One of the most common questions that I hear about the law of human remains is whether a person can choose a method of disposition other than burial or cremation in the United States. On Episode #5 of our #TalkDeath web series, Lee Webster and I were asked about the legality of Tibetan sky burial, having a body mummified or rendered into an articulated skeleton and displayed in a home, or, my personal favorite, a Viking funeral (aka, House of Tully funeral to Game of Thrones fans).

The answer, sadly, is no.

Can I have a Tibetan Sky Burial

Zoroastrian Tower of Silence

Can I Have a Tibetan Sky Burial?

There are two reasons why you can’t have a Tibetan Sky Burial in America. First, many states explicitly limit the approved methods of disposition of human remains. Second, most states criminalize certain treatment of human remains that is inconsistent with prevailing social norms.

Okay, sure, but how would they find out if I did something different?

In my book The Law of Human Remains (2015)—available on the publisher’s website and on Amazon—I discuss both of these areas of law in more detail and list all of the relevant statutes. Here is a brief synopsis and a few examples.

Permitted Methods of Disposition

Many states explicitly state that human remains may only be disposed of by burial, cremation, or donation to science. For example:

  • California: “Except as authorized pursuant to [laws relating to cremated remains], every person who deposits or disposes of any human remains in any place, except in a cemetery, is guilty of a misdemeanor.” Cal. Health & Safety Code § 7054.
  • Colorado: “Final disposition” is defined as “the disposition of human remains by entombment, burial, cremation, or removal from the state.” § 12-54-102(9).
  • New York: “every body of a deceased person, within this state, shall be decently buried or incinerated within a reasonable time after death.” N.Y. Pub. Health Law §4200.
  • Washington State: “human remains lying within this state … shall be decently buried, or cremated within a reasonable time after death.” Rev. Code §68.50.110.)

If you are interested in Tibetan sky burial, a Viking funeral, or some other method of disposition not covered by these laws, you may ask—okay, sure, but how would they find out if I did something different? The answer is that states require both death certificates to register the death of a human being within the state and a permit usually called a “burial and transit permit” or “disposition permit” that is used to tell the government the final destination of the human remains and the method of disposition.

In a number of states, a licensed funeral director must sign or issue the permit. So to accomplish an unauthorized method of disposition, you’d have you lie to the government on the permit and, in most cases, also get a funeral director to lie for you. Good luck with that.

Desecration of Human Remains

The second problem is that even if you can convince someone to hold a Tibetan sky burial for you despite the fact that it is not authorized by state law, such treatment of human remains may actually expose those disposing of your remains to criminal penalties.

In the United States we have two kinds of law—common law, which is judge-made law that we originally inherited from England, and statutory law, which is enacted by legislatures.

At common law, before a corpse is properly interred, it must be treated in accordance with “ordinary requirements of decency and common morals.” State v. Hartzler, 433 P.2d 231 (N.M. 1967). Human remains may not be “cast out so as to expose [them] to violation or so as to offend the feelings or endanger the health of the living.” No person may “cast [a corpse] into the street, or into a running stream, or into a hole in the ground, or make any disposition of it that might be regarded as creating a nuisance, be offensive to the sense of decency, or be injurious to the health of the community.” Seaton v. Commonwealth, 149 S.W. 871, 873 (Ky. 1912).

Although it is unusual to be prosecuted for a common law crime today, there have been reported cases in the 20th century. For example, in 1939, a defendant was convicted in Maine of disposing of a body in a furnace. “The essence of the offense charged and proved is, not that the body was burned, but that it was indecently burned, in such a manner that, when the facts should in the natural course of events become known, the feelings and natural sentiments of the public would be outraged.” State v. Bradbury, 9 A.2d 657 (Me. 1939).

In 1949, a defendant was convicted in Arkansas for keeping a dead body for five days in order to cash an old age assistance check. “During these five days the body was placed in different positions simulating life.” Baker v. State, 223 S.W.2d 809 (Ark. 1949).

Many states have enacted statutory laws criminalizing mistreatment of human remains that mirror the standards set forth in the common law. There is one uniform law that has been adopted by about a dozen states—The Model Penal Code includes a crime called “abuse of a corpse” that is committed when a person “except as authorized by law, … treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.” Model Penal Code § 250.10. The standard of “ordinary family sensibilities” is vague, but not unconstitutionally vague, at least according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Condon v. Wolfe, 310 F. App’x 807, 821 (6th Cir. 2009).

Can I have a Tibetan Sky Burial?

Painting by Ronan Boyle

Here are some examples of state statutes that criminalize mistreatment of human remains:

  • California: “Every person who willfully mutilates … any remains known to be human, without authority of law, is guilty of a felony.” Cal. Health & Safety Code § 7052.
  • Colorado: “A person commits abuse of a corpse if, without statutory or court-ordered authority, he or she … Treats the body or remains of any person in a way that would outrage normal family sensibilities.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-13-101.
  • Florida: “A person who mutilates, commits sexual abuse upon, or otherwise grossly abuses a dead human body commits a felony of the second degree.” Fla. Stat. 872.06(2).
  • Illinois: “A person commits dismembering a human body when he or she knowingly dismembers, severs, separates, dissects, or mutilates any body part of a deceased’s body.” 720 ILCS 5/12-20.5.
  • Oregon: “A person commits the crime of abuse of corpse in the first degree if the person: (a) Engages in sexual activity with a corpse or involving a corpse; or (b) Dismembers, mutilates, cuts or strikes a corpse.” Rev. Stat. §166.087.

