What constitutes corpse abuse?

Charles Cowling


We don’t have abuse of a corpse laws in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, nor Scotland, not like they do in the US. Indeed, the laws around what you can, can’t and must do with a corpse in the UK are few — so few that we’ve never managed to discover what they are. Perhaps you know?

The status of the dead body is the point at issue. A dead body isn’t property, neither is it human. So, for example, no one can rape a dead body, but there is in fact a law which criminalises sexual penetration of a corpse. It’s a different thing, you see?

In the same way, you can’t arrest a corpse for debt.

But what else can’t you do? 

In the US there are state laws which forbid abuse of corpses. They vary from state to state, but in essence they all outlaw two things:

1. treating a corpse in a way which would outrage family sensibilities

2. treating a corpse in a way which would outrage community sensibilities. 

If we had the same sorts of laws in the UK it is conceivable, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, that the outcome of Wednesday’s ITV exposé might have involved the police. 



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8 years ago

I fear quite a lot goes on in the grottier establishments that most people would deem unacceptable. But where are the compliance mechanisms?

I’m still amazed that those Gillman’s staff weren’t arrested and charged. Our dead deserve a higher status.

By the same token, nobody knows just how respectful and excellent the best FDs are — and there are some really, really good ones.

Teresa Evans
8 years ago

A Charter for Dead Peoples Rights…well now that is something to think about. I do not actually know when acceptable handling stops and abuse begins, but I imagine that this can only be determined by what any sensible person might consider is reasonable. I would say that someone dead must be shown the same respect that they should have been shown in life. For example would or indeed should, a care worker, nurse etc. leave a live person laid on a bed partially clothed exposing private parts to passers-by? One would hope not, so why would anyone think that it… Read more »

Teresa Evans
8 years ago

Thanks Charles. It’s not entirely clear to me what you mean when you say “I wonder where, in law, the line is drawn between abuse and non-abuse”. Do you care to elaborate?

Teresa Evans
8 years ago

In hindsight opposed to “protected” what I should have said in my last post is that the common law recognises both a civil and criminal offence to commit an indignity and/or indecent action on the dead. I believe that it would be possible to bring a private legal action for committing such a crime. The problem we appear to have in the UK is finding a legal professional with the relevant expertise who would be able to establish a case from previous judgements. When the matter is a private complaint there is often a wilful reluctance of the Crown Prosecution… Read more »

Teresa Evans
8 years ago

Beg to differ my dear friend Charles. There maybe few laws written into Statute about abusing a “corpse” (insensitive legal term), but dignity and decency including the rights of the bereaved, is protected under common law.