Who owns cremation ashes (Part I)

Who owns cremated ashes?

We have trawled through case law to find the answer of one of the most common queries to Scattering Ashes

Who owns cremation ashes:  You can’t own them

This is why we have called it part 1, because the answer is brilliant and useless by the same measure. You can’t own them because common law appears to say that they are the same as the person or a body, who thus can’t be owned.  However this it an entirely different to…

Who has the right to possess cremation ashes? A different answer, but not a simple one

Now please don’t take this as opinion from a lawyer, it is what we surmised from the case law (the most relevant part of  judgement we have extracted and pasted at the bottom of the page – we think this isn’t breaking copyright law).

The right to possess the ashes is likely to be “the executor*, or whoever was at the charge of the funeral” or basically the person whom has the contract with the funeral director.

* not to be confused as the executor of the Will

It also appears that the theft of the ashes is not necessarily a crime, yet theft of the urn is!?

What we don’t know:

  • What the right to possess means in this respect – is there responsibilities as well as rights,  for example are they allowed to scatter the ashes? Probably.

What amazed us was that there seems to be no specific case law on this. We will keep looking.

Lastly to make it absolutely clear – this is our opinion and is not legal opinion and should not be cited or considered as such.

Case law extract with full detail of the case at the bottom.

 

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  1. A human corpse
  1. In his Institutes of the Laws of England, mostly published in 1641, after his death, Sir Edward Coke wrote (3-203) that the “buriall of the Cadaver is nullius in bonis [in the goods of no one] and belongs to Ecclesiastical cognizance”. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in 1765, Sir William Blackstone wrote (15th ed, 1809, Book II, Ch. 28, pp 428-9) that:

“…though the heir has a property in the monuments and escutcheons of his ancestors, yet he has none in their bodies or ashes; nor can he bring any civil action against such as indecently at least, if not impiously, violate and disturb their remains, when dead and buried. [But] if any one in taking up a dead body steals the shroud or other apparel, it will be felony; for the property thereof remains in the executor, or whoever was at the charge of the funeral.”

There were at least three reasons for the rule that a corpse was incapable of being owned. First, in that there could be no ownership of a human body when alive, why should death trigger ownership of it? Second, as implied by Coke and Blackstone, the body was the temple of the Holy Ghost and it would be sacrilegious to do other than to bury it and let it remain buried: see for example, In Re Estate of Johnson 7 NYS 2d 81 (Sur. Ct. 1938). Third, it was strongly in the interests of public health not to allow persons to make cross-claims to the ownership of a corpse: in the words of Higgins J in his dissenting judgment in Doodeward v. Spence in the High Court of Australia, (1908) 6 CLR 406, there was an “imperious necessity for speedy burial”.

  1. Hence the decision of Kay J in Williams v. Williams [1882] 20 Ch D 659. By codicil to his will the deceased directed that his executors should give his body to Miss Williams; and by letter he requested her to cremate his body under a pile of wood, to place the ashes into a specified Wedgwood vase and to claim her expenses from his executors. After the body had been buried at the direction of the executors, Miss Williams therefore caused it to be dug up and (because cremation was not lawful in Britain until 1902) it was sent to Milan and cremated; and she caused the ashes to be placed into the vase. Then she claimed her expenses from the executors. Kay J dismissed her claim. He held that there was no property in the corpse; that therefore a person could not dispose of his body by will; and that Miss Williams therefore had no right to cause it to be dug up and taken abroad for cremation.
  1. It is well recognised that in the twentieth century the High Court of the Commonwealth of Australia has made a vast contribution to the development of the common law. But its authority was to reverberate in an area perhaps nowhere more surprising than that which was the subject of its decision in Doodeward cited above. The body of a still-born two-headed baby was preserved in spirits by the doctor who had been attending its mother; upon the doctor’s death it was sold and later came into the possession of C, who exhibited it for profit as a curiosity. D, a police officer, seized it with a view to its burial. C’s action for detinue succeeded. Griffith CJ said:

“[W]hen a person has by the lawful exercise of work or skill so dealt with a human body or part of a human body in his lawful possession that it has acquired some attributes differentiating it from a mere corpse awaiting burial, he acquires a right to retain possession of it …”

Although evidently disgusted by C’s exhibition of a “dead-born foetal monster”, Barton J agreed. Higgins J dissented on the footing that there could be no ownership of a human corpse.

