The power of the law to require disposal has been successfully challenged. In 1984 a tramp named Diogenes lay dying. Before he passed away he bequeathed his body to the painter Robert Lenkiewicz. Lenkiewicz accepted the gift and, when Diogenes died, he embalmed his body. Before long, Plymouth City Council officials, concerned that Diogenes hadn’t been buried or cremated, came looking for his body, determined to dispose of it themselves if the artist wouldn’t.
Lenkiewicz hid Diogenes and refused to tell them where he was. Years passed. Lenkiewicz died and Diogenes was discovered in a drawer. The council returned and more angry wrangling ensued until in 2002 the coroner ruled that, because the body had been embalmed, Lenkiewicz and then his estate had the right to continued possession of it for as long as Diogenes complies with laws governing environmental health and public decency.
If, therefore, you were to preserve a body in, say, your deep freeze, there is arguably no reason why anyone should require you to dispose of it.
The legal maxim that ‘the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth’ has also been challenged. In 1998 the artist Anthony-Noel Kelly exhibited casts of body parts which had been smuggled out to him by lab technician Niel Lyndsay from the Royal College of Surgeons.
Both were arrested and charged with stealing human body parts. At the trial, the defence submitted at the close of the prosecution case that (i) parts of bodies were not in law capable of being property and therefore could not be stolen, and (ii) that the specimens were not in the lawful possession of the college at the time they were taken because they had been retained beyond the period of two years before burial stipulated in the Anatomy Act 1832, and so did not belong to it.
The trial judge rejected those submissions, ruling that there was an exception to the traditional common law rule that there was no property in a corpse, namely that once a human body or body part had undergone a process of skill by a person authorised to perform it, with the object of preserving it for the purpose of medical or scientific examination, or for the benefit of medical science, it became something quite different from an interred corpse and it thereby acquired a usefulness or value and it was capable of becoming property in the usual way, and could be stolen.
The same applies to body parts “if they have acquired different attributes by virtue of the application of skill of dissection and preservation techniques for exhibition and teaching purposes“.
Whether or not this means that cremation ashes acquire the status of property is untested.