Lawful and Decent Burial

This morning I was struck by the words used in the charge against Hans Rausing, the failure to ensure ‘lawful and decent burial’ of his wife’s body. It is a sad, sad case, but those words reminded me of something I think we sometimes tend to forget: the immense dignity of the human body. Religious people often wax eloquent about the body, indeed we have a whole theology of the body, but it takes the law, our wonderfully messy, imperfect, civil law to express what I suspect most of us believe deep down, even if we would not describe ourselves as religious: that the human person is uniquely privileged and deserves respect even after death. We are not so much organic rubbish to be left to moulder away: lawful and decent burial is our right, and by extension, the duty of all of us to provide for others.

Of course, we cannot stop there. If the dead body is worthy of reverence, what about the living? The unborn? Those of the ‘wrong’ sex? Those who don’t appear to us to have what it takes to sustain a ‘good quality of life’? The late Lord Denning famously observed, ‘Be you never so high, yet the law is above you.’ This morning I feel like adding, no matter how arrogant we may be, the law reminds us of the limits of our power.

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9 thoughts on “Lawful and Decent Burial”

  1. A Very sad case indeed. As you say we are all entitled to respect even in death, as we are all shaped in God’s image. However, I do think that this case highlights a lack of Christian compassion. The Burial Act came into force to ensure bodies were dealt with respectfully, rather than being stolen for anatomy classes. In modern times it has come to be used where benefit cheats fail to notify a death for financial gain, or prevent discovery of more heinous crimes. Here you have a very rich couple, who’s mutually supportive marriage has survived the horrors of addiction, and which has sustained much charitable work in spite of those difficulties. Unless I’m much mistaken, Herr Rausing’s reaction is one one might expect, and whilst his behaviour is odd and “not normal” it is surely deserving of our compassion and understanding, rather than the use of law. As a former Barrister, I recognise in this case the frustrations of the Police, and the giving way to the temptation of having “to do something” with the unexplained death of a public figure. Had this been the death of Mrs Smith a long time addict, I doubt the police involvment would have lasted more than a few hours…..which is in itself disrespectful of the hyperthetical Mrs Smith!

    • Thank you, Nadine. I wasn’t actually commenting on the Rausing case, but I agree that there has been a great lack of compassion in the way in which both Hans and Eva Rausing have been treated, in the media and elsewhere. I hope we’ll learn something.

  2. Sister,

    Thank you for something which made me stop and think.

    Dignity in death is something quite important to us, although burial or cremation with an appropriate funeral service conducted by a Priest or Deacons should be the norm.

    I attended a humanist funeral last year for a relative which left many in tears, as it was completely without hope of the new life promised with Jesus. It was full of platitudes about the deceased romping in the sky with their long dead, much loved pet dog. To my and many others minds, there was little respect or dignity accorded to the deceased, a war veteran, who was widely loved and respected.

    He had been born and brought up Catholic and his faith had sustained him as a POW. I have the prayer book he used during those years in captivity. It is much thumbed with personal notes inserted into texts etc. His children said that he didn’t do God. When I had asked him about this, he had said that due to some terrible things he had seen and done during the war, he felt that God would not forgive him. Which is different from a lack of belief.

    The other point about Lord Denning is appropriate. Many years ago, he was the Governor of a School that my daughter attended. He used to present GCE Certificates. I can remember his encouragement to the shiny young people to persevere in education, moral living and faith. A great man.

    • Thank you, Ernie. We are increasingly finding that families won’t agree to a Christian funeral for someone who may have been a churchgoer all his/her life because of their own objection to a religious ceremony. That calls in question how far we should respect the wishes of the deceased, especially when not explicitly stated. It is a tough one to crack. I will pray for your relative.

  3. An anecdotal PS : In the recent Coroner’s inquest into the death of a young diabetic in a London hospital — revealing, throughout, hospital staff’s “give us a break” couldn’t-care-less-ness — it was reported that a nurse asked her superior, in front of the dead man’s mother, “Shall I bag him up now?” One guesses that, rather than a one-off, that was standard in-house idiom. No one appears to have been prosecuted ; one member of staff (only) has been ‘demoted’.

  4. It is interesting to note that one of the things that defines mankind as the “highest” of God’s creation,is his ability to grieve for ,and to bury the dead of his own kind.The poor man in question may well be quite mentally sick ,and unable to relate as to what has happened.
    I gather that a video has emerged showing disrespect for the body of Ghadaffi…..I would very suprised if the person involved here will be called to account. Everyone is inherently made in the image of God,and whoever they are,deserve respect in death.

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