Death and Dying in Australia

How to proceed if you need to report the death of a family member or arrange the burial, cremation or the repatriation of remains outside Australia...

In the event of a death in Australia most formalities are dealt with by the hospital or other authority. If the death occurred at home the first thing to do is contact the family doctor, who will provide a death certificate. If the death was unexpected then the death is referred to the State Coroner's Office.

Death Certificate

The death certificate is the official registration of a death in Australia. The certificate is signed by the doctor who pronounces the death. It must be registered with the Register of Birth, Marriages and Deaths of the State or Territory Government Office. Funeral arrangements cannot be made without a signed death certificate.

The chosen funeral director generally sends the death certificate to the Register of Birth, Marriages and Deaths and organises a copy for the next of kin. Receiving a copy of the certificate can take several weeks (up to eight weeks if the death was unusual and merited an autopsy or inquiry).

Centrelink is the government agency which deals with social security benefits in Australia. They need to be informed of the death. If this is not done by the funeral director then a form to do so can be downloaded.

Referral to a Coroner

A death is referred to a coroner if:

  • The person died unexpectedly. This includes a person under long term medical care
  • The death was the result of an accident or injury, even if the cause of death appears clear
  • The death occurred in an unnatural or violent way
  • The person died as a result of or during an anaesthetic
  • The identity of the deceased is unknown
  • A doctor has been unable to sign the death certificate giving a cause of death
  • The deceased was 'held in care' at the time of death. This includes people in police custody, those held involuntarily in psychiatric care and children in juvenile justice centres
  • The deceased had been diagnosed with dementia

A coroner decides if an autopsy is to be performed within 48 hours of the death occurring. During this time a funeral director can be contacted to begin funeral arrangements. The chosen funeral director makes arrangements with the coroner to release the body.

Funeral Arrangements

In order to organise a funeral a funeral director must be chosen. A list of registered funeral directors can be found on the Australian Funeral Directors Association website.

The costs of funeral services varies and funeral companies should provide a written quote outlining what is being included for the price. Some health and life insurance policies may make a contribution towards funeral costs. Any relevant insurance companies should be contacted to find out more.

The funeral director arranges for the transfer of the deceased to a funeral home from the hospital, care facility or home where the death occurred.

There is complete choice over how the funeral takes place as long as the necessary legal requirements are met. The only exception being in some murder cases when only permission for a burial may be granted. There are some variations between states and territories but in general the deceased must be placed in a coffin or casket for burial or cremation. For cremation this must be combustible.

If the cost of the funeral cannot be covered financial assistance may be available. In most states the deceased's income, assets and liabilities determine eligibility for assistance. Centrelink may be able to help in getting financial assistance for a funeral.

The governments of some states provide detailed information on financial assistance for funerals in their state:

Further information on financial assistance for a funeral should also be available from local council offices.

Burial and Cremation

Funeral directors are able to advise on all administrative procedures relating to burial and cremation, including on the legality of alternative methods.

Laws relating to burial and cremation are different in each state. In general burials may only occur in authorised cemeteries and cremations in an authorised crematorium. An application to cremate must be obtained before cremation can take place. Burial on private land is sometimes possible with permission from the local authority. Rules around this vary between states and permission is rarely granted in some areas. The desired area of land usually has to exceed five hectares and needs to be surveyed. Contamination of the water supply is a primary concern.

Burials at sea are possible in Australia. They are regulated under the Sea Dumping Act and a sea dumping permit is required. Permits are generally only given to people with a strong connection to the sea, which has to be proven.

The number of cremations in Australia is steadily increasing. In most states cremations now outnumber burials. Cremations are much more popular in cities than in rural areas, which often lack the necessary facilities.

Dispersal of Ashes

Following a cremation the ashes should be collected, after which they can be:

  • Buried in a cemetery
  • Preserved in an urn and kept at home or in a favourite place
  • Scattered in a place chosen by the deceased or relatives

Before ashes are scattered, consent from the appropriate authorities must be gained to avoid legal proceedings as the Clean Air Act may be contravened by the scattering of ashes. Ashes may also be classed as water pollution. Permission can be granted by the local council to scatter ashes in parks, beaches and playing fields or by the owner of private land. The trust of a park or reserve may also be able to grant permission. Government Authorities commonly set the time and place for the scattering of ashes and may impose further conditions.

Ashes can also be scattered at sea. Permission must be sought from the master of the boat. It is possible to charter a vessel specifically for this purpose. No permit is required to scatter ashes at sea.

Repatriation of the Body

Advice on repatriation of a body should be should be sought from the consulate or embassy of the deceased's home country The death should be registered as described above and a funeral director chosen to deal with the body prior to transportation. Specialist repatriation companies are available to transport a body anywhere in the world.

Embalming is required if the body is to be repatriated overseas, or to another part of Australia. This is necessary for infection control and preservation of the body. Full embalming is obligatory for repatriation to many countries, as is the use of a zinc lined coffin or metal casket.

Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide

Euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is illegal in Australia. Laws surrounding it are complex, liable to change and different in each state or territory.

Further Information