reasons people seek to exhume a loved one which are all acceptable, sound and proper reasons. Sometimes though, a person’s grief can be unhealthy and lead us to make decisions that are unhelpful to our lives and wellbeing. Disturbing someone you love from their place of burial, whether they have been there for a long or short period of time, is not something that should be considered lightly. It is an extremely important decision that requires long and considered thought and should be arrived at without frivolous intentions. The authorities giving such approvals have a duty of care to you in considering and understanding the reasoning for the exhumation.

Another important component of the “letter of intention” is to state what is going to happen to the remains once they are exhumed. Are they to be cremated, re-buried locally, or repatriated interstate or overseas? The intended new burial ground must be stated in the letter.

Intentions in writing – Funeral Director

Just as written communication from the family is important, the Funeral Director must also provide a declaration in writing stating they have sufficient understanding of the process, the professional standards and qualifications, equipment, training and insurances to carry the task to completion. This document also must agree with the outcome of the exhumation as stated in the letter from the Next of Kin.

Qualifications and Insurances and Risk Assessment Management Plan

Because public health and safety is involved, the practical parts of the process at the exhumation site must conform to work safety and public health requirements. The Funeral Director carrying out this work must have confined space training qualifications to work in and around trenches and confined spaces.

These documents must be provided with the application to perform the exhumation. Exhumations Australia possess the current qualifications required under the law, and more importantly we want our staff that are assisting you as a family to be safe at all times.

It is expected also as part of the application that the funeral director has public liability and indemnity insurance because a cemetery involved in an Exhumation has cemetery staff and Exhumations Australia staff working in conjunction Exhumations Australia will provide these certificates of currency as part of the application.

Exhumations Australia will also provide a comprehensive risk assessment plan so there is an overriding safety management plan on the day in case of emergency to ensure the safety of all parties involved in the process.

Certified Death Certificate

Most families would have a certified copy of the death certificate of the person being exhumed as a matter of course. A death certificate must be provided as part of the application process. The death certificate is required to be given as part of the application process, to validate the relationship of the deceased to the person making the application. We can assist you in applying for this if necessary or if the original is available it may be used.