Nat Turner’s Skull and My Student’s Purse of Skin - The New York Times

This month, Richard Hatcher, a former mayor of Gary, Ind., delivered what researchers suspect is the skull of Nat Turner, the rebel slave, to Turner’s descendants. The skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years. If DNA tests confirm that the skull is genuine, then Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest.


"There was an active market in skulls at the time of Turner’s death."

Indeed, there is an active market in skulls in 2016. I'm glad that the former mayor of Gary, Indiana returned the skull of Nat Turner to his descendants. But let's not lose sight of the broader mistreatment of the bodies of marginalized Americans - of the scores of human remains in museum warehouses, on the shelves of curiosity shops, and available via online listings. This is a broader issue that deserves public attention.

Tanya Marsh

Why should time with your pets be limited to your life? In New York, your time can now be FURever

As a pet owner and an animal lover, I have come to know that over their short lifetime, pets become a member of your family. When a pet dies, even if your family later decides to adopt a new pet, the void is never truly filled from your beloved friend. Approximately 62% of American households own a pet, so this grieving process is fairly widespread. People grieve the loss of their pets in many ways and have turned to various methods of memorializing them postmortem. Many people decide to cremate their pets after they have passed, keeping the ashes nearby in their home, but the question has remained as to what to do with the pets' cremains when the owner eventually passes.

072315_PlaqueMaker_NewItems_cat-granite-headstone-1On September 26, 2016, Governor Cuomo helped to answer this question by signing legislation that allows New Yorkers to be buried with their pets' cremains in not-for-profit cemeteries. The new bill (S.2582/A.2647) allows pet owners the option to have their domestic pets' cremains buried with them, so long as they obtain the cemetery's written consent, but this legislation does not apply to cemeteries owned and operated by religious associations and societies. The interment of the pet cremains needs to be incidental to the burial of the human remains; they can be placed in a niche, crypt or a grave with their human. Not-for-profit cemeteries now will need to provide customers with an itemized list of charges pertaining to their pet's burial and any payments that are made for the pet interment are to be deposited into the permanent maintenance fund of the cemetery. 

This new legislation does not come without a lot of mixed emotions from New Yorkers. While animals cannot be buried by themselves in the human cemetery, many people do not like the idea that animals can now be buried in a plot next to where their loved one is at their final resting place. Other people are concerned with the cost that can be attributed to the addition of the pet, since the price of a burial is expensive as it is. Ultimately, there has been overwhelming support for this legislation considering that people now feel, as pet owners and lovers, their final wishes can be honored.

Alexa Gaudioso

Discovery of Decomposing Bodies in FL Funeral Home Leads to Arrests

Callaway, Florida. Two funeral directors were arrested this summer after Bay County Sheriffs discovered sixteen corpses in various stages of decomposition throughout Brock’s Home Town Funeral Home.   At 5 PM on August 18, officers from the BCSO entered the funeral home and immediately noticed an abundance of flies buzzing throughout the funeral home. They soon realized that six bodies were being kept in the parlor of the funeral home without any refrigeration at all, causing the bodies to decay. There were an additional ten corpses being kept in the funeral home’s “cooler” at a temperature of sixty-two degrees. State law, however, requires that corpses be stored at temperatures not warmer than forty degrees. The funeral home had promised the families of the deceased either cremation or embalming services. However, “‘none of the bodies had been embalmed,’ officers wrote. ‘Those remains whose families requested cremation had not been cremated.’”

Following this grisly discovery, Gregory Dunphy, the funeral home’s director, and Felicia Boesch, the daughter of the home’s owner, were charged with 16 counts of unlawful storage of human remains.  Yet bringing charges against Dunphy and Boesch did not even begin to address the issues that now faced the families of the deceased.

Following the arrest of Dunphy and Boesch, responsibility for the bodies being held at Brock’s Home Town Funeral Home fell to local authorities.  Specifically, the 14th Judicial Circuit’s Medical Examiner’s Office was tasked with the arduous undertaking of “going through the paperwork for each of the deceased to see what the families wanted for their loved ones and honor those requests.” To make matters worse, many, if not all, of these families had to pay cremation or embalming fees a second time. According to local officials, “if another funeral home doesn’t step up to offer assistance, the families of the 16 deceased likely would have to pay out of pocket and then pursue relief through the civil courts.” Given the fact that Brock’s was “primarily a low-income funeral home,” these families were likely put under tremendous financial stress by this horrible turn of events.

In short, the Brock’s Home Town Funeral Home fiasco was nothing short of a nightmare for those involved and illustrates the importance of regulation of the funeral home industry so as to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.

