It is an historic principle of English common law that there is no property in a dead body. No one owns the body of a person who has just died: “the only lawful possessor of a corpse is the earth.”

When this law was established a dead body was, indeed, “worthless”. The only thing to do with it was dispose of it by means of “lawful and decent burial” – according to the rites of the established Church, of course.

Over time the law in this area has become vague and inconsistent and new laws are needed to make sense of things as they are now. Today, dead bodies do have potential value. A dead body can be used for medical research, as a teaching aid, for tissue donation or as an anatomical exhibit. What’s more, it is now possible to convert a dead body into a piece of property by “work or skills” – such as Bodyworlds.

If it is simply your intention to arrange for someone who has died to be buried or cremated, all you need to know is that the law recognises the right of certain people to take possession of a dead body without delay. Note: taking possession is not the same thing as having ownership.

The law assumes that the person who assumes the right to take possession of a dead body recognises a duty to dispose of it. In most cases, this is exactly what the possessor does – but you don’t have to.

It is unlawful to:

Detain a body (against, say, the payment of a debt).

Refuse to deliver a body to the executors for burial

Conspire to prevent a lawful and decent burial

Dispose of a body to prevent an inquest

Sell a body for dissection

Expose a body in a public place if to do so would shock public decency

For more information on the legal status of a dead body, click here.