Mortuary law is the area of law that regulates the handling of bodies after death. Mortuary law includes all of the state and local requirements for who can transport bodies, perform funerals, conduct autopsies, and bury a body. Mortuary law also covers the standards for handling of bodies and who has the right to decide how to put a body to rest.
While the exact process varies by state, generally, the certificate of death must be obtained and likely a burial permit for a body to be buried or otherwise put to rest. The person transporting, carrying out a funeral, and conducting autopsies may need to be registered or even licensed by the state themselves and be authorized to perform on the specific body mentioned to perform their duties. Every person handling a body has a duty to follow the guidelines set by the state, and if these are not followed, the next of kin may have a cause of action against the party at fault such as for a wrongful autopsy or the mishandling of a body. For example, in Christensen v. Superior Court (Pasadena Crematorium of Altadena)(1991), a California court affirmed that a right of action exists against mortuaries that mishandle a body which causes emotional distress to family members and others for whom the service was being performed for.
Mortuary law also covers the right of disposition which refers to the right to decide how a person’s body is to be handled after death. States give varying preference to the wishes of the deceased, spouse, and other next of kin. This right covers aspects like whether to embalm, to cremate, where to bury, and similar considerations.
[Last updated in October of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]