The Burial Of Items With The Deceased

The discovery of the remains of a mystery warrior at an archaeological site near Chichester have brought to mind the longstanding practice of humans burying their dead with items of cultural, religious or sentimental value.

The skeleton is believed to be an Iron Age warrior who died around AD43, at the time of the Roman invasion in England, and may have been fighting against Julius Caesar’s army. The warrior was found with two highly decorated bronze latticework sheets that are thought to have covered his shield, an elaborate helmet and a sword that had been heated and bent. The range of possessions buried with the warrior’s body suggests that he was an important figure in his time and so was honoured with the burial of his weapons.

The Co-op’s recent survey “Burying Traditions: The Changing Face of UK Funerals” reveals that most funeral directors have seen more unique and personalised funerals and burials develop over the past five years. The survey revealed that 22% of UK citizens have already made decisions about what they want inside their coffin, with some of the most unique and unusual items that they have been asked to put in a coffin being: a Chinese takeaway, a wedding dress, a fishing rod, a broomstick and a Wizard of Oz costume. Also, 15% of people stated that they wanted items to assist with an escape from their coffin choosing torches, mobile phones and some even requesting an alarm button to accompany them in their coffin.

Rather than burying items with the body, some people are developing creative ways to keep part of the deceased’s body with them, with the ashes set into necklaces or rings. In October 2019, BBC News reported that one Bride went through her father’s ashes to find bone fragments that could be used in her acrylic nails so that her father could walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. Another option is “Ashes to Art,” where ashes can be made into glass sculptures to be put on display in your home. Others are having the ashes packed into a firework or rocket to be blasted into the air or space for a spectacular send off.

While these unusual practices may make us smile or shudder, unfortunately, the grief following the loss of a loved one may reignite historic difficulties or disputes within families, or new issues may be raised by the terms of a Will or disagreements about funeral or burial arrangements. These post-death disputes may start as relatively narrow issues around the funeral arrangements and burial of the body or cremation but can lead to much wider issues, including a Will dispute.

The responsibility surrounding the deceased’s burial or cremation falls upon the personal representatives of the deceased. It has been established in Williams v Williams [1882] (1881) 20 ChD 659 and Rees v Hughes [1946] KB 517 that the administrator or the executor of the estate has the right to possession of (but no property in) the body and the duty to arrange for its proper disposal. In practice, if they are not close family members of the deceased, personal representatives often delegate their authority to family members to organise the funeral. However, if a dispute makes this impossible then the personal representatives have the authority to make the final decision. In the event that the personal representatives disagree on the burial or cremation of the body, the dispute may have to go to court.

In the case of Anstey v Mundle [2016] EWHC 1073 (CH) a dispute arose as to where the body should be buried. There was a Will or purported Will of the deceased which said that he wished to be buried in Jamaica, but two close family members wanted him buried in England and one sought an injunction to restrain removal of the body from the jurisdiction. The court found that in determining to whom the body should be released the following facts were relevant: (i) the deceased’s wishes; (ii) the reasonable requirements and wishes of the family; (iii) the location with which the deceased had been most closely connected; and (iv) most importantly, that the body be disposed of with all proper respect and decency and, if possible, without further delay. The judge expressed a view as to what decision balancing out all these facts led to, but held that he could not direct or determine where or how he was to be buried but could direct who has the power and duty to bury the deceased, following the authorities referred to above.

Many people place a high level of importance on the arrangements surrounding the laying to rest of their loved ones. As the difficult decisions surrounding this are so entwined with the grieving process, often family disputes can arise around these arrangements. Regardless of whether it be a dispute about the burial or about who inherits from the deceased’s estate, these issues can be of equal importance to those involved in the dispute and can lead to long-standing anger and resentment amongst families. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that expert legal advice is sought to resolve these disputes quickly and professionally, so that family rifts may hopefully eventually heal.

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