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Exhuming a deceased body

Exhumations are rare and traumatic for the family involved. They can take a long time to arrange and are usually expensive. For these reasons, it is always best to consult with all the relatives before proceeding.

Exhumation of both buried and cremated remains generally requires a Ministry of Justice licence.

Reason for exhuming

Exhumations occur for a number of reasons including:

  • movement from the original grave to a subsequently acquired family plot in the same or other cemetery
  • repatriation overseas to be buried along with other family
  • transfer from one cemetery scheduled for development to another
  • court orders requiring further forensic examination.


It is an offence to exhume any human remains without first obtaining the necessary lawful permissions. Funeral directors can help in obtaining these.

Requirements include:

  • a licence must be obtained from the Ministry of Justice. Exhumation licences will also contain certain conditions, which have to be observed.
  • the presence of an environmental health officer at the exhumation of a body to ensure that there is no threat to public health- see ‘decency and safety’ below.
  • Cadaver certificates – occasionally required in addition to Ministry of Justice licences.

Decency and safety

An environmental health officer must be present at exhumations. They will supervise the event to ensure that respect for the deceased person is maintained and that public health is protected.

Environmental health officers will also ensure:

  • 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 – eg 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
  • all human remains and pieces of casket are placed in the new casket
  • the new casket is properly sealed
  • the area of exhumation is properly disinfected
  • satisfactory arrangements are in place for the onward transmission of the remains.

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