The Right of Sepulchre

When a loved one passes away, there can be disputes regarding how to treat and dispose of the body. Ideally, the decedent would have included clear funeral instructions in his or her last will and testament. In some cases, those wishes might have been communicated orally or in another kind of writing to a family member. What happens when certain family members or friends want to disregard the loved one’s wishes while others wish to carry them out?

Under Pennsylvania law, each person is entitled to dictate the terms under which the body is buried or otherwise disposed of after death. This can include cremation or more modern burial innovations such as composting. If the decedent’s wishes can be shown in a will or other proven writing, these wishes must be followed. This is known as the Common Law Right of Sepulchre. Sepulchre is just a fancy old English word for burial.

Fights over how to deal with a decedent’s remains, where to have the burial, or where to keep an urn full of ashes can arise out of estate disputes in which one or more beneficiaries are trying to use the decedent’s remains as leverage. This is an awful circumstance to bear, and it is important to stand up for the decedent’s rights in court, if necessary. If a decedent’s wishes are being disregarded in this way or for any other reason, the descendants have standing to bring a challenge on that person’s behalf insisting that those wishes be followed. It is important to move quickly in such situations as some methods of laying a person to rest cannot be undone. This is why it is critical to handle these disputes correctly and with urgency.

The Right of Sepulchre also can be implicated if the family brings a wrongful death claim. These kinds of claims can require examination of the body such as an autopsy well after interment or entombment, and exhumation can conflict with the religious beliefs of the decedent. Another instance in which the Right of Sepulchre is implicated is when a graveyard is excavated. This can occur when an entity buys the land and wishes to pave over or move grave sites. In these cases, the Right of Sepulchre is an important part of defending the right of the deceased individuals to rest in peace.

Our attorneys have helped individuals defend their loved ones’ right to choose their manner of burial. If you have questions about the Right of Sepulchre or your family members’ right to dictate their wishes on these matters, contact Cornerstone Law Firm today so we can discuss your options.