Possession of a Dead Body

It is a well-established principle of law that ‘there is no property in a corpse.’ This means that the law does not regard a corpse as property protected by rights. In other words there can be no ‘ownership’ of a dead body. The only exception is where body parts acquire different attributes by virtue of the application of skill, e.g. dissection and/or preservation techniques.

However even if there is no legal ownership certain people have the right to possess the body. In the first place, anyone who has a duty to bury the deceased has the right to possess the body in order to bury it. In many cases this duty will fall upon the personal representatives of the deceased i.e. the administrator or executor of the deceased’s estate (that is, the deceased’s property). An executor is a person appointed under the deceased’s will to deal with the deceased’s estate. If there is no will an administrator will be appointed by a court for the same purpose. If there is no executor, it is arguable that the person first entitled to a grant of administration of the estate should be also entitled to possession of the body in order to determine how to dispose of it. This is usually the spouse, nearest relative or next of kin or, in the case of a child, the parents.

There are other people who might also be entitled to lawful possession of the body as a result of their duty to dispose of the body. If the body is lying on hospital premises, the hospital authorities will be in lawful possession of the body. If the Coroner has jurisdiction (the power to hold an inquest) (see below: Inquests) he or she has the right to possession of the body for the purposes of his or her enquiries. This same authority is sufficient to permit the pathologist, as the Coroner’s agent, to have the legal right of possession until the Coroner’s inquiry has come to an end.

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