Massachusetts law about burial, cremation, and funerals

A compilation of laws, regulations, cases and web sources on burial, cremation, and funeral law.

If you are unable to find the information you are looking for, or if you have a specific question, please contact our law librarians for assistance.

Table of Contents


COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Federal Emergency Management Administration.
Apply to FEMA for financial assistance for funeral for individuals whose death in the United States, including the U.S. territories or the District of Columbia, may have been caused by, or was likely the result of, COVID-19.

Best bet

Issues to consider in preparing for disposition of decedents, Mass. Dept. of Public Health, Division of Community Sanitation.
Includes detailed information on death certificates, transportation, preparing the body, cremation, burial, green burial, burial at sea, and more, with links to applicable laws and regulations.

Massachusetts laws

MGL c.114 
Cemeteries and burials. The state's primary cemetery, burial and cremation law

MGL c.7, § 38A
Skeletal remains; preservation; excavation; analysis. Handling possible American Indian remains

MGL c.7C, § 43
Procedure after notice of evaluation to determine presence of possible American Indian remains

MGL c.9, § 26A
State archeologist; duties; reservation of lands from sale; cooperation of governmental agencies

MGL c.9, § 27C
Requirements to notify state archeologist if remains are found during public construction project

MGL c.38, § 6 
Unmarked human skeletal remains; notice to office of chief medical examiner; inquiry; notification of commission on Indian affairs

MGL c.46, § 9 
Death certificates; issuance; contents; declaration of death by nurse, nurse practitioner or physician's assistant. Describes the procedure for issuance of death certificates.

MGL c. 85, § 14A  
Funeral processions

MGL c.117A, § 9
Final disposition of deceased persons; recovery of expenses from deceased's kindred. In some circumstances, the state will pay up to $1100 for the burial expenses of those who die without any money, but "may recover this expense from any legally liable family members."

MGL c.190B, § 3-701
Prior to appointment, a person named executor in a will may carry out written instructions of the decedent relating to the decedent's body, funeral and burial arrangements

MGL. c. 272, § 42
Disturbance of funerals: Whoever wilfully interrupts or by fast driving or otherwise in any way disturbs a funeral assembly or procession shall be punished as provided in section forty

MGL c. 272, § 40
Penalty for disturbing an assembly (funeral)

Massachusetts regulations

106 CMR 705.700-705.710  Funeral and final disposition expenses

239 CMR Rules and regulations governing funeral directors and embalmers

Follow the directions of the deceased person's surviving kin, in the following order of priority: 1. the surviving spouse of the deceased; 2. the surviving adult children of the deceased; 3. the surviving parent(s) of the deceased; 4. the surviving brother(s) or sister(s) of the deceased; 5. the guardian of the person of the deceased at the time of his or her death; 6. any other person authorized or obligated by law to dispose of the remains of the deceased.

505 CMR 1  Disclosure of autopsy reports

505 CMR 2  Release of unclaimed or unidentified bodies

505 CMR 4  Cremation fees

Federal regulations

16 CFR 453 Funeral industry practices. The "funeral rule"
This is the primary consumer protection law for funerals.

40 CFR 229.1 Burial at sea

Selected case law

Brown v. Bayview Crematory, LLC , 79 Mass. App. Ct. 337 (2011)
Jury could find that "plaintiffs suffered injury due to mental distress occasioned by the defendant's handling of the remains of the plaintiffs' mother...even where the jury found that the plaintiffs did not suffer sufficient physical manifestation or objective symptoms to recover for negligently inflicted emotional distress."

Burney v. Childrens Hospital , 169 Mass. 57 (1897)
Discusses the right to possession of a body for the purpose of burial.

Kelly v. Brigham & Women's Hospital, 51 Mass. App. Ct. 297 (2001)
Discusses the elements of a wrongful autopsy claim.

LaCava v. Lucander , 58 Mass. App. Ct. 527 (2003)
The right to be buried in a cemetery of one's choosing is not a fundamental right for purposes of equal protection.

LeBlanc v. Commonwealth , 457 Mass. 94 (2010)
Where there was understandable confusion about whether a body released to parents was the correct body, but in fact there was no error, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had no obligation to tell the family that the autopsy report had been corrected and that the body was, in fact, that of their son.

Magrath v. Sheehan, 296 Mass. 263 (1936)
A husband made no arrangements to bury his wife, and, as a result, a third party made and paid for funeral arrangements. Since there was no money in the estate, the third party could demand the cost of the funeral from the husband. "The duty of a husband to provide a proper funeral for his dead wife and his legal liability to another for reasonable expenses justifiably incurred in providing such a funeral rest upon fundamental concepts of decency and humanity."

