If I plan a wicker/ casket/basket burial, must I be embalmed in the US?

Hi Louise,

The myth about embalming: Embalming is not required except in cases of reportable disease

The Federal government in the US classifies diseases that are "reportable" or "notifiable". Doctors and hospitals are required to report all instances of reportable diseases (generally infectious) to the State for its health statistics and tracking, and the State's reporting to the CDC may be optional, depending on the disease. Notifiable diseases require reporting to the CDC, and notification is not optional. Tuberculosis or Ebola would be an example of a notifiable disease. States usually combine the two together and so all diseases listed on the State's list would be mentioned to a funeral director as being reportable.

Here is a google search showing the wide variation in how States manage embalming and reportable diseases: https://www.google.com/search?q=embalming+reportable+disease&oq=embalming+reportable+disease&aqs=chrome..69i57.5805j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8

Connecticut comes up early on the list. I note that the 1989 Statute of Connecticut requires the body in a reportable-disease event to be disinfected OR embalmed OR wrapped, but that many funeral directors in Connecticut say the body must be embalmed and don't mention the other two options. (I was guilty of this myself until recently, when I learned that there are alternative procedures available even for reportable diseases).

It's another widespread myth that embalming is required when a disease is reportable, as some States now PROHIBIT embalming in the case of contagion, while others require it.

Most US communities still allow the flushing of blood and body fluids from embalming into the normal sewer channels, and city-water treatment systems may not always be up to the task of cleaning out highly infectious diseases contained in those fluids (this use of the public water system is prohibited in Europe, where body by-products from embalming are required to be disposed of as medical waste, increasing the cost of the procedure a lot, and rightfully so, given the risk involved.)

In some places, the embalming regulation is also being changed from 'embalming required' to 'embalming prohibited' because new information shows that exposing a mortuary worker to the disease during embalming - a process that cuts the body open and exposes the worker to germs in the patient's lungs, blood and body fluids, that would otherwise remain contained within the intact body - is probably an under-reported problem. (Mortuary workers are at high risk for tuberculosis, possibly BECAUSE of the State-required embalming.)

http://www.iom-world.org/pubs/iom_tm0401.pdf (this report repeatedly points out the inadequacies of embalming fluid researc - read the summary, 6.4)

""Before this study, the transmission of TB from a cadaver to an embalmer had never been demonstrated," says Timothy Sterling, M.D., an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "Previous studies had shown that funeral home workers had unexpectedly high rates of TB infection and disease, but it was not known if this was due to exposure in the workplace.""

State laws regarding the treatment of the dead are often contradictory, inconsistent, or make no sense at all (and appear to be, in many cases, written by self-interested industries).

Picking on Connecticut a bit more - although almost every state has these discrepancies - CT law states that "Any licensed embalmer who has in charge the preparation of a body dead of a communicable
disease shall take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of infection, and such
licensed embalmer shall instruct the owner of the building or the family in which the death occurs,
or both, that it is unlawful to remove any infectious material, clothing, instrument or thing until
thoroughly disinfected by combustion, by boiling for at least ten minutes or by thorough saturation
or immersion in a disinfecting solution for at least two hours"


Syphilis is on their communicable disease list, and this rule would require the embalmer to tell the family that they must do the above with the person's clothing, bedding, and other items, even though you can't 'catch' Syphilis this way...  This just goes to show that many rules are NOT made with science or even reality in mind, and details are important!!

Consequently, States have been re-thinking the old rules. Your state may or may not be among them.

The technically accurate statement regarding embalming:

As of 2015, there's no public safety reason to perform an embalming that's supported by evidence-based science and accepted by knowledgeable medical authorities. (nutshell: any law or statute that requires embalming for a particular disease cannot supply science-based evidence that proves embalming is effective in stopping the spread of that disease in human populations because the science doesn't exist. I collect that research and invite any citations that actually prove embalming is the proper means of disease prevention)

Because embalming is considered by some religions to be a desecration of the body, and because the Freedom of Religion is protected under the US constitution, it makes sense that safety-precautions that don't involve embalming, like disinfecting or wrapping, would be allowable, unless the science showed otherwise.


The percentage of the population that dies of a reportable disease is very, very small (morbidity tables here: http://wonder.cdc.gov/mmwr/mmwrmorb.asp)

Unless you die of a reportable/contagious disease (unlikely- see above), there's no health and safety reason for you to be embalmed. Your body in a natural wicker coffin is no more dangerous to others than if you were in a metal one. In fact, in my opinion, your body is MUCH more beneficial to the Earth when you're in a wicker coffin (but I don't have the science to support that, either!)

Hope that helps you get what you want!!

in trees,



All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Cynthia Beal


Typical questions include 1) Where can I go for a natural burial? 2) What types of coffins, urns and other "packaging" are best for natural decomposition? 3)How do I plan for a natural funeral? 4) Do I have to be embalmed? and other questions in this vein. I'm available to answer general consumer questions about natural burial, home and natural funerals, and sustainable cemetery management. I answer questions about general cemetery matters, and offer suggestions about how to deal with remains, cremated or buried, interment rights, rules for cemeteries and plot owners, covering conventional as well as alternative options. I also answer questions from professionals, home funeral guides, and family members about how to manage a natural funeral either in the mortuary or at the home, how to best use natural coffins and urns, and how to convert cemeteries to natural, sustainable practices. I will answer questions from volunteer cemetery managers about how to offer natural burial in their rural, Pioneer, or non-profit cemeteries. If I don't know an answer I'll refer the questioner to someone who does. DISCLAIMER -- I am a certified pre-need sales person in the State of Oregon. I am not a licensed attorney, tax adviser, estate planner, funeral director, embalmer, accountant, public official, or any other professional that may be associated with issues the question brings up and any answers I provide should not be relied upon if such expertise is required by the asker (as per the All Expert suggestion). I provide my own personal opinions, based on my experience in business, Nature and its systems, and with human beings after 55 years of life on the planet.


Natural burial and sustainable cemetery management experience: I'm the founder of the Natural Burial Company and a member of the Sustainable Cemetery Management Group. Over 25 years in the natural products industry, and 9 years running the Natural Burial Company. I've done some consulting for existing and start-up natural cemetery operations. I'm currently an instructor at Oregon State University, facilitating the creation of a program in sustainable cemetery management and stimulating research in cemetery-oriented processes and functions.

ICCFA - International Cemetery, Crematory and Funeral Association Green Business Network Funeral Consumers Alliance

American Cemetery Magazine; Funeral Business Advisor; Real Goods Source Book; American Funeral Director Magazine, etc.

There is no degree in natural burials or funerals, and no accredited education provided for sustainable cemetery management. We're developing a program at Oregon State University but it hasn't fully launched yet.

©2016 About.com. All rights reserved.