University of Louisville – Louis D. Brandeis School of Law professor James T.R. Jones’ article entitled “Body, Body, Who Gets the Body? The Resolution of Bodily Remains Cases” discusses fights over the remains of deceased people.
What do celebrity Anna Nicole Smith; Godfather of Soul James Brown; baseball immortals Ted Williams and Kirby Puckett; artist Mark Rothko; some United States service members killed in the Iraq War; and even the Reverend and Mrs. Billy Graham have in common? All have been the objects of disputes over who controls final disposition of their mortal remains. Those, in turn, have brought into public scrutiny an ancient legal issue – who decides the place and method of disposal of the bodies of the dead. From antiquity, the law was ordinarily careful to honor the written or oral directions of the deceased. If a decedent did not express a preference, then burial was determined by the surviving spouse, and if there were none by the next of kin.
The abstracted article reviews the various disputes involving those listed above, as well as some less famous individuals. It concludes attorneys strongly should encourage their clients to state, either in their wills or other written documents, their choice for burial arrangements. Lacking that, they at least orally should indicate their desires on that subject to their next of kin. Doing so can avoid unseemly post-mortem disputes which can turn what should be a solemn and dignified process into a circus-like sideshow event.