Previous month:
August 2015
Next month:
October 2015

September 2015

Lost Body, Wrong Corpse

On July 1, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio, a family arrived for the viewing of a deceased relative’s body. But when onlookers peered into Nivina Cargill’s casket, they found a Cargill’s clothes dressing the wrong corpse. Apparently, the Ohio funeral company, Smoot Funeral Services working out of Edwards Funeral Home, misplaced Cargill’s body and then displayed the wrong corpse for the private viewing. Traumatized, Cargill’s sister, Pamela Merrit, explained the family decided to sue for compensatory and punitive damages exceeding $25,000 to ensure this mix up does not happen again with a different family. Specifically, the family alleges abuse of a dead body, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, gross negligence, infliction of emotional distress and fraud.

Regarding abuse of a dead body, Ohio law provides that “No person, except as authorized by law, shall treat a human corpse in a way that the person knows would outrage reasonable family sensibilities.” In State v. Condon, the Ohio Court of Appeals addressed whether this abuse of a dead body occurred when an artist took photos of corpses in a morgue for purposes of an artistic analysis of death. The court held that “disrespectful treatment of the bodies was a sufficient affront to dignity for the jury to determine that there had been abuse of a corpse.” Though Smoot’s actions in Cargill’s case differ from the artist’s decision in Condon (as Smoot misplaced a body and inattentively replaced the missing body with a different body), the disrespectful treatment remains the same. The court in Condon explains, “Every citizen is generally aware of community strictures regarding the treatment of the dead. Such strictures are part of a shared sense of humanity.” This shared understanding within humanity likely includes the disrespect Smoot Funeral Services exhibited upon misplacing a body and preparing an incorrect body for viewing. 

Katie Ott

The Pursuit of Military Burials for Unclaimed Veteran Cremains

All across the country there are abandoned cremains sitting in funeral homes and hospitals. There has been a movement to take abandoned veteran remains and give them the proper military funeral they deserve. One of the largest organization that tracks down abandoned veteran remains is the Missing in America Project (the "Project"). The Project's mission is to locate, identify, and inter unclaimed veteran cremains in order to bury them with the honor and respect they deserve. To date, the Project has found over 12,000 cremains, identifying about 2,700 of those being veteran cremains, and interred over 2,500. 

In Nebraska, the only two members of Missing in America Project's Nebraska chapter, estimate that the ashes of hundreds of veterans go unclaimed each year. State law requires funeral homes to keep ashes for 60 days. After the 60 day waiting period and a "reasonable attempt" to contact family and friends, a funeral home can bury the remains, scatter them or throw them out. The members of the Project in Nebraska want to inform funeral homes that there's another option, and that is to hand over the remains to groups like theirs. The hope was that a new law would help convince funeral homes to hand over the unclaimed veterans ashes.

Nebraska passed the law in March which allows funeral homes and crematoriums to work with VA-affiliated groups like the Missing in America Project to identify unclaimed ashes of veterans or spouses, then turn them over if they qualify for interment in a veterans' cemetery. It was not illegal for funeral homes to turn over the unclaimed ashes before, but the new law protects them from liability if a distant family member shows up later. 

Bill Henry, one of the members of the Project's Nebraska chapter has said that the new law has not helped convince funeral homes to give him the unclaimed ashes. He says that funeral homes are still holding them and aren't really providing him with reasons why they are doing so. He said some have said they are still reviewing the new law and others have claimed to not have even heard about it. In order to make sure that everyone knows about the law and his organization he has mailed each of the nearly 300 funeral homes in the state and plans to visit each personally as fast as he can. With Henry's persistence hopefully many more veterans will get the dignified military funeral they deserve.

Emily Morris

Disrespecting the Dead

When former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013, citizens of the United Kingdom took to the streets, rejoicing in the demise of a polarizing figure.  While former Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned such behavior, pundits voiced opinions on whether respect for the dead is an outmoded concept, some arguing that people should be treated the same regardless of whether they are alive.  Would those who celebrated Thatcher's passing feel the same about persons who did not create such public vitriol during their lives or stick to the safety of tradition and say nothing but good of the dead?