George Kennedy

Funeral Home Mistake Leads to Cremation of Wrong Body

Over one hundred mourners viewed Val-Jean McDonald's body at her funeral at Union Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.  Her children thought she looked different than she had in life but rationalized that her cancer, final days spent in a hospital bed, and the embalming process had altered appearance.  Her grandchildren claimed that the woman in the coffin was not their grandmother.  The following day the family attended Ms. McDonald’s cremation at Woodlawn Cemetery.  Six days later McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home contacted the McDonald family and informed them that they had made a mistake.  Ms. McDonald’s grandchildren had been correct: Val-Jean McDonald was not in the coffin that day and her body had not been cremated, in fact the woman in the coffin was Annie Pearl Little.

Annie Pearl Little’s son, Donald Little, was informed of this tragic mistake on the day of his mother’s funeral.  The manager at McCall’s told him that they would have a closed casket because his mother got cremated.  He was told the mistake was made because “the other lady looked like your mother.”  Annie Pearl Little was to be buried with her husband, a Korean War Veteran who died in 2015 and was buried at Calverton National Cemetery, but that was no longer a possibility.  The Little family does not believe in cremation so cremation of Mrs. Little’s remains was never an option.  Since learning of the cremation, Mr. Little has experienced bad dreams about his mother being burned up and has visited a therapist multiple times.

Mr. Little plans to sue McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home for breaching his right of sepulcher.  New York courts have found that the right of sepulcher is the legal right of the surviving next of kin to find solace in comfort in the ritual of burial.  In Melfi v. Mount Sinai Hospital the New York appellate court found that for a right of sepulcher claim to accrue there must be interference with the next of kin’s immediate possession of the decedent’s body and the interference has caused mental anguish.  While Mr. Little’s claim appears to meet this standard, the McDonald family may not because they ultimately were able to cremate Ms. McDonald’s body as they intended.  It is unclear whether McCall’s faces any disciplinary action from the New York agencies that regulate the funeral industry. 

Elliott Harry

When Funeral Homes Don’t Do Their Job, Who Is Left To Pick Up The Pieces?

“We don't refrigerate bodies that are being cremated.”

This explanation as to why police found two decomposing corpses hidden under trash bags in an unlicensed West Philadelphia funeral home seems unconvincing, to say the least. Blair Hawkins, the owner of Hawkins Funeral Service, now faces probation on three counts of abusing a corpse: two counts for this infraction, and one for storing an embalmed body in a coffin in an unventilated room. Additionally, he was fined $100,000 by the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors, and (unsurprisingly) had his funeral director’s license revoked. Just how, one wonders, could Hawkins’ excuse be a valid one?

Simply put: it’s not. Under Pennsylvania state law, bodies must be refrigerated or embalmed within 24 hours of receiving them. The families of both bodies had been told cremation had already taken place—that is, until Hawkins called the brother of Harvey Vaughan, who was supposed to have been cremated two weeks earlier, and told him that more paperwork needed to be signed before the cremation could take place. After scraping together $2,300 to pay Hawkins for the alleged cremation, Vaughan’s family cannot afford to pay for a second cremation. His body was being stored at the local morgue until arrangements could be made.

Such “immorality,” as the State Board described Hawkins’ actions, illustrates how the funeral industry owes a moral duty not just to the bodies themselves, but to those who loved the body when it was alive. The status of a dead body as “human remains” provides more legal protection than that of property (you can’t be charged with “abuse of an armchair,” for example), yet less protection than that of a living being (despite being left to decompose and covered with garbage, there can be no charge of physical abuse here). The families of the bodies entrusted to Hawkins’ care are the real victims in this situation. They could seek relief through the civil judicial system for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a tort which Pennsylvania courts have recognized as a valid claim when a loved one’s body is intentionally or recklessly mistreated (see, for example, Moffatt v. Baird Funeral Home Inc.). However, this tort often falls short from providing families with the relief many believe is suitable for the pain and suffering caused by going through the grieving process twice.

This case, along with other gruesome tales of unlicensed funeral homes, demonstrates the ambivalent legal position that the funeral industry is in. As businesses, running a smooth operation is beneficial for the well-being of the company. As a service, however, running a smooth operation is vital for the community. The industry is intensely regulated in almost every state; however, the limited remedies available to those who have been victims of Hawkins, and the arguably light sentence that he received, illustrates the uncertain approach that the law has towards the industry when that regulation fails.

Charley Connor

Food as comfort: N.J. bill would end ban on refreshments at funeral homes

Would you like a coffee to go with your peppermint? Mourners in New Jersey will finally be able to enjoy food and other refreshments from the comfort of their local funeral homes. For decades, New Jersey funeral homes have been legally prevented from serving food and drink in funeral establishments. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D., Middlesex), the pending legislation will lift the ban and leave Pennsylvania as the only state prohibiting refreshments in funeral homes.

