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October 2013

September 2013

Grave Desecration in Michigan

In early September, a vandal or vandals knocked down and/or broke more than forty headstones in Goodrich Cemetery, a historic cemetery in Bruce Township, Michigan.  Many of the headstones belonged to veterans of the Civil War. 

Grave desecration demonstrates some of the best and worst of humanity.  Why would anyone cause such senseless damage to memorials to the dead?  Yet community volunteers have begun to repair the damage and the National Guard is expected to assist restoration efforts in the next few weeks.

If the vandals are caught, they could be facing some stiff fines and jail time of up to 10 years, depending on the amount of damage.  Michigan has a powerful law to discourage the willful destruction of memorials of the dead. 

Tanya Marsh


Maryland's New Slayer Law is Incomplete

A new law, named to honor murder victim Ann Sue Metz, set to go into effect in Maryland on October 1st will disqualify anyone who "feloniously and intentionally kills, conspires to kill, or procures the killing of the decedent" from inheriting or otherwise benefitting from the death of that decedent.  This type of law, referred to as a "Slayer Statute," partially addresses a tragic problem, caused when one family member murders another and then stands to financially benefit from their crime.  However, it neglects to address a related problem -- the person responsible for the death may have priority under state law to arrange the disposition of the decedent's remains, including the funeral and burial or cremation.  

Maryland General Health Statute § 5-509 provides that if a decedent over the age of 18 did not execute a document expressing their wishes with respect to the disposition of their remains, the following persons have the right to make such arrangements, in the following priority:

  1. The surviving spouse or domestic partner of the decedent;
  2. An adult child of the decedent;
  3. A parent of the decedent;
  4. An adult brother or sister of the decedent;
  5. A person acting as a representative of the decedent under a signed authorization of the decedent;
  6. the guardian of the decedent at the time of the decedent's death, if one had been appointed for him; or
  7. in the absence of any of the above, any person willing to assume responsibility.

There is no exemption in § 5-509 for persons who feloniously and intentionally cause the death of the decedent.  It makes sense that we should prohibit those who commit murder from ecconomially benefitting from that act.  It is also makes sense that they should be prohibited from arranging the funeral and final disposition of the person whose life they took.  Unfortunately, in most states, there is no law which prohibits the murderer from arranging the funeral they caused.

Tanya Marsh


New York to Allow Human Cremains in Pet Cemeteries

Billed as "America's first pet cemetery," Hartsdale Canine Cemetery in Westchester, New York was established in 1896 as the final resting place of beloved pets.  In the past 117 years, over 80,000 pets have been buried at Hartsdale, as well as the cremains of approximately 700 humans. 

In 2011, retired NYPD officer Thomas Ryan died and his niece attempted to have his cremains buried in Hartsdale, alongside the remains of his wife, Bunny, and the couple's three Maletese dogs.  But the New York Department of State, which had turned a blind eye to the burials of human cremains in Hartsdale for the previous 90 years, objected.

After a two year battle, New York relented and issued a regulation this week which will permit the state's seven pet cemeteries to inter human cremains. 

This development may seem silly, but the cemetery industry, acknowledging the close relationships between people and their pets, has been experimenting with different ways to accomodate human wishes to be near their pets for eternity.  The more mainstream solution has been to dedicate a portion of a human cemetery for pets, or permit pets in a human cemetery.  But why not allow human remains in a pet cemetery?  (Stephen King's cautionary tale notwithstanding.)

h/t Chris Knott

Tanya Marsh


Welcome to The Funeral Law Blog!

My name is Tanya Marsh and I am an Associate Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.  I research, write, and teach the laws of the status, treatment, and disposition of human remains in the United States.  In other words -- funeral and cemetery law. 

I'm interested in how our system of laws developed, what our cultural practices are, and how the two interrelate.  Funeral and disposition practices in the United States are changing rapidly, and in this blog I hope to discuss those changes and how the law responds or doesn't respond.

This may sound like a morbid blog.  I don't see it that way.  Death obviously isn't a pleasant topic, but it will eventually claim us all.  I think we're all better off if we can talk about it and make sure we have a system of laws that makes the process easier instead of more difficult or costly.

Tanya Marsh