Our Bodies, Ourselves

Recently two very different events caused me to ask a very simple question: Whose body is it? The first event involved a man who allegedly killed his wife, but wanted to be in charge of the arrangements for her funeral. The second event was the death of my mother. While standing in the hospital room, I found myself wondering: “what happens now?”

Does a person have a right to direct the disposition of their body, for example by will? Under early English law, a decedent had no property rights in their body and could not control the disposition of their body after their death. This has now changed, and a legally competent person can direct how his body will be disposed of by written instrument.

However, this rule raises a few interesting issues. For example, if the only written instruction is in a Will, by the time the Will has been probated and an executor appointed, the body may already have been disposed of.

This result is especially likely since, in Massachusetts, the right to possession of the body and the responsibility for its disposition rests not with the executor of the deceased’s estate, but with the surviving spouse or, if there is none, with the next of kin. The spouse or next of kin generally is entitled to dispose of it according to his or her wishes, not necessarily the decedent’s, leaving open the possibility that the decedent’s wishes may be disregarded.

To safeguard against this unfortunate set of events, multiple copies of the will should be made, and multiple people should be informed of the decedent’s wishes prior to death. The idea that the wishes of the decedent should be respected, when known, is part of the unwavering trust that is imparted to those who agree to bear the responsibility of dealing with the logistics of a loved one’s death.


  1. avatar
    Ellen O'Hare says:

    LOVE the blog!

  2. avatar
    Kristen Walsh says:

    Really makes you question how much power you really have over your own body once you’ve passed. Loved ones hold a lot of responsibility when taking care of a family member, I think its important that people know how long it takes to process a will. More family members should be aware and honor their loved one’s wishes before the time comes.

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