The purpose behind the bill is to provide additional comfort to mourners attending viewings, wakes, or funerals at a funeral home. As the deputy director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, Adam Guziejewski fully backs the legislation. Apparently, many funeral organizers and mourners in New Jersey have requested food or drink at such events, and Guziejewski has previously had to turn them away.

The law banning hors d’oeuvre in funeral homes in New Jersey was presumably enacted to protect the public health and keep food away from embalmed bodies. But the coming change signifies a move away from seeing bodies as unclean. In keeping with increasingly modern views on death, New Jersey mourners and the legislature need not fear cross-contamination between a dead body and any foodstuffs. Since 48 other states have enacted laws that allow food in funeral homes, New Jersey’s law should not cause any huge problems for funeral directors and mourners alike.

New Jersey, although late to the party, is not in bad company. New York and Massachusetts recently lifted bans disallowing food in funeral homes. In many funeral homes throughout the country, receptions or wakes are held in separate rooms from both the viewing room and the embalming room. New York's old-school opponents to serving food in funeral homes fear crumbs, losing business to event spaces, and lack of dignity for the dead. However, in other cultures, food is an integral part of providing comfort and feeding crowds of mourners. At the end of the day, New Jersey is overturning a ban that was perpetuated by naysayers. In practice, fears of crumbs and contamination of food by bodies are just that: fears.

Amelia Lowe

Cemetery Tourist: The Complicated History of The Lee/Custis Estate and Arlington National Cemetery

I visited Arlington National Cemetery this weekend.  It was a beautiful day but I cannot help but think about the complicated history of the place when I visit there.  The following text is excerpted from How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be, by Robert M. Poole in Smithsonian Magazine with photographs from my recent visit.  The first photograph is taken from the front yard of the Arlington House looking across the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building.  It was strategic high ground that the Union Army could not allow to remain in the hands of the general of Army of Northern Virginia—Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee, the step-great-granddaughter/adopted granddaughter of George Washington.
DSC03076"One afternoon in May 1861, a young Union Army officer went rushing into the mansion that commanded the hills across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. 'You must pack up all you value immediately and send it off in the morning,' Lt. Orton Williams told Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, who was away mobilizing Virginia's military forces as the country hurtled toward the bloodiest war in its history.
Mary Lee dreaded the thought of abandoning Arlington, the 1,100-acre estate she had inherited from her father, George Washington Parke Custis, upon his death in 1857. Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, had been adopted by George Washington when Custis' father died in 1781. Beginning in 1802, as the new nation's capital took form across the river, Custis started building Arlington, his showplace mansion. Probably modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, the columned house floated among the Virginia hills as if it had been there forever, peering down upon the half-finished capital at its feet. When Custis died, Arlington passed to Mary Lee, his only surviving child, who had grown up, married and raised seven children and buried her parents there. In correspondence, her husband referred to the place as "our dear home," the spot "where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world." If possible, his wife felt an even stronger attachment to the property. ...

Once the war began, Arlington was easily won. But then it became the prize in a legal and bureaucratic battle that would continue long after the guns fell silent at Appomattox in 1865. The federal government was still wrestling the Lee family for control of the property in 1882, by which time it had been transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's most hallowed ground. ...

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Mandatory Funerals for Fetal Remains: "Politics and dealing with reality are two different things"

I've written about this topic before, particularly with respect to the Indiana law enacted in 2015 and amended in 2016.  That law gives women who have abortions "the right to determine the final disposition of the aborted fetus."  Ind. Code Section 16-34-3-2(a).  It also requires a woman to fill out a form prescribed by the state indicating her decision regarding "the final disposition of the aborted fetus before the aborted fetus may be discharged from the abortion clinic or the health care facility." Ind. Code Section 16-34-3-2(a).  The law also defines the disposition methods permitted by law for aborted or miscarried fetuses of less than 20 weeks gestation.

Ind. Code Ann. § 16-34-3-4 Cremation or interment of aborted fetus; permit; certificate of stillbirth

(a) An abortion clinic or health care facility having possession of an aborted fetus shall provide for the final disposition of the aborted fetus. The burial transit permit requirements of IC 16-37-3 apply to the final disposition of an aborted fetus, which must be interred or cremated. However:

(1) a person is not required to designate a name for the aborted fetus on the burial transit permit and the space for a name may remain blank; and

(2) any information submitted under this section that may be used to identify the pregnant woman is confidential and must be redacted from any public records maintained under IC 16-37-3.

Aborted fetuses may be cremated by simultaneous cremation.

