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Say Nate the nutcase happens to find a dead body on the road. Being a nutcase, he takes the dead body, and does a bunch of "weird stuff" stuff to it (e.g. satanic rituals, maybe necrophilia, maybe ate one of the fingers, maybe some taxidermy, maybe sawed the body into pieces and sewed them back up to make some freak of nature, etc.).

Nate had literally nothing to do with the death of the person, and let's say there's irrefutable evidence to that effect. However, there is undeniable evidence of the "weird stuff" Nate did to the dead body, including Nate himself confessing.

Is Nate liable for any crimes? Do dead bodies have rights? Or does the surviving family of the dead body have rights over it (meaning they can press charges on Nate for messing with "their property")? Is that surviving family allowed to do "weird stuff" to the body? And what if the dead person had no family/friends?

My guess is that, just as bestiality is illegal in most states, cannibalism and necrophilia are probably illegal in most states. But there's a lot one can do to a dead body outside those two things (e.g. using a machete to hack off one of its limbs, or painting a picture on it). In some ways, coroners do such acts to dead bodies, and that could be forced (you cannot oppose an autopsy in many cases).

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    Your confusion is just about "rights". "Rights" are uninvolved. A freeway has no "rights" but it's illegal to speed on a freeway.
    – Fattie
    Commented May 7 at 15:27
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    @Fattie True that a freeway doesn't have "rights", but the main reason why it is illegal to speed on a freeway is because of the rights and safety of the persons involved. One can also confuse subject and object and miss the matter of rights in that way.
    – pygosceles
    Commented May 8 at 5:53
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    I happen to have written a blog post about this a couple of years back. Commented May 8 at 15:44
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    Maybe the implied question is "From whence do rights/laws governing non-living objects derive, such as corpse desecration?" (And IIUC the answer is something general like "the community").
    – smci
    Commented May 9 at 7:55
  • Afaik law works on a way that someone has someone right to something. For example, I have right to make my wife happy or not. Thus, there are legal subjects and objects. Legal subject can only be a living human or some community of humans (company). Dead body can only be object.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented May 9 at 15:12

3 Answers 3

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The dead body does not have rights, but there are laws governing how it may be handled.

California prohibits corpse desecration, which covers anyone who "willfully mutilates, disinters, removes from the place of interment, or commits an act of sexual penetration on, or has sexual contact with, any remains known to be human."

I've also seen cases where mishandling a corpse has supported tort liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress or some other tort by the family. England v. Central Pocahontas Coal Co., 86 W. Va. 575, 104 S.E. 46 (1920) ("The right to bury a corpse and preserve the remains is a legal right, ... the violation of which is cognizable in and may be redressed at the suit of near relatives by an action on the case against the wrongdoer."). I don't know whether California entertains that theory, though.

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    To be clear, crimes are offenses against "the People". The corpse is not the "victim" of the crime of necrophilia.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 6 at 19:52
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    Right, just as a building isn't the "victim" when you commit graffiti.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 6 at 21:01
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    @Barmar Good analogy.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 7 at 0:17
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    Not related to OP's "weird stuff" question, but what about the right to dispersal of personal property in accordance with (living body's) wishes? Does that transfer to executor with estate?
    – mcalex
    Commented May 7 at 4:02
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    A dead body on the road is also something the police would have wanted to investigate and could be evidence in a crime. So depending on exact circumstances Nate could be facing a whole slew of very serious charges.
    – John Ray
    Commented May 7 at 19:17
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The answer by bdb484 is correct in all respects, but this answer expands upon it.

The top line conclusion that dead bodies do not have rights and are not legal persons are correct. Dead bodies are closer to being property than to being people.

When a person dies, that dead person's legal rights are transferred by operation of law to an intangible legal entity/structure called their "estate" which is separate from the body and is managed by a person sometimes called an executor or personal representative or administrator, of the dead person's estate. Metaphorically, the dead person's "soul" and personhood and rights and obligations transfer to the estate, which is intangible, and the dead body becomes just another special kind of tangible personal property, which has some properties of toxic waste and some properties of historic landmarks and heirlooms.

