Procedure before burial or cremation
Once the cause of death has been ascertained – either by a medical practitioner or by the coroner at the Coroners Court where reportable death cases are taken – the coroner will release the body, which then may be taken for burial or cremation (s 47 CA 2008). In practice, this almost always means that the body is conveyed to the undertaker.
If the body is with the coroner, an application must be made to the coroner to release the body (s 48 CA 2008). Under the CA 2008 (s 48), the coroner can decide who the body is released to, having considered that factors set out in the CA 2008 (s 48). This decision can be appealed in the Supreme Court (s 85 CA 2008).
If two or more persons apply for the release of a body in the custody of the coroner, the coroner must decide who has the better claim to the body. In making this decision, the coroner must consider the executor of the deceased and if that person applies, release the body to the executor. However, if the executor does not apply, then the body is to be released to the senior next of kin as defined in the CA 2008. Otherwise, the coroner is to consider the provisions of common law in deciding to whom to release the body (s 48 CA 2008).
At this stage several choices must be made. First, the choice of funeral director must be decided upon. The service charge varies between directors and consequently ‘shopping around’ can make savings. The service charge can be quoted to include the coffin or casket (unit pricing) or separately from the price of the coffin or casket (functional pricing).
The service charge covers such things as the use of a hearse, the transportation and disposal of remains, making arrangements with the cemetery or crematorium, and the taking care of legal requirements. It may also provide for costly but unnecessary extras, such as the use of a funeral parlour chapel, mourning coach, press notices and embalming.
The price of the funeral will vary greatly, depending not only on the choice of funeral directors, but also on the choice of burial or cremation (of course, the wishes of the deceased should be followed in the making of this choice, which in some instances may preclude a cremation, see ‘Cremation’, below), the choice of cemetery, and the number of extra services supplied by the funeral director. The law does not require a minister or formal ceremony, embalming, the placement of a notice in the press (see ‘Death notices’ in ‘After burial or cremation‘), or the delivery of the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium in a hearse. Decorum, however, will be required by the trustees; therefore, if private transport of the coffin is organised it should be undertaken in a covered vehicle (e.g. panel van) with curtains on the windows.
Organising the funeral
The next of kin are not obliged to arrange a funeral. Whoever authorises the funeral director may be personally liable to meet the costs of the funeral unless it is clear the estate is liable to pay the account.
If there is an executor
If there is a will that names an executor, then they have custody of the body and ultimate control of its disposal (but see ‘Cremation’ and ‘Donation of body for anatomical research’ in ‘Burial, cremation and donation of remains‘).
If there is no executor
If there is no executor or interested relative, then a friend can organise the funeral without necessarily becoming obliged to administer the dead person’s affairs.