A professor emeritus at Rutgers Law School, Newark, Norman L. Cantor ’64 has spent years studying and writing about the legal aspects of death and dying, including end-of-life decisions, living wills, and assisted suicide. In his latest book, After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver (Georgetown University Press), he has turned to the rights and handling of human remains. Cantor examines when persons are considered dead, the decomposition of the body, the history of burial, embalming, and cremation, and uses of cadavers such as for organ transplant and medical research. Along the way he includes anecdotes, including one about a husband who wanted to be buried at sea to spite his wife, who had declared that she wanted to dance on his grave. Cantor spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.
Why did you want to study the rights of cadavers and the handling of postmortem human remains?
I had always had some curiosity about whether death ends the legal protection afforded to the now deceased or whether there might be remaining rights. And then there were a number of controversies that crystallized the question. My stepbrother, when he died in 1973, had left controversial instructions, and they were, in fact, implemented, but I wondered about the legal boundaries. He wanted a New Orleans-style wake and funeral in Trenton, N.J. And that meant a Dixieland band at the funeral home playing music during the wake and a procession from the funeral home to cemetery. My stepfather was a little scandalized by the unconventional request.
And then years later the Ted Williams case in 2003 [when the baseball player’s daughter wanted his ashes scattered over the Florida Keys and his son wanted his corpse frozen until a cure could be found and he could be brought back to life] and the death of Anna Nicole Smith in 2007 [and the controversy about where she wanted to be buried] — those public controversies over the handling of remains triggered my curiosity all over again.