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AGO 1953 No. 85 - July 10, 1953
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Don Eastvold | 1953-1956 | Attorney General of Washington

PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS ‑- DEAD BODIES ‑- DISPOSITION OF UNCLAIMED BODIES OF DECEASED INMATES AT STATE INSTITUTIONS ‑- RESPONSIBILITY FOR COST OF BURIAL

1. State institutions have no authority to embalm, bury, cremate or otherwise dispose of unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates.

2. The jurisdiction of unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates is vested in the coroner of the county in which the inmates died.

3. The primary responsibility for the payment of the funeral costs rests with the relatives of the decedent or his estate.  If they are not financially able the county must provide for the disposition of the remains, ultimately, the department of public assistance must pay the cost of burial of indigent persons irrespective of whether or not they have been recipients of public assistance.

4. A state institution must obtain authorization from the county coroner before the institutional medical staff can perform an autopsy on the unclaimed body of a deceased inmate.

5. The county coroner would be authorized to direct that the unclaimed body of an inmate be buried in a cemetery maintained at the institution, assuming that the superintendent thereof acquiesced.

6. If such bodies are surrendered to a medical school, physician or surgeon, the recipient should be required to assume the responsibility for having the body embalmed.  If within 30 days following death a request for burial is received, such recipient would have a valid claim for reimbursement.

7. The 1953 acts pertaining to county coroners and the responsibility of the department of public assistance with respect to indigent deceased persons do not amend or supersede the statute providing for the burial of indigent deceased veterans.

[[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                    July 10, 1953

Honorable H. D. Van Eaton
Director
Department of Public Institutions
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 53-55 No. 85

Attention:  Mr. Leo J. Driscoll

Dear Sir:

            We have your request of June 9, 1953, in which you inquire about several matters in connection with the disposition to be made of the unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates of various state institutions.  You have requested our opinion on the following questions:

            1. Do the several state institutions, or any of them, have authority to embalm, bury, cremate, or otherwise dispose of unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates?

            2. Is the jurisdiction of unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates vested in the county coroner of the county in which the inmates died?

            3. Upon what individuals or governmental agencies does the responsibility for payment of expenses of embalming, burying or cremation rest?

            4.  Is a state institution required to obtain authorization from the county coroner before the institutional medical staff can perform an autopsy on the unclaimed body of a deceased inmate?

            5. Would the county coroner be authorized to direct that the unclaimed body of an inmate be buried in a cemetery maintained at the institution, assuming that the superintendent acquiesced?

            6. If the body is surrendered to a medical school, physician or surgeon, upon whom rests the responsibility, if any, of having the body embalmed?  If a request for burial is made within thirty days following death would a claim for reimbursement arise?

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            7. Is RCW 73.24.010 providing for the burying of indigent deceased veterans in any way affected by RCW 68.08.010?

            It is our conclusion that questions numbered 1 and 7 should be answered in the negative.  Questions 2, 4 and 5 should be answered in the affirmative.  Question 3 should be answered as follows: The statute places the primary liability for the expenses of burial upon certain listed classes of relatives.  If there are no responsible relatives or no estate, the ultimate expenses must be borne by the state department of public assistance.  The answer to question number 6 is that the medical school or physician receiving a body for research purposes should be required to bear the expense of embalming.  If a timely request for burial is received, however, the medical school or physician would be entitled to reimbursement from the person claiming the body, or from the department of public assistance.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            No. 1. The several state institutions have no authority to embalm, bury, cremate, or otherwise dispose of unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates.  An examination of the statutes relating to the powers and duties of superintendents of state institutions discloses no authority to dispose of the bodies of deceased inmates.  Section 8, chapter 188, Laws of 1953, makes it a misdemeanor to embalm or cremate a dead body upon which the coroner may perform an autopsy or post-mortem without the consent of the coroner having jurisdiction.  RCW 18.39.020 prohibits any person from discharging any of the duties of an embalmer or funeral director without a license.

            No. 2. The jurisdiction of unclaimed bodies of deceased inmates is vested in the county coroner of the county in which the inmate died.  Section 1, chapter 188, Laws of 1953, provides in part as follows:

            "The jurisdiction of * * * dead bodies not claimed by relatives or friends, is hereby vested in the county coroner, which bodies may be placed in the morgue * * * and held for the proper identification where necessary."

