The law
Uncommon as the practice is, the laws allowing home burials are more common than you might guess. FindLaw.com calls state laws "surprisingly permissive."

"In most states it is possible to bury someone on your own property — in or out of a casket — as long as you are outside the city limits," Slocum says.

Public-health authorities agree that burials, in or out of coffins, pose no health threat, even in disasters, except where people have died in epidemics.

The main hurdle is likely to be the size of your property. Regulations often stipulate a five-acre minimum, although that varies. State or local regulations usually specify how and where a body must be placed (typically, some distance from a water source and away from power lines where digging may be required in the future.)

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Approval from a zoning or health board may be required. You'll probably have to get a death certificate and may even be required to set up a fund to cover costs for the grave's upkeep. Some local authorities require establishing a "private family cemetery" by staking out the site, applying for zoning and filing a map of the cemetery with the deed. "In some cases, only family members may be buried there," Harris says. "Other locales may be more liberal."

If all this sounds easy or straightforward, don't be fooled. As Branch discovered when she tried to learn the rules in her hometown, just finding who's in charge can be a challenge.

Slide show:  Own your own graveyard

Confusion over rules
The authorities themselves often don't know the rules, Sehee says. "It's pretty shocking. Many planning departments know nothing about this. They've had so few requests."

"Generally," Slocum says, "if you're in a city or in a suburb, on a street with other people, most of the time the zoning board is going to say 'We're not going to let you bury a casket in the backyard.'"

That was true even 35 years ago, when Elvis Aaron Presley died and the city of Memphis made his family get a zoning variance to bury the King's remains on the grounds of Graceland.

In the years since, it has not gotten easier. When representatives of Michael Jackson's estate tried getting permission to bury him at his home, 3,000-acre Neverland Ranch in rural Santa Barbara County, they ran into so many hoops that they gave up. "The bureaucratic hurdles on the state and local level for interment on property that wasn't designated a cemetery were extensive," according to the Los Angeles Times. Finally, Jackson was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif.

Because of the complications, if your plans — for yourself or a loved one -- involve home burial or any other do-it-yourself approach, experts advise planning ahead and learning the rules where you live.

State laws are easy to find. They are compiled in "Final Rights." Also, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit organization, offers state laws for download at a cost of $5 per state. Additionally, the site lists state laws directing how to ensure your heirs will dispose of your body as you wish after you die. The FCA invites consumer inquiries, as does Lisa Carlson, consumer funeral expert and co-author of "Final Rights."

Mostly, state laws just offer general guidance. A few states — Maine and Oregon, for example — have requirements for home burial, instead of or in addition to local regulations. No state prohibits home burials. Eight — Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York — require a funeral director to witness any burial, Sehee says.

Separate state regulations cover preparation of a body at home.

Help for consumers
Learning your local rules can require some detective work. Final authority often lies with city or county planning departments. The FCA's 87 chapters in 42 states may be helpful. Two other sources:

  • HomeFuneralDirectory.com has resources and information about "green" funerals and a state-by-state list of home-funeral consultants, sometimes called "death midwives," who may be familiar with local regulations.
  • The Islamic Society of North America's guide to Funeral Regulations in North America offers a summary of state laws, guidance on dealing with authorities and contact information for authorities in each state. Local Islamic centers may be familiar with local burial laws.

Once Branch finally located the right authority — in Maine, it was an office in the state Division of Environmental Health — complying with the rules was simple. The law specified how far the grave must be from abutting properties and water sources. She was required to draw a map of its location on her property and file it with the county, attached to the property's deed.

The downsides
About once a month, Scott Gilligan, legal counsel for the funeral directors association, gets a call from someone who wants to establish a cemetery at home. He advises them to think carefully about it for several reasons:

  • A grave may diminish a property's value. "Nobody can build on it unless they go to the expense of moving the grave, disinterring the body, relocating it to a cemetery and getting the court to approve it," Gilligan says.
  • If you have a family gravesite, you'll need to ensure your right to visit if you sell. Even where state or local laws allow families access, Gilligan advises attaching the condition to the property's deed at the sale.
  • Consider, also, how you'll feel if, in the future, your peaceful home cemetery becomes part of a shopping mall or housing development.

There are drawbacks to acquiring a property with a grave, too:

  • It's difficult to move a body. Often, the law requires tracking down family members for permission. In Ohio, for example, to move his father's grave — even with his mother dead and all siblings on board — Gilligan says a probate court would have to agree, and courts generally frown on moving graves without a compelling reason.
  • Reburial can cost $5,000 to $10,000 for each body, for purchasing a new site, digging a grave, moving the remains and perhaps replacing a casket or vault.

If all the research, regulations and hassles seem daunting, there's a simpler way: Cremate the body and bury or scatter the ashes.

Cremation is increasingly popular, and ecologically friendly alternatives are available. The funeral directors association says that in 2010, cremation was chosen in nearly 41% of deaths, up from 26% in 2000. The average cost, according to the National Cremation Research Council, is around $1,100.