Citizens of Arkansas likely have less to say on the subject of respect for Margaret Thatcher's passing, but for a father and son pair of funeral home owners, what citizens of Arkansas have to say regarding respect for the dead and the treatment of their remains could have a profound effect on the remainder of their lives.

Regulators found the earthly remains of persons entrusted to the care of Leroy Wood (86) and his son Rodney (61) stacked one on top of the other.  Other bodies were found stored outside of freezers.  The Woods' funeral home was shut down in January, and the pair were arrested on charges of corpse abuse in June along with Edward Snow, the day to day manager of the funeral home.  A jury trial is set to begin in February following a hearing in November.  In Arkansas, corpse abuse, a class C felony, is defined as physically mistreating or concealing a corpse "in a manner offensive to a person of reasonable sensibilities."

Does the stacking of bodies belonging to near and dearly departed members of a community offend a person of reasonable sensibilities and violate the sacred responsibilities entrusted to funeral directors? While the passing of celebrities and world leaders may result in unorthodox treatment, it is likely that deaths that touch closer to home engender different feelings.

Blaydes Moore

One Last Voyage—Death at Sea?

According to a story published by the Guardian on 27 August 2015, twin brothers from Brooklyn, NY want to take one final trip together.  However, this is no ordinary trip.  They hope that their trip will last until the end of their lives, and then they want to be cast overboard and have the sea be their final resting place.  This request is rather unusual, but not completely unheard of.  

Usually when considering how and where to treat the remains of our loved ones we often consider how we can respect their last wishes.  Ideally, people communicate their last wishes while they are alive.  "I want to be buried in the family plot" and "I want to be cremated," are two examples.   But in this case, will the law allow these two brothers burial wishes to be honored?  

In New England, funeral directors are licensed to conduct full body burials at sea.  When conducting burials at sea, these funeral directors typically have full day charters, and they must maintain compliance with EPA and Naval regulations, including the United States Coast Guard.  One such regulation describes how far off shore decedents may be buried (between four and eighty-five miles, and in at least 600 feet of water).  Additionally, decedents may be buried in a modified coffins or in shrouds.  

In the Guardian story, readers are not made aware of the specifics of the twin brothers requests, including whether they prefer coffins or shrouds.  But, there could be legal problems regarding where the brothers are at sea when they die and whether they can legally be buried anywhere in the ocean. Based upon the New England Burial at Sea standards, it appears that the brothers should consider asking a licensed funeral director to accompany them on their voyage.  Additionally, the brothers should consider having a plan for keeping their bodies until the boat can return within 90 miles of U.S. soil.  

Taylor Ey

Piece of Old City Hall Found in Abandoned Cemetery

Happy Hill Cemetery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina has been anything but “happy” throughout the last few decades.  Designed as a cemetery for the once thriving black community known as Happy Hill, the Cemetery has seen years of destruction beginning with the construction of U.S. Highway 52 in the 1950s that cut the cemetery in half.  The graves disturbed during the construction of U.S. 52 were reinterred in another cemetery.  Time and neglect took its toll on the Cemetery which quickly became an overgrown lot with lost and damaged headstones.  A group which calls themselves the Happy Hill Cemetery Friends meets every Saturday morning to help restore the Cemetery to its original condition, identify the graves, and determine which churches owned which portions of the Cemetery. 

It was on one of these Saturday mornings, in 2012, when men clearing the southern edge of the Cemetery discovered a carved piece of terra cotta molding roughly the size of a banker’s box.  After much research it was determined that the terra cotta piece belonged to the exterior molding of the now-demolished 1892 Winston Town Hall. By 1926 Winston Town Hall had been demolished to make way for the Reynolds Building which still stands on the corner of Liberty and Fourth Street today.   At the time, the Cemetery was an easy dumping ground for construction debris. 

Today there is debate over what should be done with this piece of Winston’s past. Some would like it displayed in City Hall, some would like it displayed in a museum, while others think it should be incorporated into the redesign of the Reynolds Building.  While these are all valid ideas, one unspoken question remains: who exactly owns the terra cotta molding and therefore, who can make the decision as to what to do with it.  The molding was originally part of a city-owned building but was later dumped and abandoned in Happy Hill Cemetery.  Happy Hill Cemetery itself has been abandoned and volunteers have yet to determine which churches own which portions of the cemetery.  Even if the Cemetery’s ownership was determined, most of the churches no longer exist.

