What are the rights of dead people?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 14 2002 5:45 PM

Habeas Corpses

What are the rights of dead people?

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Partly in response to Jessica Mitford's muckraking in The American Way of Death, the Federal Trade Commission enacted regulations to prevent blatant fraud in the funeral industry. But because state criminal laws don't treat the abuse of dead bodies as a property crime, as in Georgia's Tri-State case, whole areas of corpse malfeasance are not criminalized at all: Marsh has been charged only with fraud because failure to cremate isn't a crime in Georgia. Some states provide for oversight and inspection of cemeteries and funeral homes, some don't. Different states have wildly divergent regulations about the scattering of ashes, the legality of cryogenic freezing, and the permissibility of stacking corpses, to name just a few. Some states prohibit abuse of the corpse, some criminalize mutilation of the corpse, some states expressly outlaw necrophilia, but there is no consistent and coherent body of law pertaining to bodies.

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Families whose loved ones have been recovered in Georgia describe the violation and horror of fraudulent cremations (and the discovery that they have an urn full of burnt wood chips on their mantle) as worse than a second death. Even if it's true that these survivors are suffering from nothing worse than a lack of closure, and even if the dead don't much care anymore, one measure of any civilized society is how they treat their dead. In Sophocles' Antigone,the title character defies the king and gives her brother a decent burial because it's a right ultimately protected, as she says, "by the gods." Antigone understood, and we should too, that you should always be nice to dead people. After all, the next dead person you meet might just be yourself.

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