Grave Concerns

Is it legal to bury Michael Jackson at Neverland Ranch?

Five days after pop icon Michael Jackson’s sudden death, questions remain about where he will be buried. According to the Daily Mirror, Jackson wanted to be interred at his Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County, Calif. But his father, Joe Jackson, recently ruled out that possibility. Is it legal to get buried on your own property?

Yes, with permission. California is one of the stricter states: You need to get your backyard officially classified as a cemetery. That means sending an application to the State Cemetery and Funerals Bureau, with maps of the property, proof that you own it, and a statement from your local zoning board that it’s OK to bury someone there. (Read the full requirements here. The application process usually takes seven to 30 days.) As a general rule, the body should be no closer than 150 feet to the nearest water supply and 25 feet from a power line or neighbor’s boundary. Seeing as Neverland Ranch covers 2,800 acres, finding a spot shouldn’t be a problem.

Most states, however, leave burial laws up to the town or county government. In general, zoning boards in cities and suburbs aren’t going to let you bury Grandma in your backyard. (Washington, D.C., for example, discourages it.) In rural areas, though, it’s fairly common. Costs vary, too. In California, the only outlay is the $400 application fee. But in Washington state, you have to pay $25,000 to establish an “endowment care trust.” Many states have their own twists on burial regulations. In New York, for example, you need a funeral director present during the burial. In Michigan, the burial plot is exempt from taxation. In Washington state, a dead human fetus of less than 20 weeks is not considered “human remains” and can be buried anywhere. A fetus of more than 20 weeks must be buried according to the regular laws.

Cremation is a different story. Most states allow you to scatter “cremains” on your own property without any special permit. If it’s someone else’s property, you just need the landowner’s permission. Scattering ashes in the ocean is OK, but U.S. Code says you need to be three miles from shore, and technically you’re supposed to report the location to the EPA. National parks like Yosemite and Bryce Canyon do allow the scattering of cremated remains as long as you get a permit.

Bonus Explainer: Michael Jackson’s embalmed body will be on public display at Neverland Ranch on Friday. How long will he stay fresh-looking? At room temperature, he would last only a few days. (Embalming extends that to about a week.) If he were stuck in a refrigerator—around 40 degrees Fahrenheit—he could last up to six months. * (N.B.: Drug use before death often accelerates decomposition.) The usual embalming process—injecting formaldehyde into the arteries, filling the stomach and lungs with “cavity fluid,” making up the face—is only for temporary cosmetic purposes. If you want to keep a dead person on display for years, as in the cases of Vladimir Lenin or Evita Peron or Ho Chi Minh, you have to take more drastic measures. For example, all of Lenin’s organs were removed, including his brain. His glass sarcophagus is kept at a cool 61 degrees Fahrenheit, with 80 percent or 90 percent humidity. His skin, which sometimes breaks out with dark splotches of mold, gets examined weekly. Every 18 months, his mausoleum is closed while the body is immersed in a bath of glycerol and potassium acetate.

Explainer thanks Kim Brown of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Lisa Carlson of the Funeral Ethics Organization, and Joshua Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

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Correction, July 2, 2009: This article originally called cold storage at 40 degrees a “freezer.”