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The Rights of the Dead

We don’t often think about corpse rights. And indeed, the dead have few explicit legal rights. The rights they do have are often in the common law and not explicitly stated or inscribed.

We believe that knowing you are able to make choices for your body—including what happens to it and who makes decisions after you no longer can—eases the fear of death. Especially in situations where your corpse may be vulnerable to abuse or actions that go against your wishes and desires.

As follows, your rights as a dead body:

The right to determine who has the legal right and responsibility over your body after your death.

As a general rule, the right to make decisions over your body (cremation or burial, embalming or not, religious or secular funeral service) will pass to your closest living relative. That may be great news, but it’s also possible your closest living relative is the last person you want making those vital, intimate decisions.

The good news is that in the majority of states, you have a statutory right to appoint your own designated agent to control your remains after death, and make funeral and disposition decisions. These “funeral planning declarations” and similar mechanisms permit you to designate your agent and give you the power to decide who will have the legal right and responsibility over your body after your death.

Each state has a slightly different method of achieving this, head here for a valuable state by state breakdown.

The right to a decent burial or cremation.

In cases of war or natural disaster, the far from ideal circumstances may determine how bodies are stored and disposed of. Learn some of those considerations by watching our video on Managing Corpses After a Natural Disaster.

But in times of peace, there is an expectation that all people should be given a decent burial in accordance with their religious or spiritual practices. If your family cannot afford one, a burial or cremation will be provided for you by the state. Be aware, however, that giving your body to the state for burial or cremation means your family may lose access to visiting the burial site (as happens in New York City) or lose the ability to claim the cremated remains (as happens in Los Angeles.). In addition, in most states, “unclaimed human remains” may be used in medical schools, mortuary colleges, and even chiropractic schools for anatomy and embalming lessons before they are finally laid to rest.

The right to determine how your remains are disposed of.

It sounds crude to say your dead body is “disposed of,” but disposition is actually the term used by the funeral industry (and the law) to describe the choice you or your family makes for what is done with your corpse.

As long as a disposition option is legal in your state and you have sufficient funds in your estate to pay for it, it is your right to choose it for your body. Cremation and burial are legal everywhere. Green or natural burial (burial without embalming or a heavy vault and casket) is also legal everywhere, though not every cemetery will choose to have a green burial section. Aquamation (also known as Alkaline Hydrolysis) is currently legal in 18 states, Natural Organic Reduction (or human composting) is only legal in 3 states, and open-air funeral pyres are currently only legal in one town in Colorado! It is important to check not only what disposal methods are legal in your area but also what methods are available (in the case of Aquamation, it is legal in more states than it is currently available in).

Remember though, that removing a body from the state for final disposition is a legal option in every state, so it may be possible, for example, to have your remains shipped from a state that hasn’t legalized Natural Organic Reduction to Washington. It is important to find a funeral director that will help you accomplish what you want.

The right to donate your remains.

If you chose to forego a relationship with the funeral industry and donate your remains, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act states a person has the right to make an anatomical gift at the time of death, including part or all of their body, for the purposes of scientific research, medical education, or organ transplantation. Do your research to make sure the medical school or private donation company you choose is aligned with your values before signing up to donate. Learn more about how to donate your bodies or organs.