The Law Commission of England and Wales is set to review the “ancient laws” that govern the process of dealing with the remains of the deceased, aiming to “[bring] them into line with modern needs”.
The Law Commission said the rules and regulations that cover the disposal of a person’s body after they pass away are “outdated and complex” – with the majority of existing legislation dating back to the 19th century.
There are currently no guarantees that a person’s wishes for what happens to their body after they die are respected, which the Law Commission notes leads to disputes between family members over the arrangements for their loved one’s body.
The Commission stated the existing law of England and Wales also lacks flexibility, and is unable to accommodate new, alternative methods, beyond the traditional options of burial or cremation.
The Law Commission’s new project focusing on these issues will begin with a scoping phase. They are aiming to identify the issues that will be covered in the review in order to agree terms of reference with the Government. After agreeing the scope, the Commission will then set out its plans for the review.
While its scope is being agreed, the Law Commission does expect its project to consider a new, “future-proofed” set of laws governing the disposal of the dead. The review will also consider the laws governing burials and cremation, along with the creation of a framework that enables safe and dignified new processes for disposal.
Additionally, the Commission’s review is expected to explore changes to the legal status of a person’s wishes about what happens to their body following death – along with the rules governing the rights of others to make decisions over the methods of disposal used.
“Ensuring that our loved ones are treated with dignity and respect after they pass away is something that matters to everyone, whatever their background, culture, or belief,” said Professor Nick Hopkins, Family Law Commissioner at the Law Commission.
This, says Hopkins, makes it all the more important that the laws governing the disposal of the deceased “work for all”:
“Current laws are outdated, unclear, and do not protect the wishes of those who have passed away. Our review will consider the merits of a new framework that provides greater legal clarity, and is more responsive to the needs of modern society.”
“Having acted for clients involved in disputes which have arisen between close relatives or friends about the disposal of a loved one’s body, I am fully aware of how issues can escalate during such an emotional and distressing time,” said Bishop & Sewell Partner Rachel Waller, continuing:
“There is currently a lack of flexibility in the law in this area, within which methods of disposal are limited to the traditional options of cremation and burial. However, there is now an array of theoretical options, albeit not yet permitted here.
Given the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions imposed on the UK government by the Climate Change Act 2008, as well as other environmental obligations, I look forward to the promotion of environmentally sound practices such as natural organic reduction (human composting). This method of disposition has been legalised in six US states since 2019, but is not yet permitted in the UK.”
Once the scope of the project has been established, the Commission will set out more detailed plans for work.