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How Long Can Human Remains Be Stored Before Being Buried?

Decomposing body stored in a cruise ship's cooler because the morgue was not working

There was a viral article online this weekend about a person dying on a cruise ship, and the human remains being stored in a “cooler” on the ship for almost a week because the ship’s morgue was not working. (New York TimesNYPostCNN). The widow filed a lawsuit seeking damages, because by the time the body was retrieved, the remains were “horrifically decomposed”.

Families often call us and ask how long can a funeral home store my loved one’s body before it is refrigerated, embalmed, buried, or cremated? Like with most legal questions, the answer is “it depends.”

According to one of the articles:

Marilyn Jones and her husband, Robert, set out from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on an eight-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Celebrity Equinox.
The couple, of Bonifay, Fla., were just two days into the trip when Robert Jones, 79, died of a heart attack.
According to a federal lawsuit that [Marilyn Jones] filed against the cruise line this week, [Mrs. Jones agreed] to have [Robert’s remains] stored in the ship’s morgue until it returned to Florida six days later.
when a funeral home worker and a Broward County sheriff’s deputy came aboard in Fort Lauderdale to retrieve Mr. Jones’s body, they discovered that it had been moved from the morgue to a cooler on a different floor, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Having been stored at an insufficient temperature, the body had “horrifically decomposed,” the lawsuit said, preventing his family from having an open casket at his wake and funeral.

A Widow Said Her Husband Was Left in a Drinks Cooler After Dying on a Cruise – April 22, 2023 – New York Times

Our lawyers have dealt with the storage of remains before interment in the past, and we figured it would be a good time for an in depth discussion of how long should human remains (or a dead body) be stored before refrigeration, embalming, burial, or cremation?

Why would someone want to store human remains for so long?

There are a variety of reasons why a body may need to be stored before it can be cremated or interred (“interred” is another word for buried in the ground). Some examples:

  • An individual died but the relatives and next of kin have not been identified or found.
  • The remains are being shipped to another country to be buried. When this happens, often various permits and clearances are needed and the body must be stored until they are obtained and shipping is allowed.
  • Some religions prohibit burials during holy days and remains must be stored until burial is permitted.
  • Family members ask to store the remains so other family can travel to the funeral proceedings.
  • Cause of death is unknown or needs to be investigated and an autopsy is being performed.

In June of 2023, a horrifying story went around the media about one of the most egregious Funeral Home Negligence claims we have seen to date, a Harvard University Morgue Manager, Cedric Lodge, and an Arkansas Funeral Home Employee, Candace Chapman Scott, are accused of stealing human body parts and selling them online through a Facebook oddities group.

How long should human remains be stored before being buried or cremated?

Refrigeration or Embalming of human remains should happen within 24 hours to prevent decomposition

The length of time that a body can be stored depends on various factors such as local laws, the condition of the body, and the storage or embalming process used. It also depends on the state of the body at the time of death.

Refrigeration or embalming should happen quickly to prevent decomposition

A body should not be stored for an extended period of time without refrigeration as decomposition can occur quickly, leading to unpleasant odors, discoloration, and the potential spread of infectious diseases.

Without refrigeration or other preservation measures, the body may start to decompose within hours after death. In warmer temperatures, this process will be much faster, and the body may become unsuitable for viewing within a day or two.

If the human remains are properly preserved they can be stored for longer periods of time

In most cases, so long as the remains are properly refrigerated, funeral homes can store a body for a few days to a few weeks. In some states or jurisdictions, there may be a legal limit on how long a funeral home can hold a body. If the remains are embalmed, they can be stored for a longer period of time than if it is not because the embalming process preserves the body and typically acts to delay decomposition.

What is the length of time a body can be stored in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania law does not specify a maximum timeframe that a funeral home may store a body. However, funeral homes are required to provide a “reasonable” period for the family to make arrangements for the burial or cremation of the deceased. During these arrangements, it can be helpful to know what the proper size for the burial space should be.

In Pennsylvania, the law requires funeral homes to embalm or refrigerate the body within 24 hours after death if the burial or cremation will not occur within that same timeframe. However, funeral homes must obtain permission from the next of kin or authorized representative before embalming or refrigerating the body.

What is the length of time a body can be stored in New Jersey?

Like Pennsylvania law, New Jersey also does not specify a maximum length of time that a funeral home may store a human remains. Similarly, in New Jersey, the law requires funeral homes to embalm or refrigerate the body within 24 hours after death if the burial or cremation will not occur within that same timeframe.

What can I do if a funeral home was negligent in handling my loved one’s remains?

The lawyers at Kaminsky Law have handled many types of funeral home negligence cases in the past. If you believe that your loved one was improperly embalmed, the funeral home waited too long to refrigerate, or cremated their remains without authorization we can help.

Please do not hesitate to contact us and tell us your story. You can either fill out a form on our Contact Us page or call our hotline at (215) 876-0800 for a free consultation.

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Anton Kaminsky
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