A Free Farewell: Providing Funeral Services to the Unclaimed, Unknown, or Indigent

What happens when a person passes with no family, no funds, or no known name?

In 2015, the Warren County Coroner’s office provided for 51 burials of such persons. In that county, it is the responsibility of the county coroner’s office to take physical control of any dead persons until either the bodies are claimed by a relation or friend or the bodies are left unclaimed.

Kevin Kirby, the Warren County Coroner, has overseen 32 of such burials in this year alone, three of which were considered unclaimed bodies. Coroner Kirby waits about two weeks before burying the bodies of any of the unclaimed or indigent persons, preserving the remains in the meantime. Because Kentucky law does not allow for Kirby to cremate the remains of unclaimed bodies without a family member’s consent, he instead must keep the unclaimed bodies preserved as-is until burial, which is more expensive than cremation.

Besides being responsible for county-assisted burials through his position in the coroner’s office, Kirby also runs a funeral home in the county, J.C. Kirby & Son, through which he is able to provide the “pauper” funeral service. Each county-assisted burial consists of a simple wooden casket for the remains and a graveside burial service, for which Kirby’s office receives a $475 reimbursement from the Bowling Green-Warren County Welfare Board; in addition, Kirby pays the city of Bowling Green $100 to dig the grave.

For the less common occurrence of unclaimed bodies or unknown persons, Kirby says that his office attempts to use all possible means to either identify the person or the deceased’s relatives before burial. For the increasingly more common indigent deceased, the county-assisted funeral and burial service provides the deceased and the deceased’s family members with a funeral rite that the deceased may have otherwise not been able to afford.

Giving each of these unclaimed, unknown, or indigent persons a traditional funeral and burial service seems to be sort of a ritualistic nod to the life of the deceased. According to Kirby, “[i]t’s sad that somebody has lived a life that nobody cares or we can’t find someone. . . . It’s somebody’s son or daughter. They belong to somebody somewhere.” While it is merely the responsibility of the Warren County Coroner to provide for the simple burial of the deceased, Kirby, as well as some others, seem to have extended the traditional funeral service to those deceased who either have no family attending or would not otherwise be able to afford a funeral service.

Sometimes, despite all the economic or legal burdens, the best way to honor the lived of the unknown or unclaimed is to keep tradition alive.

Nina Banfield

Bad Samaritan or Abuse of a Corpse

In Rockcastle County, Kentucky a couple was charged with abuse of a corpse after the two of them drove around with a corpse for more three hours. The couple and a friend were doing  drugs when the friend overdosed and died. The couple then drove around with the dead body for three or four hours. The couple did not take the overdosed friend to the hospital. Police estimate that the couple drove pass three hospitable on their way home. The body was found in a minivan and witnesses told police that they saw the body being dragged. 

As a general rule individuals are not required, by law,  to help someone that is in distress. The law does not require a person that could help another person to do so. Instead state have created statutes that encourage people to intervene when they witness someone in distress. Most statutes gives tort immunity to individuals who attempt to be good Samaritans. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-166 (giving tort immunity to any person that administers first aid at the scene of a motor vehicle accident); Ohio Rev. Code § 2305.23 (stating that no person shall be liable in civil damages for administering emergency care or treatment at the scene of an emergency). The Kentucky intervention law give people who report an overdose criminal immunity for their own drug use. 

KRS § 525.120 provides that  a person is guilty of abuse of a corpse when "he intentionally treats a corpse in a way that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities."  KRS § 525.120 (1). 

While this couple was not required by attempt to save the life of the friend that overdosed it is unclear  if the two of them abused the corpse considering the extremely subjective standard of "outrage family sensibility." In Smith v. Kentucky, 722 S. W. 2d. 892 (1987) the defendant was charged with the crime of abusing a corpse after having sex with the body of a woman that was recently murdered. Smith v. Kentucky, 722 S. W. 2d. 892, 895 (1987). In Smith it was clear that the defendant's action "outrage ordinary family sensibilities" but in the couples case driving from one city to the next with a dead person in the car may or may not rise to the level of abusing the corpse. 

