Our respect for life is evident in the careful way we treat human remains. However, a disturbing incident at Harvard Medical School has cast doubt the posthumous safety and dignity of their loved ones.
Cedric Lodge, the former morgue manager at Harvard Medical School, allegedly stole parts from donated bodies, including heads, brains, and skin, and sold them on the black market. Surprisingly, he didn’t act alone, allegedly involving his wife and the owner of a horror-themed shop.
This scandal prompted a class-action lawsuit from families whose deceased relatives were reportedly victims of Lodge’s gruesome side-business, which has sparked questions about legal protections in such cases.
Desecrating human remains is a crime in all 50 states
The indignity of having a loved one’s remains desecrated is often compounded by confusion about the applicable laws.
In the United States, the desecration of human remains is typically addressed in state statutes. Accordingly, what constitutes “desecration” and the penalties attached differ from state to state. With that being said, in most states, desecration includes:
- Stealing from the deceased,
- Misplacing or selling the remains of the deceased without consent, and
- Treating the deceased’s remains in a disrespectful manner.
To understand the typical legal framework surrounding the prohibition of desecrating human remains, we can examine Utah's relevant statute as a representative example:
Utah Code Section 76-9-704: Abuse or desecration of a dead human body
Utah Code Section 76-9-704 holds that a person is guilty of “abuse or desecration of a dead human body” if the person intentionally:
(a) Fails to report the finding of a dead human body to a local law enforcement agency;
(b) Disturbs, moves, removes, conceals, or destroys a dead human body or any part of it;
(c) Disinters a buried or otherwise interred dead human body without a court order;
(d) Dismembers a dead human body to any extent or damages or detaches any part or portion of a dead human body; or
(e) Commits or attempts to commit upon any dead human body any act of sexual penetration.
Under Utah’s statute, the failure to report the finding of a dead human body is a class B misdemeanor. Committing any of the other actions listed is a third-degree felony.
Notably, there are some federal laws that may apply to a case involving the desecration of human remains, including:
- Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), 25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq.: This Act provides protection for Native American human remains and cultural items that are found on federal or tribal lands. It sets forth a process for the return of these items to the lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes, and it establishes penalties for non-compliance.
- Government Property Destruction Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1361: While this law does not directly mention desecration, it makes it a federal crime to willfully damage or destroy government property, which could be applied to vandalism or desecration in national cemeteries.
- Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, 16 U.S.C. §§ 470aa–470mm: This Act protects archaeological resources on public and Native American lands. While it's more about artifacts, it includes provisions related to human remains associated with archaeological resources.
In cases like the one at Harvard Medical School, other federal laws could be invoked, depending on the specifics of the case. For example, if any transportation of human remains occurred across state lines, it might constitute a violation of federal law, potentially invoking statutes under the commerce clause. If the case involved mail fraud, wire fraud, or other forms of federal jurisdiction (such as crimes committed on federal property or involving federal employees), it would likely trigger federal oversight as well, even though the direct act of desecration itself might be prosecuted under state law.
Compensation for the desecration of human remains
While criminal laws prohibit acts like the desecration of human remains, victims' families have another legal avenue: civil lawsuits. This legal pathway acknowledges not only the societal wrongdoing but also the personal harm done to the deceased's loved ones, allowing for the possibility of monetary compensation or other forms of relief that are not available through the criminal justice system.
In cases involving the desecration of human remains, several common bases for civil action can be pursued, depending on the circumstances:
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED): This cause of action recognizes the severe emotional suffering that loved ones undergo when a body is desecrated. Plaintiffs can be compensated if they’re able to prove that the defendant’s outrageous conduct caused them extreme emotional distress, which usually requires evidence of the intensity of the suffering and, in some jurisdictions, physical manifestation of the distress.
- Negligence: In situations where the desecration occurred due to the failure of an entity to exercise due care and respect, families might sue for negligence. For instance, if a funeral home, morgue, or another responsible party did not take reasonable steps to secure remains, leading to their desecration, these entities could be liable for damages arising from their negligence.
- Nuisance: While less common, a nuisance claim may be relevant if the desecration interferes with a family's right to the quiet enjoyment of their private property (for instance, if remains were wrongfully kept on private property).
- Breach of Contract: If there was a contractual agreement in place (such as with a funeral home or cemetery) that included provisions for the care or handling of the remains, a breach of contract action could be initiated if those contractual obligations were not met.
In filing a civil lawsuit, plaintiffs can seek various types of damages. These might include:
- Economic damages: Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by the desecration, such as the cost of a proper burial or memorial service.
- Non-economic damages: Non-economic damages are more subjective than economic damages, and they aren’t as easy to calculate. Non-economic damages include things like pain and suffering.
- Punitive damages: In cases where the conduct was particularly egregious, courts might award punitive damages. These are not tied to the actual harm suffered but are designed to punish the defendant and deter similar conduct in the future.
- Legal fees and costs: In some cases, plaintiffs may be able to recover the costs of bringing the lawsuit, including legal fees.