Laws Regarding Dead Bodies You Need to Know
Published April 21st, 2021
The experience of death is universal to all mankind. We all have someone we know who has passed away. And we know that at some point, we too will follow them.
Most of the time, the death of a person is more than just a personal or family affair. It also concerns the health and welfare of the community. This is why in almost all territories around the world, there are laws regarding dead bodies. In particular, the proper handling and disposal of a person’s remains.
In the US, there are both federal and state laws regarding dead bodies and their disposal. Here are the basic provisions every American should know:
1. Who Has The Right to a Dead Body?
There is no universal law that dictates who should bury a person’s remains. But by common law and in the absence of a written will, that right automatically falls on the surviving spouse. When the said spouse is unwilling to or barred by law to possess the body, it will go to the next of kin.
If two relatives having the same degree of kinship both lay claim on the body, their personal relationship to the deceased will be considered. In some cases, a friend who is not related by blood may also be given the right to bury the body.
2. Holding the Body as Security Deposit
Funeral costs can be expensive and some families do not have the financial capacity to pay it on the spot. To make sure they get paid, some undertakers and funeral homes hold the body as a security deposit.
This practice is illegal. Funeral homes are not allowed to retain a dead body as a security deposit for unpaid funeral expenses. In particular, they cannot keep it under the condition that it will be released only when payment is made.
3. Regulations on Autopsies
Depending on the cause of the person’s death, the coroner may be called on to perform an autopsy. For those who don’t know, an autopsy is an examination performed on the corpse to determine the cause and circumstances surrounding a person’s death. This is particularly helpful if the person is suspected to have died of unnatural causes.
Autopsies and post-mortem examinations are regulated by both federal and state laws. They can only be performed under the direction of the officer in charge and with the written consent of an authorized person. But if the autopsy is due to legal reasons, the law allows autopsies to be carried out even without the approval of concerned parties.
The hospital or medical personnel also cannot order the removal of a tissue or organ from the body without consent from the next of kin or the health care representative.
4. Fulfillment of the Deceased’s Wishes
You may have plans for the burial of your loved one. But if they have left behind a will with funeral instructions, your plans won’t matter. The law gives preference to the dead person’s wishes over that of their next of kin. As long as it is within reason, won’t cause any personal injury, and does not violate public policy. You can talk to the funeral director to ensure that the deceased’s funeral instructions are carried out as ordered.
If the dead person’s wishes cannot be fulfilled for some reason and the family cannot unanimously agree on a burial plan, the court can settle it. In such cases, the court will usually honor the wishes of the surviving spouse, next of kin, or the health care representative.
5. Failure to Properly Dispose of a Body
When the person authorized by law fails to dispose of the body properly, it already constitutes a crime. The same is also true if they fail to report a death or did not report the disposition of a body.
By law, proper disposal of the body means following health and government protocols on burial or cremation.
6. When the Federal Government Pays for Burial Expenses
Federal regulations dictate that the government may pay for the funeral expenses of certain persons. This includes:
persons dying on or in federally owned property or facilities;
federal employees who die in the line of duty
employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service who die while in a foreign country in the line of duty
The Secretary of State may also provide for the care and burial of prisoners of war and interned enemy aliens who die while in government custody.
7. Burial at Sea
Burial at sea ceremonies are covered by state laws and the rules and regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In general, you’ll only need a general permit to conduct sea burials provided that:
- you’re burying human remains more than three nautical miles from shore
- you’re not burying non-human remains (pets and animals)
- you’re using biodegradable materials that will easily melt in water and won’t harm marine life
If the sea burial ceremony contradicts any of the above provisions, you’ll need a special permit. But the EPA rarely issues this type of permit so it’s best to avoid such scenarios.