Laws Regarding Dead Bodies You Need to Know
Published May 29, 2020
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 that govern the disposal of a dead body. Here are the basic provisions every American should know:
1. Who Should Bury The 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 hold the body as a security deposit.
This practice is illegal. Undertakers 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.
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.
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, your plans won’t matter. The law gives preference to the personal wishes of the deceased over that of their next of kin. As long as it is within reason and does not violate public policy.
If the deceased’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 or next of kin.
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.