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.
What is the percentage of people who express in their wills what they want done regarding end-of-life care and with their remains?
The percentage of people who prepare a last will and testament governing their property is slightly below 50 percent. The percentage of people who prepare instructions for their medical handling — what we call advance medical directives — is only around 20 to 25 percent. My guess is that the percentage providing instructions about their cadaver disposal is smaller than that. People have a significant aversion to addressing their own mortality. These are somber and difficult decisions in the best of circumstances, but the family can derive some satisfaction if they’re confident that they’re fulfilling what the dying patient or deceased would have wanted.
Who legally controls the fate of the corpse if there is disagreement between the wishes of the deceased and the surviving relatives?
If [the wishes of deceased] are stated in the will, the executor of the will would be expected to fulfill [those wishes]. However, they are not usually stated in the will and technically a cadaver is not “property” that’s strictly bound by our will, therefore, in the majority of cases it’s a sort of next-of-kin ladder starting with the spouse and descending downward toward less close relatives. No matter who is the ultimate decision maker, they are supposed to be implementing the wishes of the deceased, unless those wishes are unreasonably burdensome or intrinsically undignified and therefore unreasonable.
In researching your book, what were the most unusual requests you found about how people wanted their remains to be disposed of?
There was a poet who wanted his corpse’s skin partially tanned and used as the binding for a book of his verse. And there was someone [in Israel] who wanted his cadaver thrown to wild animals. There was another case where an extremely patriotic person wanted their skin to be tanned and used as a drum head and have inscribed on the drum a patriotic message and the drum to be pounded once a year on the Fourth of July. I can’t remember if that was implemented or not.
[The poet’s] wife wanted to cooperate but the mortician involved had refused to cooperate considering it too disrespectful. When the wife went to court, the court refused to order the mortician to cooperate. So [the poet] never did get to bind the book of verse. The Israeli court refused to give what they call a declaratory judgment saying that it would be OK to cooperate with his wishes. I doubt whether he got his wishes fulfilled. It’s instances like that where some survivors might feel some revulsion or hesitation. It’s in cases like that that enlisting someone who is sympathetic in making clear your wishes are important.
Do you have an advance medical directive and have you stated your wishes for the disposal of your remains in your will?
I do have an advance medical directive. I don’t have any formal instructions for the handling of remains, but I’ve made clear to my life companion that I would want to be cremated. I haven’t decided exactly where I would like the ashes scattered.
Interview has been condensed.