Who owns a body after death?
A body is not capable of being owned. However, the responsibility to dispose of the body depends on whether or not there was a will and, if so, its terms.
Where there is a will, the responsibility to dispose of the body falls to the executors named in the will in the first instance. After that, the responsibility would pass to any residuary beneficiaries named in the will.
However, where the deceased didn’t leave a will, the person with the greatest right to take out a grant of letters of administration can take possession of the body. The hierarchy, set out in rule 22 of the Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987, is as follows:
- the surviving husband or wife;
- the children of the deceased and grandchildren in the case of a deceased child;
- the mother and father of the deceased;
- blood-related brothers and sisters, and niece or nephew in the case of a deceased sibling;
- grandparents; and
- blood-related uncles and aunts and cousins in the case of a deceased uncle or aunt.
What happens if there’s a dispute about where a body should be buried or a dispute about where to scatter the ashes?
When the family or loved ones can’t agree about where to bury a body, scatter the ashes or generally about the funeral arrangements, the court can be asked to make the decision and impose different arrangements
While court proceedings should be a last resort, often these disputes need to be determined quickly, especially where one party has already taken steps to make arrangements for the funeral, burial or disposal of the ashes. As such, seeking legal advice at the earliest opportunity is crucial.
When asked to determine a dispute, the court will usually consider the following factors:
- the deceased’s wishes;
- the reasonable requirements and wishes of family and friends who are left to grieve;
- the place the deceased was most closely connected with; and
- ensuring that the body is disposed of with respect and without delay.
The last of these factors is the one on which the court usually places most weight in making its decision.