O'Dea v. Mitchell , 350 Mass. 163 (1966)
The plaintiffs' standing for unlawful burial rests on the statement that they are "next of kin" to the decedent, and therefore have the right to possession of the decedent's body. That right vests, however, in the next of kin only when there is no surviving spouse or no contrary provision by the decedent concerning the disposition of his remains.

Silva v. Attleboro , 454 Mass. 165 (2009)
A Superior Court judge did not err in holding that monetary charges imposed by certain municipalities for the issuance of burial permits were valid regulatory fees rather than improper taxes, where the charges were reasonably proportional to the amounts expended by the local boards of health in administering the permit process, and were charged in exchange for a particular governmental service benefiting the party paying the charge, that is, a well-regulated industry for the disposal of human remains.

Web sources

General Information

Arranging a funeral or cremation in Massachusetts, U.S. Funerals online.
Provides guidance on what decisions need to be made in the funeral arrangements of a loved one including finding a funeral home, green burials, cremation and flowers. 

Burial & cremation laws in Massachusetts,
Provides answers to common questions about burial and cremation.

If you wish to scatter ashes, you have many options. Cremation renders ashes harmless, so there is no public health risk involved in scattering ashes. Use common sense and refrain from scattering ashes in places where they would be obvious to others.

Burying mass murderers: the problem of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Huffington Post, May 2013.
Excellent overview of Mass. burial laws, and the challenges facing difficult situations. "If the family of Tamerlan Tsarnaev rejects cremation as an option, then it will likely find that Massachusetts law will provide little assistance in securing a burial place for him."

Caring for your own dead: Guidelines for burial or cremation without a funeral director, Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts. 
Highlights required forms upon death in Massachusetts. Extremely helpful information about the process, even if you don't plan to do it yourself. 

Funeral home directory,
Search for funeral home by municipality or zip code.

Shopping for funeral services, Federal Trade Commission.
Detailed guide on issues confronting consumers. Includes funeral planning, costs, a form to use in comparing costs, and consumer rights under the "funeral rule."

Veterans' guide to benefits: burial benefits, Mass. Secretary of State.
Explains eligibility for burial in state and federal veterans' cemeteries and the application procedure.

VIP electronic death registration system (EDRS).  Mass. Registry of Vital Records and Statistics.
All deaths occurring on September 1, 2014 onward must be registered through EDRS

What to do when human burials are accidentally uncovered: Know How #4, Mass. Historical Commission.
What you should do if you uncover bones, and the role of the state archaeologist.

Burial at Sea

Burial at sea, Environmental Protection Agency.
Contains guidance in how to conduct a burial at sea and reporting requirements.

A final resting place at sea: as cremations rise, ocean burials also gain, Boston Globe, January 20, 2011.
Explains the increasing number of burials at sea, and some options for those considering it.

Burying the Poor

Abandoned bodies: Massachusetts' poor and unwanted are spending months waiting for burial,, May 2019.
Part 1 in a series "on what happens to Massachusetts' poor and unwanted when they die and the few people who take on the task of burying them."

Who buries Massachusetts' poor? State pays so little only a couple of funeral homes will take them,, May 2019.
Part 2 in a series "on what happens to Massachusetts' poor and unwanted when they die and the few people who take on the task of burying them."

Green Burial

Boston’s other housing crisis: the cemeteries, Boston Magazine, April 2019. 
The Boston area is running out of cemetery space and the prices for it are going up. This article also discusses green burial options.

Going green, Boston Globe, March 1, 2009.
In a profile of one company making green caskets, this article describes green burial options at some length.

Green burial Massachusetts
A Massachusetts nonprofit that educates and advocates for green burial practices in Massachusetts. This resource provides information on green burials and includes data on green burial policies in cemeteries across the state. 

Information for local boards of health on home burials and green burials, resource with guidance regarding what local boards of health should consider when handling requests for home and green burials.

Print sources

Cause of action against undertaker for the mishandling of human remains, 35 COA 2d 495.

Consumer law, 4th ed. (Mass. Practice Series vol. 35 - 36A), 2021.  Funeral Services, section 30:40 - 30:49.

Damages in tort actions, Matthew Bender, loose-leaf. Vol. 1, Chapter 7, Mishandling of dead bodies.

“Discriminating against the dead: how to protect Muslim cemeteries from exclusionary land use mechanisms”, Christopher Cataldo, 58 B.C.L. Rev. 1391 (2017).

Final rights: reclaiming the American way of death, Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson, Upper Access, 2011.

The law of human remains, Tanya Marsh, Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc., 2016.

Liability of funeral director, 15 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 53.

Municipal law and practice, 5th ed (Mass. Practice Series vol. 18 – 18C), 2006 with supplement. Public Cemeteries, section 9.35; Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, section 19.16; Funeral Directors, section 19.17.


Last updated: October 14, 2022