What constitutes corpse abuse?

Charles 8 Comments


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. 




  1. Charles

    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.

    1. Charles

      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 Service (CPS) to bring a public prosecution. It’s usual for the CPS to claim that it’s not in the public interest to spend public money.

      The other big problem we have in the UK is that our courts expect people making a complaint to try and settle the matter out of court by taking the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) route. That route prevents common law progressing and establishing cases for other people to more easily rely on to achieve a successful outcome.

      The article that you quote from the Daily Mail reveals a disgraceful mixture of events which include breach of contract and violation of human rights. If anyone was to experience both actions and followed the ADR route, it’s very likely that the human rights element wouldn’t even be taken into consideration. The outcome would possibly be a discount on the final bill or when the bill paid, a partial refund. I doubt that many, if any, following the ADR route, would recover what they might do in court which is the total cost of the funeral, in addition to compensation/damages for hurt feelings.

      It is my understanding that protection of the dead may be possible by invoking violations of the human rights of the living. If a complaint was made to the police I would have expected the police to have investigated the allegations made about people employed at Gillman Funeral Services, but the news article doesn’t reveal whether this happened or not.

  2. Charles

    Teresa, thank you for this knowledgeable reply. It goes a long way to compensating for the speculative and superficial nature of my own surmises.

    You talk about the law being untested, of the reluctance of the CPS to bother itself with such matters, and of the lack of expertise or interest on the part of lawyers. It is notable that, in the wake of the revelations at Gillman’s, no one wondered out loud if there isn’t a law against this sort of thing. There seems to have been no sense that what Gillman’s staff did was against the law – no call for them to be prosecuted that I am aware of.

    I wonder where, in law, the line is drawn between abuse and non-abuse.

  3. Charles

    Well, where does acceptable handling stop and abuse begin? Does it include words spoken — can you racially abuse a dead person?

    There should be a legally enforceable Charter of Dead People’s Rights.

    1. Charles

      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 would be acceptable to do this to someone that is dead.

      In 2003 police looked to investigating two former hospital workers who had allegedly placed strips of bacon on a dead woman’s body that was being held in the mortuary. Now that is not reasonable either.

  4. Charles

    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.

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