What happens to my body after I die?
Who has the right to deal with a dead body in the UK? Who has the right to arrange my funeral? Can I make funeral arrangements now?
Many of us believe that we own our body and we can determine what kind of funeral or disposal arrangements we would like. However, the law does not quite reflect this belief. This article explores and explains the issues concerning what happens to your body after you die and how you can have your say.
Many of us would be forgiven for believing that we own, and can make autonomous decisions regarding what we do with, our bodies.
Indeed, Amnesty International proclaim such a notion with their aptly-titled global campaign, ‘My Body My Right’.
Here, they highlight that making decisions about your body during your lifetime is a basic human right.
However, the current UK law provides that, after you die, your body is no longer under your realm of control, and instead, other parties will be chairing the decision-making committee.
Who is responsible for disposing of my body?
Essentially, you do not own your own dead body.
Once you die, it is your personal representatives (i.e. your executors in your valid Will or, otherwise, your administrators) who have the common law duty to arrange for the proper disposal of your remains.
However, in some situations, the case may be that your body is disposed of before your Will is even located, or the administrator’s application is complete.
This, understandably can come as a shock, especially when so many people have strong views about their funeral arrangements.
In other situations, it may even be that another person or body will have the duty to dispose of your body.
A householder has a common law duty to dispose of a body which is under his roof.
If the deceased lived alone, then the duty falls to the local authority.
Local authorities will not pay if there are assets and may trace relatives to authorise the funeral costs.
If the deceased died in a hospital, then the hospital authorities are regarded as ‘the householder’.
The case in question, Lewisham NHS Hospital Trust v Hamuth  EWHC 1669 (Ch), determined that the hospital was in lawful possession of the body and was therefore entitled to decide the appropriate means for the disposal of the body.
What will happen to my dead body?
At this point, you may start to think that there is nothing you can do to have your say over your funeral wishes.
Indeed, any funeral wishes you include in your Will are, in fact, not binding.
Your Will is the mechanism through which your estate is distributed.
It stands to reason that, if you do not own your dead body, it is not something that can be definitively covered in your Will.
However, it is always a useful exercise to include your wishes as to funeral arrangements in your Will.
Your views must be taken into account and your executors will most likely carry out your wishes.
However, a more helpful exercise would be to discuss and explain your wishes with your family, and your executors, so there are no surprises on your death.
Having your funeral wishes documented provides good evidence of your wishes in a situation where a dispute arises between your executors or relatives.
Equally, you may have more detailed and comprehensive funeral arrangements.
The more detailed and comprehensive your funeral arrangements are, the more important it is that they are set out in a separate document.
A good practice is to include a clause in your Will referring to this separate document and its whereabouts, such as the person to whom you have given it.
How we can help you
It is a useful activity to include your funeral wishes or intentions on donating your body for transplant or scientific research in your Will.
However, a more effective solution would be to discuss your wishes with your family and intended executors, so they have an understanding of your views and there are no surprises.
In either instance, it is always important to have your wishes in writing for documentary evidence in case of a dispute; and especially if they are comprehensive and detailed in nature.
If you would like more information on possible funeral arrangements and how to effectively make them known, then please call us on 01865 507174 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get some piece of mind.
Please also download our Free Will Information Guide which contains a useful Glossary for the most relevant and commonly-used technical terms relating to the laws of Wills, Probate and Estate Planning.