Death and Dying in Belgium

Find out how and where to report the death, how to arrange a burial or cremation, where ashes can be scattered, and how to repatriate a body. Plus information on euthanasia...

At a difficult time there are a number of procedures and formalities which must be observed. Many of these can be handled by a funeral company but there are nevertheless some tasks which should be performed by the family.

This article gives an overview of the processes in Belgium and where to get assistance.

Initial Procedures

In the event of a death occurring in the home, the family doctor should always be contacted. The doctor will confirm date and time of death and provide the paperwork which will allow the death to be properly registered. The doctor prepares a death certificate (certificat de decès/overlijdensakte) detailing the identity of the deceased and the date and time of death.

The police should be called only if there are any suspicious circumstances. The doctor will call the police if they consider it necessary.

Reporting the Death

A death must be reported and registered at the earliest possible opportunity, although there is no official time limit.

The death must be reported to an officer of the state (Officier de l'Etat Civil/Ambtenaar van de Burgerlijke) at the municipal offices of the commune where the death occurred.

A burial permit is issued either by the officer of the state or via a doctor charged with the preparation of this paperwork. It is known as a permis d'inhumation or toelating tot begraven.

The death must usually be reported in person by two adults (some communes allow details to be communicated by fax followed by a personal visit). The reporting adults do not have to be relatives of the deceased (for example a death can be registered by funeral officials) but it is recommended that at least one of those present is a relative as it minimises the likelihood of any errors.

Whoever reports the death should present the following documents:

  • The deceased's identity card
  • The death certificate
  • Birth and marriage certificates
  • The marriage certificate of their parents if available
  • Driving licences may also be requested
  • If there is a will or similar document regarding the deceased's wishes, then this should also be taken

The authorities will check to see if the deceased has lodged a document with them saying how they wish their remains to be dealt with – see the following section on Funeral Arrangements for more details.

The family or funeral parlour makes the arrangements for a burial or cremation date with the local administration. There is currently no set time period within which burial or cremation must take place, however a delay of 24 hours following the death must be respected.

If the burial is not taking place locally then it will be necessary to provide a burial authorisation from the commune where it will be held.

If the deceased is to be cremated it must be declared at this point (and a separate cremation authorisation will be issued) as must the wish to bury the deceased in the family plot if one exists.

Funeral Arrangements

Any citizen can draw up a document to state how they wish to be dealt with after death, for example burial or cremation, dispersal of ashes. This document can be officially registered with the commune and cannot be overturned by any relative or other person. It is known as a Formulaire pour la destination des dernières volontés quant au mode de sépulture/Formulier betreffende de laatste wil inzake de wijze van teraardebestelling and a standard form for completion can be obtained from municipal offices.

In the absence of this document the decision rests with the immediate family and in particular with a surviving spouse. If for any reason there is disagreement within the family, the matter must be settled before a tribunal. Where there is no surviving relative, the local commune takes over arrangements and organises burial.

Embalming is not permitted except with express permission and this is usually only allowed where the body must be transported internationally – for repatriation, for example.

The following are the most common permitted methods for disposal of remains:

  • Burial
  • Cremation followed by the dispersal of ashes on the cemetery lawn designed for this purpose
  • Cremation followed by the dispersal of ashes in Belgian territorial waters
  • Cremation followed by the burial of ashes in a designated area of the cemetery
  • Cremation followed by the placing of ashes in the columbarium at the cemetery
  • It is also possible for the ashes to be kept by the family or buried outside the cemetery
  • Be.Brussels has more information

Burial in a grave on municipal ground in a cemetery is free for five years. However, families have the right to pay for an area for up to 50 years and to keep renewing this in their family if they wish. The grave area must be kept tended and clean at all times or the family will be issued with a warning.

The local commune can provide more information on the local situation.

Repatriation

If burial or cremation is to take place outside of Belgium the funeral parlour will make many of the arrangements. However, the initial registration of the death follows exactly the same procedures as those outlined above. Whoever reports the death must then state that the body is to be repatriated so that documentation can be prepared. The following procedures must be followed:

  • The coffin has to be sealed and checked by the police, who will provide additional documentation
  • A medical certificate is also required stating that the body has no infectious diseases. Some countries insist that the body is embalmed before travel
  • The authorities in the country where the body is to be repatriated must provide paperwork confirming acceptance of the body
  • The commune where the death occurred and was registered provides a transfer licence for the body
  • Transportation of the body must also follow agreed procedures understood by a funeral parlour

Foreign nationals should contact their embassy in Belgium as they will normally assist with repatriation and advise on the formalities to be completed. While embassies can provide death certificates if required for their own nationals, Belgian death certificates are recognised by many countries.

Note: Recent changes to flight security means that many airlines are no longer prepared to carry closed coffins.

Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide

Euthanasia was legalised in Belgium in 2002. Under the current law, a patient must be over 18, terminally ill and in constant suffering in order to qualify for euthanasia. The government is still considering a proposal to legalise euthanasia for children and young people up to age 18 and for parents of younger children (for example with severe disabilities) to have the right to choose it for them. The patient must be a resident of Belgium but not necessarily a citizen.

Death by lethal injection and by prescribed overdose are allowed - the decision on which method to use is between the doctor and patient.

Two associations provide information to interested parties in Belgium. They are

  • ADMD (Association pour le droit de mourir dans la dignité) for the French speaking population
  • RWS (Recht op Waardig Sterven) for the Dutch speaking population
    At: Constitutiestraat 33, 2060 Antwerp
    Tel: 03 272 51 63

Further Information