The Missouri Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion involving facts that are all too familiar with funeral directors: family members disputing who controls a funeral and the right to cremains.
A mother contacted a St. Louis funeral home about arrangements for an adult son who was gravely ill. The funeral home sold the mother a preneed life insurance policy in an amount to cover a visitation and cremation. The mother also signed an authorization form indicating she was her son’s “next of kin”. When the son died a month later, the mother went to the funeral home to make the final arrangements for the cremation. While the funeral home was meeting with the mother, the deceased’s adult son arrived at the funeral home and demanded that his father be given a full funeral and burial. The funeral home advised the mother that her grandson had the legal right under Missouri’s right of sepulcher law (Section 194.119) to determine the disposition of his father’s remains. At that point, Grandma informed Grandson that he would have to pay for the funeral and burial on his own because she would only allow the preneed insurance policy to be used for a cremation. Unable to come up for the cost of a funeral and burial, Grandson agreed to the cremation and signed the funeral home’s statement of funeral goods and services. After the cremation was performed, Grandson collected his father’s cremains from the funeral home. Shortly thereafter, Grandma went to the funeral home to get the cremains but was advised her grandson had already collected the cremains. Grandma felt that since she had paid for the cremation she was entitled to her son’s cremains and sued for a refund.
The appeals court ruled against Grandma, finding that she was not a party to the contract for her son’s cremation. Even though she had paid for the insurance policy used to fund the cremation, the cremation contract was between the funeral home and Grandson. Relying upon Section 119.350, the court reasoned that since the cremation contract was silent on who was to receive the cremains, the statute authorized the funeral home to release those cremains to the son. One lesson other funeral homes could take from this case would be to discuss release of the cremains with the family members and include an instruction in the statement of goods and services about the cremains’ release.