North Carolina General Statute § 65-85(1) defines an abandoned cemetery as a cemetery “ceased from maintenance or use by the person with legal right to the real property with the intent of not again maintaining the real property in the foreseeable future.”  As the original property owners no longer exist it can be reasoned that Happy Hill Cemetery is abandoned as it is not being maintained by those with the legal right to the property and will not be maintained by those nonexistent churches in the foreseeable future.  It may also be deemed “neglected” as it was, “left unattended or uncared for through carelessness or intention and lacking a caretaker” (See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 65-85(5)). However, as the Happy Hill Cemetery Friends continue their work it may no longer be deemed “neglected.”

Under North Carolina General Statute § 65-113, the County Commissioners may choose to maintain and control abandoned cemeteries.  However, this statute only applies to public cemeteries and North Carolina General Statute § 160A-345 states that cemeteries “owned or controlled by any church or religious organization” cannot be condemned by the city nor can the city acquire title to the property unless “the owner of the property consents to the acquisition.”  As such, the city has no authority to direct the cleanup of the Cemetery and determine what is to be done with any debris found on the property.  Yet at the same time, the churches no longer exist and therefore cannot consent to the city acquiring control of the Cemetery.  As such, with the city being prohibited from acquiring the Cemetery and with the original owners no longer in existence, Happy Hill Cemetery has become a cemetery with no true owner.

Lindsey Rogers

Death Salon in Philadelphia, October 5-6th

I'm heading to Philadelphia in early October, so it was an easy decision to stay a few days in order attend my first Death Salon.

Death Salons are "[i]n the spirit of the eighteenth-century salon ... [an] informal gatherings of intellectuals [that] encourages conversations on mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history."  The fifth Death Salon will be held October 5-6 at the Mutter Museum, a 19th century medical oddities museum in Philadelphia. The salon will include presentations and panels on the following topics:

All of that, plus a walking tour on Sunday, October 4th to three 18th century cemeteries in Philadelphia!

Tanya Marsh

Funeral and Cemetery Law: A Suggested Reading List

If you're interested in learning more about funeral and cemetery law (and the modern industry), you could of course start with my books:

But there are a variety of other essential books that you should check out.

Lisa Carlson and Josh Slocum, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death (2011). A very user-friendly examination of the laws impacting the rights of decedents and their families to control the disposition of human remains.

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014).  An engaging insider's look at the modern funeral industry by a California funeral director who isn't afraid to challenge the status quo.

T. Scott Gilligan and Thomas F.H. Stueve, Mortuary Law (10th ed. 2003). The textbook used by mortuary colleges.
Mark Harris, Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (2008). Recognizing the growing interest in "green" alternatives to the consumptive American way of death, Harris demystifies the options and challenges.

Percival Jackson, The Law of Cadavers and of Burial and Burial Places (1950). Out of print, copies are expensive but worth it.

Gary Laderman, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (2005). A nice balance to the critiques by Doughty and Mitford of the modern funeral industry.

Gary Laderman, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 (1996). A solid history of the development of the funeral services industry in the United States.

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (2009). A lyrical and honest examination of the life of a modern funeral director.

Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (2000). The sharp, funny, and flawed classic critique of the American funeral industry.

David Charles Sloane, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (1991). The definitive history of cemeteries in the United States.

Marilyn Yalom, The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds (2008). Beautiful photographs of a variety of cemeteries in the United States.

What books would you include in this list?

Tanya Marsh

Florida Museum Occupies Former Cemetery Site

In the United States we seldom, if ever, associate cemeteries with fine art museums.  However, at one West Palm Beach, Florida museum they are one and the same. 

Long before the railroad reached West Palm Beach in 1894, local pioneers designated a piece of land two blocks west of the intercostal waterway as Lakeview Cemetery.  The cemetery interred its last resident in 1921, at which time Woodlawn Cemetery, located across the street, became the primary burial ground in West Palm Beach.  The Lakeside Cemetery Association donated the land to the city on the condition that no construction would occur on the site and that the land be used as a public park. 

Continue reading "Florida Museum Occupies Former Cemetery Site" »