Who Decides How to Dispose of Human Remains?
When a person dies, loved ones generally attend to the burial and memorial preparations without any thought as to who this responsibility falls upon and who has ultimate decision-making power. Where a dispute arises as to the how to say one’s final goodbyes, however, the courts are ready to provide an answer.
Courts have long held that the right to determine how a body is disposed of falls upon the estate trustee of the deceased’s estate. This right arises because the estate trustee is under a duty to ensure the deceased’s body is disposed of in a manner suitable to the estate left behind by the deceased. With this duty comes the corresponding right to possess the body for the purposes of burial. This right comes in priority of the right of spouses, children and other loved ones to decide how to dispose of the body.
For anyone who is in the process of preparing their wills, they hopefully give some thought and consideration as to the suitability of their chosen estate trustee. Ideally, they’ll ensure that their estate trustee is someone:
- likely to outlive the testator;
- willing to take on the task of administering an estate; and
- who will diligently bring all assets into the estate and attend to their distribution.
Testators may want to give some consideration for how the estate trustee will dispose of their body after death as well. This is particularly so as the disposition of one’s body is not something that one can validly provide for in a will (Williams v Williams (1882) 20 Ch D 659 (Eng Ch Div)). Hence, once deceased, testators are in the hands of the estate trustee, so to speak. Where a testator has any concerns that loved ones might fight over burial plans, then some further thought should be given to choosing an estate trustee who will act in accordance with the wishes of the testator.
Unfortunately, disputes over the burial of remains do come up. We’ve blogged on a few of these cases in the past, including the case of legendary soul singer, James Brown and the case of Leo Johnston, a slain RCPM officer in Alberta.
For anyone concerned about it, they may take some small amount of comfort in knowing that once in the ground, courts will be extremely cautious in disturbing a deceased’s (hopefully) final resting place (see, for example, Mason v Mason, 2017 NBQB 132).
Thanks for reading!