            No. 3. RCW 68.08.160 places the liability for the reasonable cost of interment of the remains of any deceased bodies upon the following, in the order named:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            (1) The surviving spouse;

            (2) The surviving children of the decedent;

            (3) The surviving parents of the decedent.

            This liability devolves jointly and severally upon all such kin of the decedent in the same degree of kindred and upon the estate of the decedent.  Chapter 188, Laws of 1953, vests jurisdiction of unclaimed bodies in the county coroner.  Chapter 224, Laws of 1953, provides in part as follows:

            "The board of county commissioners of any county shall provide for the disposition of the remains of any indigent person including a recipient of public assistance who dies within the county and whose body is unclaimed by relatives or church organization."

            RCW 36.39.030 which the above section amended had previously specifically excepted recipients of public assistance.  Section 32, chapter 174, Laws of 1953, provides in part as follows:

            "The department [of public assistance] is hereby directed through the county offices to assume responsibility for the funeral of deceased persons dying without assets sufficient to pay for the minimum standard funeral herein provided."

            Thus it appears that the primary responsibility for the payment of the funeral costs rests with the relatives of the decedent or his estate.  However, if they are not financially able, the county must provide for the disposition of the remains.  Ultimately, the department of public assistance must pay the burial costs.  If there is any question as to the proper disposal of the unclaimed body of a deceased inmate of a state institution, the coroner of the county in which death occurs has jurisdiction to decide.  In some of the smaller counties, the prosecuting attorney discharges the duties of the coroner.  The board of county commissioners must provide suitable burial facilities for all indigent persons.  The department of public assistance must pay the cost of burial of such indigent persons irrespective of whether or not they have been recipients of public assistance.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            No. 4. The officers of a state institution are required to obtain authorization from the county coroner before the institutional medical staff can perform an autopsy on an unclaimed body of a deceased inmate.  Although section 2, chapter 224, Laws of 1953, requires the superintendent of a state institution to surrender the dead bodies of persons required to be buried at public expense to any physician or surgeon, to be by him used for the advancement of anatomical science, it also provides that preference be given to medical schools in this state.  Thus, there could be a conflict which the coroner has jurisdiction to resolve.  Furthermore, any autopsy or dissection should be cleared with the county coroner in order for him to ascertain that the circumstances of the death do not require an inquest.

            No. 5. The county coroner is authorized to direct that the unclaimed body of an inmate be buried in a cemetery maintained at the institution, assuming that the superintendent of such institution acquiesced.  While it is true that the county is required to provide for the burial of indigent deceased persons, the statute does not require that the county burial grounds must be used exclusively, if other suitable facilities are available for this purpose.

            No. 6. Section 2, chapter 224, Laws of 1953, provides for the surrender of certain dead bodies to physicians and surgeons for anatomical research purposes.  While this statute is silent on the subject of embalming a body to be dissected for medical research, we understand that the medical school takes care of these arrangements.  It would appear to be reasonable to require physicians and surgeons to do likewise in order that, as a matter of policy, such disposition is administered consistently.  The same statute provides that if within thirty days after death, a relative or proper church official requests that the body be buried at public expense, this must be done.  In this event, the physician or medical school would have a legitimate claim for reimbursement for the expenses occasioned in embalming and transporting the body.  These costs should be payable by the department of public assistance, together with the balance of the items incidental to burial.  Since the 1953 act extended the time for request of burial from forty-eight hours to thirty days, it would appear to be advisable that no dissection for medical research purposes be permitted within thirty days of death in these cases.

            No. 7. RCW 68.08.010 as amended by chapter 188, Laws of 1953, vests jurisdiction of dead bodies not claimed by relatives or friends in the county coroner.  RCW 73.24.010, relating to the burial of indigent deceased veterans, specifically  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] requires that the county commissioners inter, at the expense of the county, such indigent veterans when requested to do so by the proper officer of a local post of a recognized national veterans' organization.  The county is required to expend up to $180 for this purpose, which is payable from the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Fund derived from the tax levy authorized by RCW 73.08.020.

            It should be noted that none of the 1953 amendments referred to this special act relating to veterans.  We conclude that it was the intention of the legislature to continue in effect the act requiring the counties to be responsible for such burial.

Very truly yours,

DON EASTVOLD
Attorney General

ANDY ENGEBRETSEN
Assistant Attorney General

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