Urban Death Project

Blogging my Funeral and Cemetery Law class

Today is the first day of the Fall semester at Wake Forest University School of Law. Tomorrow I will begin teaching Funeral and Cemetery Law, a three credit course, for the third time. The course description from the syllabus is as follows:

This course will examine the laws governing the status, treatment, and disposition of human remains in the United States.  These laws fall into eight categories:  (1) the legal status of human remains; (2) the rights of the decedent; (3) the right and/or duty to possess human remains before initial disposition; (4) the regulation of funeral directors and funeral homes; (5) methods of disposition; (6) disinterment; (7) right and/or duty to possess human remains after initial disposition; and (8) cemeteries.

This is not a new area of the law – rules regarding the treatment and disposition of human remains date to prehistory – but it is an area of the law that has not been comprehensively studied.  By engaging in this course, you will contribute to two efforts:  to describe the law of human remains, and to identify normative goals that this body of law should attempt to achieve. 

Our efforts in this course will integrate many other substantive areas of law:  Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Torts, Criminal Law, Regulatory Law, Environmental Law, and Legal History, among others.

Each time that I have taught Funeral and Cemetery Law has been different from the previous semesters. This year, I am partnering with Katrina Spade and the Urban Death Project so that my students have the opportunity to research and apply the law to a real problem - the feasibility of the Urban Death Project in various states. Students will be assigned a state and, as we discuss different legal doctrines, students will research the statutory and common law applicable in their state to the feasibility of the Urban Death Project. In particular, we will discuss effectuating decedent intent, definitions of funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematories, licensure requirements, body handling requirements, and prohibition on the mistreatment of human remains.

I've recently received a few e-mails from people interested in taking this class on-line. That isn't an option (yet), but I've decided to try to blog the class instead. After each class session, I will post a blog entry that summarizes the material presented. I will also post upcoming assigned reading so blog readers can follow along with the class.  All assigned reading will be in The Law of Human Remains or Cemetery Law: The Common Law of Burying Grounds in the United States. Any reading outside of those books will be posted or linked.  Please feel free to ask questions via the comment feature!

Tanya Marsh