The prosecutors may be using the abuse a corpse statute as a way to force drug users to report the overdoses that they witness. The case law does not support the law applying to drug users who out of fear do not take their friends to the hospital. Instead the law should apply to fact patterns similar to that in Smith.  The vagueness of "outrage ordinary family sensibilities" allows prosecutors to force witnesses to be "good Samaritans." 

Correll Kennedy

What Treatment of a Corpse will "Outrage Ordinary Family Sensibilities"?

On October 1, 2014, Goldia Massey of Cynthiana, Kentucky was reported missing by her son.  She was later determined to have died “on or about” September 21, 2014.  Upon her death, her body was sawed to pieces and dumped into the Kentucky River.  In October 2014, Massey’s arm was found along the river in Henry County and her torso was found that December along the river in Jessamine County.

In August 2016, the jury took less than three hours to find Paris Charles, a 60 year old handyman and former boyfriend of Massey, guilty of her murder and abuse of her corpse.  While sentencing will take place later this week, the jury recommended a 35-year sentence for murder and a $500 fine for abuse of a corpse.

Kentucky Statute §525.120 dictates that a person commits the crime of abuse of corpse when “he intentionally treats a corpse in a way that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”  It is a Class A misdemeanor unless the abuse involves sexual intercourse or “deliberate failure to prepare, bury, or cremate a corpse” after entering into a contract to do so.  In these cases, the abuse will be categorized as a Class D felony.

The case of Golida Massey clearly does not fall into the felony provision of the statute; there is no evidence of sexual activity with her corpse and the abuse did not happen as a result of a breach of contract.  Charles was convicted under the misdemeanor provision of the statute, which prohibits any treatment “that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”  What is an ordinary family sensibility?

While most will likely agree that sawing a corpse to pieces would “outrage ordinary family sensibilities,” this provision is extremely ambiguous.  America is composed of many religions and types of families.  Is there really an “ordinary family” that can be used to judge inappropriate treatment of human remains?

Had Massey's body been sawed up in another state, the criminal statute might have more definitively prohibited the behavior.  For example, some states prohibit “mutilation” of a corpse.  Illinois goes further and specifically defines the crime of dismembering a corpse as when an individual “knowingly dismembers, severs, separates, dissects, or mutilates any body part of a deceased’s body.”

Kentucky, however, is among many states that define abuse of a corpse only in terms of what would offend an ordinary family’s sensibilities.  While most jurors will likely consider sawing up your girlfriend’s body to offend ordinary sensibilities, what will happen when a defendant commits a slightly more subtle injustice to his girlfriend’s corpse?  Will ambiguous state statutes let him slip away unpunished?  What will happen when grieving loved ones perform a unique ritual as part of a religious tradition?  Will ambiguous state statutes criminalize their grief?  What really is an "ordinary family"?

Lauren Stovall

Is Reusing Graves Actually Wrong?

A post on Atlas Obscura focuses on a Kentucky cemeteries “over burial” of bodies.  The post provided a historical background of Eastern Cemetery, located in Louisville, Kentucky, which is one of the oldest cemeteries in the state, noting that it was the site of the first crematory in Louisville and that it was one of the first cemeteries to bury decedents of various races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds in the same area of the cemetery, rather than different sections.  However, the post goes on to state that “Eastern Cemetery has a dark past.”  Other than being a place where lots of dead bodies are buried, what exactly constitutes a dark past for a cemetery?  The post claims that it is over burial and the reuse of cemetery lots for new burials.  The post characterizes this conduct as “mistreatment of graves.”  But is reusing graves actually mistreatment?

Whether reusing graves is actually mistreatment really breaks down into two questions:

  1. Is reusing graves in the manner that Eastern Cemetery did illegal; and
  2. Based on historical practice and our societal notions of morality, is it morally wrong?

First, is this conduct actually illegal?  

