Who decides what happens to my body after my death?

Many people include in their will a clause stating how they wish their body to be dealt with on their death, with the most common choices being burial or cremation. Some people also express a wish as to the disposal of their ashes and others state a preference for the type and content of any funeral service.

Such provisions are very helpful to the surviving relatives who, at an emotional time, are given assistance in deciding the form of the funeral and the comfort of knowing that they are dealing with the arrangements as the deceased person wished.

Occasionally, disputes do arise over funeral arrangements, particularly if family relationships prior to the death were complicated. Such a dispute was heard recently in the High Court concerning opposing claims as to how the remains of Congressman Ignacio Arroyo should be dealt with. He had served as a Congressman in the Philippines and had homes there and in California. He had been visiting the UK for some years in order to receive medical treatment for a liver condition, and it was during one of these visits to London that he died.

A dispute arose between, on the one hand, Congressman Arroyo’s long-term partner, Ms Ibuna, who was supported in her claim by his daughter, Bernardina, and, on the other hand, his estranged wife as to who had the right to arrange for the repatriation of his body to the Philippines and to determine the funeral arrangements generally.

In delivering his judgment, the presiding judge set out his view of the long established English law in this area. Under English law, there is no right of ownership in a dead body but there is a duty at common law to arrange for the proper disposal of the body, which falls to the personal representatives – i.e. the executors if the deceased left a will or the administrators if he did not. The deceased’s wishes, whether expressed in a will or in another way, may be followed by those responsible but are not binding upon them.

The judge dismissed the contention that human rights legislation had affected the settled law in this area and accepted evidence that Congressman Arroyo had made a valid will in California which appointed Bernardina as his executor.

As a result, the judge held that a Grant of Letters of Administration should be made to Bernardina and Ms Ibuna jointly and that they, in preference to his estranged wife, had the right to decide on the disposal of Congressman Arroyo’s body.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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