Usually, surviving family members have rights with respect to a corpse that are, at least, similar to property rights, and one of the more common kind of litigation regarding dead bodies is over who gets to dispose of the body. The main legislation in Colorado on that point is set forth in the follow section of the Colorado Revised Statutes:

§ 15-19-106. Right of Final Disposition

  1. Subject to section 15-19-105 (2), the right to control disposition of the last remains or ceremonial arrangements of a decedent vests in and devolves upon the following persons, at the time of the decedent's death, in the following order:

    a. The decedent if acting through a declaration pursuant to section 15-19-104, subject to the provisions of section 15-19-104 (3)(a)(II);

    b. I. Either the appointed personal representative or special administrator of the decedent's estate if such person has been appointed; or

    II. The nominee for appointment as personal representative under the decedent's will if a personal representative or special administrator has not been appointed;

    c. The surviving spouse of the decedent, if not legally separated from the decedent;

    d. A person with the right to direct the disposition of the decedent's last remains in a designated beneficiary agreement made pursuant to article 22 of this title;

    e. A majority of the surviving adult children of the decedent;

    f. A majority of the surviving parents or legal guardians of the decedent, who shall act in writing;

    g. A majority of the surviving adult siblings of the decedent;

    h. (Deleted by amendment, L. 2006, p. 900, 5, effective August 7, 2006.)

    i. Any person who is willing to assume legal and financial responsibility for the final disposition of the decedent's last remains.

  2. (Deleted by amendment, L. 2006, p. 900 , § 5, effective August 7, 2006.)

  3. Disputes among the persons listed under subsection (1) of this section shall be resolved by the probate court. A third party shall not be liable for refusing to accept the decedent's remains or dispose of the decedent's remains until the party receives a court order or other reasonable confirmation that the dispute has been resolved or settled.

  4. a. If the person with the right to control disposition is unable or unwilling to make such disposition, or if the person's whereabouts cannot be reasonably ascertained, then that person's rights shall terminate and pass to the following, in the following order:

I. The rest of the persons in the class with the same degree of relationship granting the same priority of control over the disposition pursuant to subsection (1) of this section;

II. The next class of persons in the order listed in subsection (1) of this section if no one else with the same degree of relationship granting the same priority of control over the disposition of this section exists or possesses the right of final disposition pursuant to subsection (1) of this section.

b. The person with the right to control disposition shall be presumed to be unable or unwilling to provide for such disposition, or the person's whereabouts shall be presumed unknown, if the person has failed to make or appoint another person to make final ...

There is also law regarding what methods of disposition of a body are legal, what licenses are necessary to dispose of dead bodies, who can be buried in veteran's cemeteries, the process for transporting bodies internationally, how to dispose of bodies that no one claims, and what information has to be filed with whom when a body is buried on private property that is not a cemetery.

Every year or two there is some major case somewhere in the United States where a funeral home operator is prosecuted criminally for accepting bodies for burial or cremation, and then not actually doing so as agreed (often dozens of bodies), while claiming to have done so.

Many jurisdictions require that someone discovering a dead body outside a cemetery report it. Even when the law doesn't create an affirmative duty to do so, it is very common to do so, because moving a dead body can disturb a crime scene and constitute obstruction of justice or something similar.

There is also law governing when a dead body ceases to be a dead body. For example, in Colorado, once a body is cremated, it is no long a dead body for legal purposes and is not subject to the laws governing the disposal of dead bodies.

There is also law regarding what constitutes valid organ donation, what must be done for a body to be used for medical research, and how the remains of body parts used for medical research are to be used when the research is concluded.

There are also laws governing how someone is declared dead, how death certificates are prepared and made available, when autopsies are performed, when bodies that are autopsied or otherwise preserved as evidence are released for disposal, and when bodies can be exhumed.

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    "...some properties of toxic waste and some properties of historic landmarks and heirlooms." Well put!
    – Theodore
    Commented May 7 at 15:49
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In Germany (and other countries around it) there is a concept called "Störung der Totenruhe" which kind of translates to disturbing the rest/peace/quiet/dignity of the dead and it is specified in §168 StGB where the first paragraph says

(1) Wer unbefugt aus dem Gewahrsam des Berechtigten den Körper oder Teile des Körpers eines verstorbenen Menschen, eine tote Leibesfrucht, Teile einer solchen oder die Asche eines verstorbenen Menschen wegnimmt oder wer daran beschimpfenden Unfug verübt, wird mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu drei Jahren oder mit Geldstrafe bestraft.

summarized the key part says that you can be punished with up to 3 years of prison or a fine if you perform "abusive mischief" (I dont know of a better way to translate it) on a dead body or parts of it.

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  • There is also § 189 StGB, though that law is not cincerned with the (physical) body.
    – Jan
    Commented May 7 at 11:48
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    More like "disturbing the peace of the dead" if you asked me! :) Commented May 7 at 12:29
  • The way this is phrased is accurate. The dead have rights just as the living do, the primary difference is that they are no longer empowered with a living body to defend those rights. Otherwise for example, there would be no legal enforceability behind a will.
    – pygosceles
    Commented May 8 at 5:51
  • @stackoverblown that was the first version I had and then decided to just go with a literal translation :D Commented May 8 at 18:46

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