Tanya Marsh
Tanya Marsh primarily teaches Property, Decedents Estates and Trusts, and the only course in a U.S. law school on Funeral and Cemetery Law, and Professional Development. Her scholarship focuses on laws regarding the status, treatment, and disposition of human remains. Marsh is the author of The Law of Human Remains (2015), the first treatise on the subject in more than 50 years, and co-author (with Daniel Gibson) of Cemetery Law: The Common Law of Burying Grounds in the United States (2015). She frequently writes and speaks about issues related to the law of human remains. She also publishes a podcast on the topic called Death, et seq. (https://deathetseq.com/)


  1. whilst not exactly the same as the Tibetan ritual, i think if you donate your remains to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) you can request the beautiful vultures <3

    1. Great idea! And it is helping science at the same time

  2. […] A sky burial is a natural burial method that is traditionally practiced in Mongolia, Tibet, and a few other provinces in China. Because many people in these regions adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, this burial method is founded on the belief of reincarnation. Therefore, there is no need to preserve the human body after death, as it becomes an empty vessel as the spirit of the deceased leaves it. Sky burials, then, are burials where the body of the deceased is placed on a mountaintop to naturally decompose, being exposed to the natural elements or eaten by animals. Unfortunately, this type of burial is not necessarily possible for everyone. If you are interested, check out Qeepr's article on why you can't have a Tibetan sky burial.  […]

    1. And to your point, the same idea of this “burial method” is applied by strict adherents of orthodox Zoroastrianism or colloquially know as Mazdayasana. It’s only observed by a small percentage of people in the world; mostly residing in certain regions of India. The most well know sites for this is still in operation in Mumbai. However, for their purposes of exposing the dead, they use what are called Dakhmas, or “Towers of Silence” as it’s commonly referred to in English. They’re actually pretty rare, with only like maybe 2 in existence and still being used. Others have either been lost to time; or abandoned because of changing beliefs and traditions.

      If you want to know more about I, I THOROUGHLY recommend reading up on the entire Mazdayasana religion, in order to have a fuller understanding of their beliefs as to why excarnation through the useage of m Dakhmas were, and still are a very important and vibrantly interesting, yet misunderstood religious practice.

      Seriously… You just might lose a few days of free time just googling new and fascinating things about the religion and it’s traditions, taking you deeper into the history of part of humankind. I most certainly did, until the frustrated beguile of my husband finally tore me away from almost learning everything about it. Lol!! Knowledge… Crazy weird motivator, honestly.

      1. Thank you for your response! The Zoroastrian practice is indeed incredibly interesting. Although there are some disputes academically over whether ‘sky burials’ ever occurred, or were inventions of visiting Muslim & Chinese traders (I don’t think this is a very popular opinion however). There are stories from Chinese traders that families in Sogdia rented out their dogs to other families for the purpose of eating corpses. So interesting!

        ps: one of our writers is a religion scholar who studied zoroastrian burial practices. 🙂

  3. […] I get this question a lot.  The question came up when Lee Webster and I participated in a #TalkDeath web series last summer in Episode 5: Who Owns Your Body?, and then I wrote a guest piece for the Talk Death website on the subject.  Check it out. […]

  4. […] some options such as Tibetan sky burial—leaving human remains to be picked clean by vultures—and “Viking” burial via flaming […]

  5. […] some options such as Tibetan sky burial—leaving human remains to be picked clean by vultures—and “Viking” burial via flaming […]

  6. […] some options such as Tibetan sky burial—leaving human remains to be picked clean by vultures—and “Viking” burial via flaming […]

  7. So, if I moved to Tibet before death, went to an obscure village that needed the money, I couldn’t pay for the freed yak, vultures, monks, etc?

    1. Have got enough vultures living near me all i gotta do is die outside and wil be just bones in a few daysat most (: …

  8. After a body is clean of flesh and only bone remains, what do they do with the bones?

  9. The case law and the various laws themselves do not truly address the subjects in question. If I may be explicit about it, they are aimed at people who might have tried to conceal a homicide, or who just wanted to dispose of their dead as cheaply as possible.

    A sky burials, or Viking funeral, is a traditional “burial” method in foreign or antiquity cultures that the deceased specifically requested and embraced.

    Lastly, on the matter of methods that offend family sensibilities… Cremation would be very offensive to my grandma’s generation of Roman Catholics. A steel casket would be offensive to my late aunt’s family (Jewish). And do we even want to mention the bodies and disembodied heads in cryo “sleep” awaiting their rebirth at some time in the future?

    Clearly there are weirder things to do – legally – with your corpse than returning it to nature, or gloriously sending it off to Valhalla.

  10. Sky burial or feeding dear bodies to cultures is the most efficient way of converting human dead bodies,rather than burial where worms eat dead bodies slowly or cremation which is wasteful burning of the body. It is both moral and scientific to have sky burial and help the magnificent vultures and the biodiversity.

  11. Most ecological and healthy disposal of dead bodies is to let vultures eat dead bodies followed by the cremation of remaining bones.

    1. Have got enough vultures living near me all i gotta do is die outside and wil be just bones in a few days at most …want my kid to keep skull and femors(:

  12. Thanks for this info. I really think it would be great to bring this practice back to life (haha). It would be good to know if anyone is making it happen in the western US.

  13. Couldn’t it be claimed sky burials are actually religious practice? I myself think it is ridiculous a person cannot consent to something because other people think it is disturbing. I mean, why would you care? I don’t think it is a fair thing that I can be made into ashes, but a spiritual practice I want to take part of is criminal? If I can prove to be of sound mind before my death, stating that the court should allow my plans on the grounds of spiritual practice that actually doesn’t hurt anyone but my eventually dead body- why would the court care? Bizarre that we don’t even have bodily autonomy when it is our own body.

  14. Where I live in the Middle East we have a desert with plenty of vultures, but not any chance the religious authorities would ever let us make the obvious ecological choice and let the birds have our bodies when we are done with them. Instead we have to build funerary mountains with bodies in skyscraper-high crypts.

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