Parts of a human corpse

  1. In relation to parts of a human corpse our courts have recently built upon the exception, recognised in Doodeward, to the principle that there can be no ownership of a human corpse.
  1. First there was the decision of this court in Dobson v. North Tyneside Health Authority and Another [1997] 1 WLR 596. In carrying out a post mortem examination on a woman who had died of a brain tumour a pathologist removed her brain and fixed it in paraffin, pending a possible further examination of it which in fact was never conducted. It was delivered to D2’s hospital for storage. The rest of the woman’s body was buried. Two years later the next of kin sought to examine the brain for the purpose of securing evidence supportive of their action in negligence against D1. The brain could not be found so they sued D2 for having destroyed or mislaid it. Their appeal against the striking out of their action against D2 was dismissed. In giving the only substantive judgment Peter Gibson LJ held, at 600H – 602A, that the decision in Doodeward was (at least arguably) correct; that, however, the fixing of the brain in paraffin had not been on a par with preserving it for future use as a commercial exhibit; that it had not been necessary for the pathologist to have continued to preserve the brain at any rate following the inquest; and that it had never become the “property” of the next of kin or something of which they were otherwise entitled to possession.
  1. The issue was also addressed in the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, in R v. Kelly and Lindsay [1999] QB 621. The defendants appealed against their conviction (and sentence) for theft of human body parts which had been preserved or fixed and had come into the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons, by which they had been used in training surgeons. Their appeals against conviction, founded upon a submission that body parts could not be property and thus the subject of theft, were dismissed. In giving the judgment of the court Rose LJ said in a valuable passage at 630G – 631E:

“We accept that, however questionable the historical origins of the principle, it has now been the common law for 150 years at least that neither a corpse nor parts of a corpse are in themselves and without more capable of being property protected by rights: see, for example, Erle J., delivering the judgment of a powerful Court for Crown Cases Reserved in Reg. v. Sharpe (1857) Dears. & B. 160, 163 …

If that principle is now to be changed, in our view, it must be by Parliament, because it has been express or implicit in all the subsequent authorities and writings to which we have been referred that a corpse or part of it cannot be stolen.

…[But] parts of a corpse are capable of being property within section 4 of the Theft Act 1968 if they have acquired different attributes by virtue of the application of skill, such as dissection or preservation techniques, for exhibition or teaching purposes: see Doodeward … and Dobson … where this proposition is not dissented from and appears … to have been accepted by Peter Gibson L.J.; otherwise, his analysis of the facts of Dobson’s case … would have been, as it seems to us, otiose …

Furthermore, the common law does not stand still. It may be that if, on some future occasion, the question arises, the courts will hold that human body parts are capable of being property for the purposes of section 4, even without the acquisition of different attributes, if they have a use or significance beyond their mere existence. This may be so if, for example, they are intended for use in an organ transplant operation, for the extraction of DNA or, for that matter, as an exhibit in a trial. It is to be noted that in Dobson’s case, there was no legal or other requirement for the brain, which was then the subject of litigation, to be preserved …

 

 

England and Wales Court of Appeal (Civil Division) Decisions

B e f o r e :

LORD JUDGE, LORD CHIEF JUSTICE OF ENGLAND AND WALES
SIR ANTHONY CLARKE, MASTER OF THE ROLLS
and
LORD JUSTICE WILSON

____________________

Between:

JONATHAN YEARWORTH and others                                         Appellants

– and –

NORTH BRISTOL NHS TRUST                                                      Respondent

____________________


Hearing dates: 24 and 25 November 2008

 

 

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15 thoughts on “Who owns cremation ashes (Part I)

  1. Reply
    Ann Freemantle - 15th November 2018

    Hello my name is Ann my daughter passed away 4yrs ago and was cremated I was planning to bury her ashes with my mum. My enquiry is a friend was looking after her ashes for me. On Saturday she sent me a message telling me she has scattered the ashes in the sea against my permission is there any thing I can do about this as this has left me heartbroken al l over again.

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 15th November 2018

      Dear Ann
      How very sad, that is awful. There is I would think there is very little you can do, certainly nothing about the ashes themselves. I am guessing you were wondering if if there is punitive action that you could take against your friend. It might be possible to bring a civil case against that person, depending whether you can prove they acted against your wishes and they were only holding the ashes in trust, even then you may get nowhere. I do know it will be expensive and cause more heartache. We can recommend some solicitors if that would help. I am sorry I can’t be more positive.
      Best wishes
      Richard

  2. Reply
    Karen polden - 11th July 2018

    My father passed away and the executor (my uncle,his brother) has his ashes….I am his nxt of kin his oldest daughters…my uncle has given some ashes to my sisters who haven’t seen my father in 50 yrs…can I do anything about this,it was my uncle who signed the funeral arrangements

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 12th July 2018

      Dear Karen
      I just want to be sure I am answering the right question. Can you prevent your uncle from giving some of your father’s ashes to your siblings? I would think the answer is no you can’t, you may find a lawyer that would take this up for you, but I suspect you could end up spending a lot of money getting nowhere.
      As the executor of the will, he was made the person responsible by your father to see to your father’s estate, and as applicant for the funeral he had the right to collect the ashes. I presume you have spoken to him and explained why you are unhappy with his decision? If you have and he has still chosen this route I am not much sure much can done about it. Very sorry.
      Regards
      Richard

  3. Reply
    Yanna palmer - 5th February 2018

    My father passed away and just two weeks before his death I asked him what he wanted me to do with his body. He said he wanted to be cremated and his ashes spread in a lake we camped at every year. My father was single had no spouse. No body knew what he wanted except him and I , period. When my father died I had to make all the decisions for his cremation and estates. After he was cremated my had a in memory of my father’s life at a church with his ashes and invited all friends and family. Well I was given an urn with a little bit of his ashes and my uncle kept the rest of his ashes. It is my duty to do as my father asked of him upon his death. Legally can my uncle keep my dad’s ashes. I am next of kin.

