We can help you understand what to do if you find human remains.
This advice applies mainly to what are called ‘articulated human remains’, meaning that the bones of a skeleton are in the same relative position to each other as they were when the person was alive, implying a deliberate burial.
Human remains principles
Human remains have a special position in ecclesiastical and secular law.
The basic principles are that:
- You should always treat human remains with dignity and respect
- You should not disturb burials without a good reason (e.g properly authorised development)
- Human remains and the archaeological evidence around them are important sources of scientific information
- You should give particular weight to the feelings and views of living family members
- You should make decisions in the interest of the public and in an accountable way
If you discover or think you will discover articulated human remains during your project, then include a competent professional archaeologist with experience in church archaeology on your team.
Disarticulated bones (other than charnel deposits) can be carefully collected by general contractors for reburial.
Human remains and permissions
You need a faculty before disturbing articulated human remains.
But you do not need an exhumation licence from the Ministry of Justice, unless the human remains are found outside the area where the legal effects of consecration apply (e.g. if a churchyard has been cut back by development).
If you need planning permission for your project, then the local authority may attach conditions about the archaeological treatment of human remains.
You need approval under the Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011 for works affecting human remains in or under the cathedral or within its precinct.
For work involving the disturbance or destruction of human remains, apply to the Cathedral’s Fabric Commission for England.
For more minor works, apply to your Fabric Advisory Committee.
You no longer need an exhumation licence from the Ministry of Justice, provided that you have already obtained approval under the Measure.
Get more help
Download our guidance for the treatment of human remains
Get advice on the technical issues
Get detailed advice on dealing with church and cathedral archaeology
Contact one of our officers for help