(b) The local health officer shall issue a permit for the disposition of the aborted fetus to the person in charge of interment for the interment of the aborted fetus. A certificate of stillbirth is not required to be issued for an aborted fetus with a gestational age of less than twenty (20) weeks of age.

(c) IC 23-14-31-26, IC 23-14-55-2, IC 25-15-9-18, and IC 29-2-19-17 concerning the authorization of disposition of human remains apply to this section.

Several reporters have examined Indiana's law in the past few months, putting it into the context of a national movement to change state laws regarding the disposition of human remains and to expand them to include all products of concepts, regardless of gestational age.  Traditionally, states have treated fetuses of greater than 20 weeks gestation as if they had been born alive for purposes of disposition—they receive a special kind of death certificate and are then treated the same as any other human remains.  States have traditionally been silent about the disposition of fetuses of less than 20 weeks gestation.  Two groups have objected to that bifurcation—women who suffered an early miscarriage and wanted to control the disposition of the fetal remains, and pro life groups who believe that life begins at conception and the 20 week gestation line deprived fetal remains of a dignified disposition.

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When Property Owners Want to Block Access to Graves—The Story of a Penn. Churchyard

There are times when we are proud of state from which we hail, there are times we are not, and there are times when it’s a mixed bag. This past August a suit was filed in my home state, Pennsylvania, concerning the visiting of a churchyard cemetery. According to the Reading Eagle, Paul and Jean Dovin acquired a small parcel of land along Twin Valley Road that contained an 18th century stone church, and now are refusing to let loved one’s visit their dead. In fact, the suit only allows for family members to enter the property in order to exhume the bodies to another site.  

AR-308119951The Dovin’s have been calling “trespass” on visitors like Barbra Miller, a mother whose 3-year-old son is buried in the cemetery. Is it trespass to visit the graves of the lost? It seems the legal issues here are built on a multitude of misunderstandings. The Dovin’s property is privately owned, but they purchased the land without the knowledge that the cemetery was still functioning. Additionally, the previous owners of the cemetery were selling plots without a license. So begs the question: is lack of notice combined with illegal plot exchange grounds for excluding family members from visiting graves?

Answering the question is much more difficult than asking it. It boils down to 3 parts the licensing, the private property, and the human remains. The licensing is the clear cut, under the  Pennsylvania Burial Ground Act individuals operating as cemeteries i.e. selling grave sites must be licensed through the state's Real Estate Commission as they are involved in buying and selling deeds. It is no surprise the Dovins were unaware of the operation of the cemetery because the state of Pennsylvania was unaware. Is that enough though? Can past transgressions allow for the discounting of the current victims, family and friends, that just want to honor the dead? Should they have the right to visit their dead regardless?

It certainly isn’t that simple. While it is understandable that the Dovins were surprised to learn the cemetery was still functioning, they were aware the property included a cemetery— and shouldn’t that put them on per se notice of visitors?  Private property should always be respected, but regardless of its stated ownership status, don’t cemeteries function as quasi-private property more so than traditional private property? The term quasi is malleable and difficult to define, but that is exactly what allows it to fit here so well. The land is privately owned, but bears with it an expectation and acceptance that loved ones will want to visit the graves of the deceased, regardless of past licensure issues or current licensure standing.

The term quasi-private property is also consistent with how the common law views human remains—not as property. The problem is that the remains eventually decompose into the real property. The question then remains (no pun intended), when if at all do human remains cease to be human remains and therefore once again can be considered real property for purposes of exclusion? One answer to this question is in the suit itself—the exhuming exception. Families are able to enter the cemetery to exhume loved one’s bodies implying that some type of human remains, at least in the law’s eyes, are still present. Making it then unclear if the Dovins have the right to force the remains off their property, not because they own the remains, but because they own the land on which the remains reside or does the per se notice of owning land with a cemetery trump the inclination to “clean house” regardless of if the private property right of exclusion exists?

The only thing that is clear is the need for clarity. While everyone, accept litigators maybe, prefer to handle things outside the courtroom the one good we can hope for from this suit is clarification on these conflicting questions. And may be some peace for the loved ones and land owners alike would be nice in the process as well.

Brandy Nickoloff

The 10 Iconic Cemeteries That Made Death Beautiful | Atlas Obscura

By the 19th century, church graveyards had a worse reputation than you might expect. In addition to their general doom and gloom, they were rife with body snatching, gambling, and prostitution. Add to that the fact that they were literally overflowing, sending decaying matter into water supplies and causing deadly epidemics, and you've got a real problem on your hands.


Thank you, Atlas Obscura, for putting together a checklist of cemeteries to visit for us.