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 6th February 2018

      Dear Yanna
      You would need to seek correct legal advice from a law firm that deals with disputes of wills and probate. It is likely that they would carry out an initial consultation free of charge to see whether you had a case. However, one question? Whilst you may be the next of kin, were you the applicant for the funeral and the cremation, because the Funeral Director/ Crematorium are only allowed to pass the ashes to the applicant, if that was you, then the funeral director should not have given the ashes to anyone else.
      Regards
      Richard

      1. Reply
        Yanna palmer - 6th February 2018

        Yes I was the Authorization and disposition for cremation.

        1. Reply
          Richard Martin - 6th February 2018

          Then it would follow, you have the right to possess the ashes,but again you would need appropriate legal advice. Have you taken this up with the funeral director? Note: I am speaking from a UK perspective.

          1. Yanna palmer - 6th February 2018

            I have not taken it up with the funeral director. I haven’t been close with my family and I’ve been trying to not cause any problems between any of us. But I can’t keep just letting my uncle keep my dad’s ashes May 26th 2018 will be a year since my dad’s passing. And Im still having difficulty accepting his death. I can’t move forward and I need closure and that’s why I’m taking action to get his ashes back so I can put him where he asked me to put him. Thank you for your advice it will help me to further my father’s request upon his death. I will seek further information as you advised also from a legal stand.

  4. Reply
    Raymond - 29th October 2017

    My sister died in Michigan my niece had power of attorney over her at the time of death and had her cremated without any of her next of kin knowing about her death we found out about it a month after she was cremated she never told anyone is there anything we can do to her for this awful act

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 30th October 2017

      Dear Raymond this does sound awful. I suspect your options are fairly limited and it depends what you were hoping to do. If she had the right to cremate and collect the ashes I would think from the description above that she has the right to dispose, however are not lawyers and might be worth speaking to one to see if they think anything can be done, although I suspect this may be fairly limited -sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Regards
      Richard

  5. Reply
    sarah - 9th October 2017

    My father died suddenly in dec and lost my aunt 7 weeks later after a short battle with cancer at the time i didn’t want my dads ashes as it was too soon for me, so my aunt had them. After her passing there was a feud in family resulting in me not being able to have his ashes. They are wanting to bury the ashes of both together on Wednesday, but I want my father back can they bury his ashes without my consent? Even though I was my fathers next of kin and it’s against my wishes ??

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 11th October 2017

      Sarah this is dreadful and I am sure very traumatic, it is also complex legally way outside of my knowledge. You would need to seek immediate legal advice to see if there is a possibility of serving an injunction. I don’t know the chances of this being successful, but you would need to act straight away. You should do an internet search along the lines of will disputes contentious probate solicitors. I wish you all the best.

  6. Reply
    Nicholas Childs - 20th August 2017

    When my father died I took my mother and sister to a place in Suffolk and we opened a bottle of Champagne toasted to my fathers life and our love of him and then my mother scattered his ashes – this was a very humbling episode in my life as my father was a great individual and I loved him dearly. My father was ill for some time 3 years but when we knew his passing was imminent my sister and husband decided to take a cheap last minute holiday.

    Sadly my father went into a respiratory arrest whilst my sister and husband were on holiday and passed away.

    My mother passed away in 2016 after a long battle with cancer. When we were informed of her condition i.e. days to live my sister and her husband decided to take a holiday to Portugal and unfortunately myself and my son were with her when she passed away – in fact I was holding her when she left us.

    I asked my sister a number of times over many months what we were going to do with her ashes but she did not reply to me. Then the bombshell came – she decided to go to Suffolk with her daughter (my neice) and scattered the ashes without inviting me or my family because she does not like us and our success.

    This is very disturbing as you only have one mother and I have been deprived of saying goodbye to her remains!

    At least I was with my mother and father when they left us but I do not understand and find it difficult to cope to terms with the evil of my sister. Actually even the vicar who undertook my Mothers service looked upon this act as evil but it is difficult to explain.

    1. Reply
      Richard Martin - 22nd August 2017

      I am sorry to hear this, it sounds awful. It is very sad when scattering someones ashes increases divisions within a family. I am glad that you were there for your parents at such an important time. I hope time will help to heal and thank you for sharing.

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