A lawsuit filed by parents who understandably believed they buried their entire son took an entire decade to be resolved.
Despite the lengthy review and appeals process, the decision still leaves me no closer to knowing how much of my body the government will allow me to bring to my grave.
The child’s parents thought they’d buried ALL of their teenaged car crash victim before the kids’ fellow students saw part of him on display during a tour of the local medical examiner’s office.
Great idea for a school trip there, educators.
They sued their locality contending they had the right to bury their whole son and the government had no right to keep parts of him. They complained they were never informed some remains were kept for study after the autopsy.
I don’t think this case made much of a ripple in dinnertime conservations, but it sure showed me how important details are. Or, in the case of one branch of the government getting a “pass” on liability from another branch of the government – it shows me how important the lack of details can be.
I’m no lawyer – so mine is a simplified translation of the court’s ruling in this case.
The law states that the government must “produce the decedent’s body for a proper disposition.” But the law’s text doesn’t specifically require the return of o-r-g-a-n-s removed during an autopsy.
According to the judiciary branch of the government, that’s because the legislative branch of the government didn’t spell out, in the law, that when the law says “decedent’s body” that includes the parts inside, like the brain.
These judges didn’t rule that it’s not proper, that it’s right or that it’s moral or immoral for the government to hang onto people’s body parts. Nor did they rule that that people should get these parts back as a matter of course.
They simply ruled that the law itself doesn’t specify, so the government can’t be held liable.
In the end, it’s that simple, so I don’t have to delve deeply into legal theories.
If the law doesn’t spell out specific steps the government has to follow, than you can’t blame the government for not taking those steps.
Did people who heard about this case look back and wonder if they buried ALL of their loved ones after that funeral? It certainly makes me wonder.
WORTH A WHILE?
The family was ultimately able to bury the rest of their son – they had to hire a lawyer to make that happen. I’m hoping this #Unliving child can rest in peace.
But the wheels are turning in my brain as I try to devise a way to ensure that ALL of my body gets planted in the ground when it comes time for my funeral and burial.
The real eye-opener for me is in this case’s history - the little bit of detail gleaned from one of the numerous decisions in this case – specifically the one issued back in 2010.
It’s there where we learn that the second medical examiner did his medical examining then submitted a “neuropathology report” stating the same thing the autopsy, written by the first medical examiner, had already said two months before: The boy died from injuries he suffered in the car crash.
Why did it take two months for that not-too-earth-shattering report? Because the examiner in charge of the autopsy hangs onto brains for six months before contacting the other examiner to do the neuropathological report.
Why? So that it’s worth his while to make the trip, he said: “It doesn't make sense for him to come and do one.”
That’s kind of like leaving the bags of empty beer cans in the garage until you can fill up the back of the car with a full load – it’s just not worth my while to bring a 12-pack down for the deposits.
The difference here is we’re talking about human beings and their parts, not cans and bottles.
And it’s clear to me – and it should be clear to anybody else – that any examination that can wait six months or until it’s worth somebody’s “while” to have to take a drive to do it is not a necessary examination.
I defy anybody to show me an example of when one of these tests revealed a cure for Ebola or alerted health officials to a burgeoning epidemic.
They don’t. They are not necessary.
I can’t find a single example in any of the court documents that are publicly available in this case which explain or defend these “neuropathology” exams beyond saying the medical examiner “had the statutory authority to exercise his discretion in performing the autopsy and removing and retaining organs for further examination and testing.”
Yeah, OK. That’s a lot like that answer I used to get all the time when I was a kid after I asked “Why?”
“Because I said so” the answer went.
Despite the deep thought and chin-rubbing these judiciary types must have went through over the course of 10 grueling years, the case left me no closer to knowing whether the government can or cannot hang onto my organs after I die.
I’d clearly be on the losing side of this argument, standing alongside the dissenting justice, Jenny Rivera, who foists intense criticism on her peers’ thinking.
Rivera, in her dissenting opinion, states she believes the government’s “statutory authority to conduct an autopsy does not permit a medical examiner to retain organs once the lawful purpose for their retention has been accomplished, absent notification to, and consent from, the next of kin.”
To Rivera, the other justices who outnumbered her believe the law gives the government, and its agents, “unfettered discretion to retain organs once they no longer serve any legitimate purpose, and also to withhold information from the next of kin that parts of the body are unavailable immediately for burial, or are never to be returned.”
Wow. Now if I decide it is, indeed, important for me to go to my final resting place in one piece, I’ll have to figure out how.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association