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Bob Ferguson

AGO 1952 No. 239 -
Attorney General Smith Troy


The law vests no authority in morticians to supply medical schools with cadavers, even though the deceased was kinless and/or friendless.

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                                                                February 15, 1952

Honorable Howard T. Ball
Representative, Seventh Legislative District
327 South Jefferson
Spokane, Washington                                                                                             Cite as:  AGO 51-53 No. 239

Dear Sir:

            Recently you inquired whether morticians may give dead bodies to a medical school for anatomical inquiry purposes.

            We are of the opinion that morticians or undertakers are not vested with any authority to surrender bodies of the dead to a medical school or the students thereof.


            You have asked if morticians may provide the medical students of the University of Washington Medical School with cadavers in the following instances:

            1. Where the dead body is that of an inmate of a state institution with‑-

            (a) no known relative;

            (b) relatives.

            2. Where the corpse is that of a person‑-

            (a) with relatives who can not be located or contacted;

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            (b) with relatives who do not claim the body, and

            (c) who has been receiving benefits under social security.

            The answer to each and every question above enumerated is simply that a mortician or undertaker has no authority to offer any dead body in his custody to a medical school, even if such would further the anatomical enlightenment of the students.  The common law that no property right obtains in a dead body does not stand in Washington, wherein the rule prevails that the right of custody over, and interest in, a corpse rests in the immediate relatives of the deceased.  Herzl Congregation v. Robinson, 142 Wash. 469, 253 Pac. 654.  And if the remains are unclaimed by relatives or friends, jurisdiction vests in the county commissioners or the coroner.  Chapter 258, Laws of 1951, Rem. Rev. Stat. 6042.  We have located no statute delegating to morticians the ultimate responsibility for dead bodies.

            Rem. Rev. Stat. 10026, authorizes physicians, surgeons, or medical students to possess for the purpose of scientific inquiry or instruction, human dead bodies or parts thereof.  The succeeding statute, Rem. Rev. Stat. 10027, reads:

            "Any sheriff, coroner, keeper of a county poorhouse, public hospital, county jail, or state prison must surrender the dead bodies of such persons as are required to be buried at the public expense to any physician or surgeon, to be by him used for the advancement of anatomical science, preference being always given to medical schools by law established in this state, for their use in the instruction of medical students.  But if such deceased person during his last sickness requested to be buried, or if within forty-eight hours after his death some person claiming to be a kindred or a friend of deceased requires the body to be buried, or if such deceased person was a stranger or traveler who suddenly died before making himself known, such dead body must be buried without dissection."  (Emphasis supplied)

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            Note that this list includes not morticians, undertakers or funeral directors.  And another law seems to require morticians and funeral directors to retain unclaimed or unwanted bodies of the dead in their possession for at least one year.  See Rem. Rev. Stat. 8323-3, which reads as follows:

            "Whenever any dead human body shall have been in the lawful possession of any person, firm corporation or association for a period of one year or more, or whenever the incinerated remains of any dead human body have been in the lawful possession of any person, firm, corporation or association for a period of two years or more, and the relatives of, or persons interested in, the deceased person shall fail, neglect or refuse for such periods of time, respectively, to direct the disposition to be made of such body or remains, such body or remains may be disposed of by the person, firm, corporation or association having such lawful possession thereof, under and in accordance with such rules and regulations as may be made and promulgated by said director of licenses, not inconsistent with any statute of the State of Washington or rule or regulation prescribed by the state board of health."

            By way of summation: We are of the opinion that the legislature has vested no authority in the morticians of the state to supply a medical school with cadavers, even though the deceased was kinless and friendless.

            We trust that the above satisfactorily answers your inquiry.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General