Exhumation is the removal of human remains (including any cremated remains) from their place of interment. The need to exhume is not a common occurrence and is only allowed in exceptional cases. However, when exhumation is required it must be done with the greatest dignity and respect and with all of the necessary legal authorisation and documentation in place.

Reason for exhumation

Exhumations occur for a number of reasons, some may include:

  • The movement from the original grave to a subsequently acquired family plot
  • Repatriation overseas to be buried along with other family
  • On the coroner's order for further forensic examination.

Whatever the reasons, it is a traumatic event for all those involved and should only be considered after carefully thinking through the whole process and getting as much information from all the relevant authorities before starting this process.

You may also need to discuss the matter with all relatives before you wish to proceed.  Arrangements can be costly and take a long time to finalise.

Legal Documentation and permissions

It is an offence to disturb human remains without first obtaining the correct lawful permissions.

There are generally two types of licences that are required for exhumation, a Home Office Licence and/or permission from the Bishops Faculty. Which licence to use depends on the location of the grave, i.e. whether it is located in consecrated or non-consecrated ground and where the remains are going to be re-interred afterwards. Under certain circumstances both licences will be required before an exhumation can take place.

A Home Office Licence

If the exhumation is on unconsecrated ground and the subsequent reburial is in unconsecrated ground then only a Home Office Licence is needed.

Write to:

Coroners and Burial Division, Ministry of Justice, Post Point 3.21, 102 Petty France, London SW1H 9AJ.
Telephone : 0203 334 6390
Email: coroners@justice.gsi.gov.uk  

A Bishops Faculty

Most burial grounds/cemeteries are segregated between Consecrated and Unconsecrated areas.

If the remains are to be removed from a grave in a consecrated section of a cemetery and are to be re-buried into another consecrated section then only a Bishops Faculty is required.

Consecration is the term that is given to either all areas of a cemetery or smaller sections that have been 'dedicated to the service of God according to the right of the Church of England'.

Enquiries should be made in each individual case to the relevant Diocese.  Contacts details can be obtained from The Church of England website.

Next Steps

Once all legal documentation has been obtained and the necessary permissions have been granted a date and time is usually set for the exhumation. The exhumation licence will contain certain conditions that have to be observed. 

An environmental health officer must be present at the exhumation of a body to ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected. The Officer will also ensure that:

  • the correct grave is opened,
  • the exhumation commences as early as possible in the morning to ensure maximum privacy,
  • the plot is screened as appropriate for privacy,
  • health and safety of all workers is maintained e.g. protective clothing including masks and gloves, task lights and all other necessary equipment,
  • everyone present shows due respect to the deceased person and to adjoining graves,
  • the nameplate on the casket corresponds to that on the licence,
  • the new casket has been approved by the Environmental Health Officer,
  • all human remains and all the pieces of casket are placed in the new casket,
  • the new casket is properly sealed,
  • the area of exhumation is properly disinfected, and
  • satisfactory arrangements are in place for the onward transmission of the remains.

If the conditions of the licence cannot be met, or there are public health or decency concerns, the exhumation may not proceed.

For further details of re-interment or burial visit Bereavement Services.