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Is a will the last word on ashes? 2019

Wills are funny things. They can be as eccentric as the people who make them. Think of Jonathan Jackson, who set aside a small fortune in his will for the construction of a mansion for cats. Or Houdini, who asked his wife to conduct a séance each year on the anniversary of his death. We as people are often odd, and our wills often reflect that.

So, what do you do if someone close to you has left some bizarre instructions for their ashes in their will? Do you have to follow it through? And can you use your will to make your own weird wishes a reality? Let’s see.

Do you have to follow the instructions for ashes in a will?

No, although an attempt should be made to do so if it’s possible. Funeral wishes aren’t legally binding. This might seem a little unfair on the will writer, but it does mean that if a family member has requested the impossible (“I want William Shatner and Henry Winkler to dress up in lederhosen and scatter my ashes where the Sound of Music was filmed,” say) you don’t have to follow through with it.

An ordinary example of this might be if a family member has requested that their ashes be buried on a property the family no longer owns. A recent (less typical) example would be Moors murderer Ian Brady, whose wish to have “Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique” played at his funeral was overridden by a judge.

So, why aren’t funeral wishes legally binding? This is partly down to the old legal precedent that there’s “no property in a corpse”. You can’t own a human being when they’re alive, so you can’t own them when they’re dead, either. If you don’t own your body, you can’t dispose of it as property in your will.

But what happens if there’s a dispute?

In cases where family members disagree about what should happen to the ashes (one side of the family are massive Liverpool fans and insist that they are scattered at Anfield for example) then there is a tie-breaker in place in UK law.

While a person can’t own ashes, theirs or someone else’s, the ashes can be claimed by whoever has the primary responsibility to arrange the funeral. If there’s a will, the executor of the will has this responsibility. If there isn’t a will, then the person who is deemed the closest relative (based on intestacy rules) has the final say. This is usually the spouse, or if there’s no living spouse, the children.

I want my family to do something specific with my ashes. What should I do?

If you feel really strongly about what should be done with your body or ashes when you die, I’d recommend:

  • Making a will. Even if your funeral wishes aren’t binding, you can choose an executor you trust to follow your instructions. If time and money is an issue, you can make your will online now in about 15 minutes. It’s just £90 for a single will or £135 for couples at Beyond. Without a will, the person in charge of your ashes will be decided by intestacy rules, which may not match your wishes.
  • Writing a letter of wishes to go with your will. Include all the things you want for your funeral/ashes here. But be reasonable! Don’t ask for something that your family couldn’t afford or that would get them arrested and/or sued by William Shatner.
  • Potentially buying a funeral plan. This is when you pay for your own funeral ahead of time. Your family don’t have to use the plan, but its existence will give them a powerful financial incentive to do so.
  • Talking to your family and friends. A lot of people find this incredibly hard to do, but it’s worth it. You can be sure that they know what you want, and you have a chance to explain your reasoning. Meanwhile, your loved ones won’t have to worry about what your wishes might be when the time comes.

*I came across this picture some time ago and wondered how I could weave it into an ashes blog ©Forbes.com

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