The answer is a resounding maybe, depending on the cemetery’s conduct and what it told the people purchasing lots.  Kentucky law does contain an abuse of a corpse statute, which provides that “[a] person is guilty of abuse of a corpse when except as authorized by law he intentionally treats a corpse in a way that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.” KRS § 525.120(1).  So what exactly are normal family sensibilities?  The term is not defined by statute (although the Kentucky Crime Commission Commentary provides that the term is intended to include “any form of sexual contact, sexual abuse, physical abuse, gross neglect or mutilation”).  So it seems the answer to whether over burial is illegal really depends on the answer to the second question: is over burial or reuse of cemetery plots immoral.

Second, is reuse of cemetery plots immoral?

The answer appears to be: not really.  In Catholic Europe, it was common for Christians to be interred within a church building. This was in keeping with the Christian belief in being buried in consecrated ground while working around restrictions on burials within city limits.  See Tanya D. Marsh & Daniel Gibson, Cemetery Law 69 (2015).  The result of limited space, techniques such as grave recycling were often implemented.  Id.  Additionally, even where burial was used, the individuals buried did not own the plots in which they were buried.  Instead, the consecrated ground was the property of the church, and parish members simply had a right to be buried there (subject to approval by the church).

It was not until the United States was founded, and expressly rejected English ecclesiastical law, that individuals began to be considered to have any right in the plot of land in which they were buried.  It was not until the development of what Jessica Mitford described as “the American way of death” that the idea of a grave being dedicated to one individual in perpetuity became prevalent.  However, even after the American revolution, grave reuse was still practiced in cities where space was an issue.

As the American funeral industry developed, embalming became more common, and cemeteries started to require the use of vaults, the idea of a corpse that would be preserved for as long as possible seemed to become important as well, despite that historical tradition had embraced practices that still allowed decomposition.

So, in light of the history, can reuse of graves really be characterized as “mistreatment” sufficient to give a cemetery a “dark past.”  I would argue no; although in Kentucky it probably depends on the “family sensibilities” of the jurors you happen to draw.

Donald C. Morgan

Woman Destroys Eight Gravestones ... and Doesn't Have to Restore Them

Anita Ross was driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs when she crashed her Mercedes SUV into a Kentucky cemetery, knocking down eight gravestones.  As a result of this crash, Ross was charged with a DUI and criminal mischief while hospitalized.  Under Kentucky law, violation of graves, to include damaging the headstone or footnote of a grave, is a Class D felony.  Ky. Stat. Ann .§ 525.115(1)(b).  Under Ky. Stat. Ann. § 525.115(4), "the court shall order the defendant to restore the cemetery to its pre-damage condition."

However, this statute requires that the violation be intentional.  Thus, as Kentucky law currently stands, Ross would likely not face any felony charges specifically related to the damage to the cemetery because she was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and intent would be difficult to prove in a court of law.  In fact, she has not been charged with violating graves, but instead faces the more general charge of criminal mischief.  This charge will account for her reckless damage to "any property," as opposed to any specific damage to the cemeteries.  Ky. Stat. Ann. § 512.020.  

Ross' recklessness brings to light the concern for the preservation of cemeteries and dead bodies.  While Kentucky law recognizes a heightened level of punishment for damage to gravestones in § 525.115, likely in keeping with societal deference and respect toward the dead, this statute is too narrow to bring Ross into its realm because of the "intent" requirement.  Should Kentucky consider lowering the standard under § 525.115 so Ross can also be found guilty under this statute?  While § 525.115 attempts to punish damage to gravestones, in this case Kentucky law is too narrow to properly punish Ross for her actions.  However, she destroyed eight gravestones, and mowed over several flowers.  Despite the damage, a court is not compelled to order her to "restore the cemetery to its pre-damage condition" because she has not been charged with violating graves felony.  In a case such as this, where the suspect has faced two previous DUIs and has caused damage to eight gravestones, Ross should have to contribute at least some aid to restore the cemetery. 

Jasmine Little