The American legal system usually doesn’t trouble itself with questions about the rights of the deceased. Most living people have a hard time obtaining legal representation, so giving the dead, who can’t give consent, a voice sounds like a futile use of resources. If a problem does arise around a person who is departed, the deceased typically have relatives who can pursue criminal charges or raise wrongful death claims. So what kind of issue could prompt attorneys to exhume such issues?
In 2004, a widow in Connecticut named Elise Pique was told by most of the city’s cemeteries that they had no room for her late husband. The widow decided, with the help of a licensed funeral director, to bury her husband in the backyard of the property they had owned together. She also had plans to interment herself alongside him when her time came. However, the following year, Pique received a notice from the city to cease and desist the burial. She filed a suit in response, only to lose in trial court. The Appellant’s Court threw the case out, citing that she had not exhausted all her other administrative remedies, such as petitioning for an exemption. Pique’s case is now being appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
On its face, the story sounds like a typical fight between individual property rights and city zoning/health regulations. Interesting stuff, but Pique’s lawyer has another fear which holds deeper legal issues: Pique, as an elderly woman, may pass away soon, leaving the Piques defenseless if the city decides to move their bodies against Mrs. Pique’s wishes. However, the city may be able to do so, as the basis of Pique’s lawsuit was grounded in property rights. When Mrs. Pique passes away, the issue of those property rights against the city’s right to establish zoning laws becomes moot.
Still, the idea that cities can move a person’s body against his or her express wishes simply because that person can no longer speak for themselves seems like a violation of some sort of right, even though legally the dead do not have any identifiable rights. After all, if the government is required to ask for our permission before taking our organs upon death, then something must be stopping the living from treating the dead like garbage to be taken to a landfill.
Granted, the dead can’t have rights like the living. Certain rights, like the right to vote, end once we do. Furthermore, the dead do not have anything else tied to the concept of rights: individuals with rights also have duties and responsibilities. The right to trial by a jury of your peers, for example, comes with the duty to serve on a jury so that someone else can have his right enforced.
The question remains though: once a person dies, who has the right to oversee that person’s body, if anyone? I don’t think it is reasonable to assume the state should, as the state is frequently challenged when it attempts to regulate or control a human body. Issues ranging from abortion to organ donation demonstrate that state oversight of the human body at any stage of life (or close to life) is questionable.
Living relatives might be a good candidate for custodians of a human body after life. Assuming that the persons were close, relatives might know the person’s mind better than anyone else. Certainly the Pique case demonstrates this: Mrs. Pique is in charge of her husband’s physical body in the absence of Mr. Pique’s presence.
However, allowing living relatives to bear the rights of a person’s body after death raises other issues. Living relatives are not always perfect representatives of the person’s will. As independent people, relatives do have interests outside of the deceased’s wishes. What if the person does not have any relatives who might come forth to claim the body? What if two or more relatives of the same pedigree, such as a wife and a mother, are in conflict about the corpse’s status?
Perhaps it might be best to just follow a person’s instructions after death. There’s no second guessing about what that person might have wanted and no dispute as to whose interests the instructions actually serve. Sadly, the two problems here are twofold: First, the person may not have left directions or may not have anticipated the questions raised upon their passing. Second, as the Pique story demonstrates, those instructions might be ignored anyway.
This is why Elise Pique’s story is a moving one: The case demonstrates the integrity of the human body regardless of other matters. Such integrity for the human body ought to be maintained except in the most suspect of circumstances.