What rights exist over a dead body?


Whilst it might seem like a strange concept, there are laws that apply to different aspects of the treatment of, and rights over, a dead body. These form a part of the law governing what happens after death.

For related information visit our wills and probate pages.

Possession of a dead body

It is a well-established principle of law that there is no ‘property’ in, nor ‘ownership’ right to, a dead body. However, certain people can have the right to possess the body following the person’s death.

For example, anyone who has a duty to bury a deceased person has the right to possess the body in order to bury it. If the body is lying on hospital premises, or if the coroner has jurisdiction, they may be in lawful possession of it.

Disposal of a dead body

Before a burial can take place in England or Wales, the executor or next of kin must obtain a certificate of disposal from the registrar or a burial order from the coroner.

There is a duty upon certain people to dispose of a body after a death. This duty usually falls on the executor or administrator of the deceased’s estate, the parents of a deceased child, or the householder upon whose premises the body lies.

It is an offence for any such person, having sufficient means, to fail to discharge this duty.

If they do not have sufficient means, or if a person died alone and without kin, the duty to dispose of the body falls on the local authority.

Burial and cremation

A dead body can be kept in a house or other building for a period of time before disposal, subject to public health laws.

There is no requirement that a body should be buried in an authorised place - a place of burial may be established on private ground, provided no nuisance is caused. Cremations, on the other hand, may only take place in an authorised crematorium in order to ensure that the smoke and ash is properly dealt with.

Once a person has been buried it is unlawful to disturb or remove the body without lawful authority. Arranging an exhumation can be complicated since it may involve both civil and ecclesiastic law.

If you require a body to be exhumed, call us on 0800 1777 162 and we will find you a specialist solicitor to assist in the matter.

Offences and other laws relating to dead bodies

Other offences arising out of the use of a dead body include:

  • Detaining a body
  • Refusing to deliver it to the executors for burial
  • Conspiring to prevent a lawful and decent burial
  • Disposing of the body to prevent an inquest
  • Selling the body for dissection
  • Exposing the body in a public place if to do so would shock public decency

Further laws govern hospital and coroners' post mortems and removal of tissues and organs. As a general rule, they may not perform any of these actions without permission from a coroner or the deceased’s family.

If you would like to obtain legal advice on these issues, we can put you in touch with a local specialist solicitor free of charge. Please call us on 0800 1777 162 or complete the web-form above to speak to an advisor.

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