By Andrea Karshan
Senator Simcha Felder (Borough Park, Midwood) and Queens Assemblyman Mike Simanowitz’s call to respect the dignity of the dead has finally been answered as both the New York State Senate and Assembly have passed their bill to prohibit the release of unclaimed bodies without the consent of the deceased’s spouse or next of kin.
Under current law, after 48 hours unclaimed bodies can go to embalming schools and other such institutions without prior written authorization by the deceased person or their next kin.
The new measure would protect unclaimed bodies from going to these organizations and instead the bodies would be buried by the city at Potter’s Field, located on Hart Island.
“In many cases, family would object to what takes place after the body is released. People want to bury their loved ones according to their own traditions, but by the time they discover their loss, it’s often too late. Our bill would require the written consent of a spouse or next of kin before an unclaimed body can be released,” said Felder.
The measure dates back to April 2015, when Felder and called on Mayor de Blasio to prevent the release of unclaimed bodies without prior written authorization by the deceased person or their next kin.
“Releasing unclaimed bodies for embalming or dissection without receiving authorization from the spouse or next of kin of a deceased person is shocking and fails to take into consideration that person’s religious practices or personal beliefs,” wrote Felder in a letter to de Blasio. “There are many people including Jews, Muslims and others, who are opposed on religious grounds to embalming and/or autopsies.”
When the City suspended the release of unclaimed bodies, the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service, Inc. (AAMI), the City’s only embalming school, sued to have the suspension permanently lifted, claiming that it impedes proper education of its students. New York’s highest court later ruled in June of 2015 that medical examiners can keep the organs of unidentified bodies without family consent.
Unlike medical schools, which get cadavers from those who donate their bodies to science, the AAMI relies mostly on New York City’s unidentified remains for their embalming courses.
After the court ruling, Felder called on New York State Medical Examiners to respect the rights of the families of the deceased until new legislation is passed. He then introduced the legislation that he hoped would fix the problem. Senate Bill S4430Dprohibiting delivery of an unclaimed body to a university, college, school or institute, unless consent of the deceased or person authorized to control disposition has been granted.
“Our current laws do not protect the religious or personal rights of New Yorkers,” said Simanowitz.
“We have seen repeated cases of unclaimed bodies delivered for dissection without consideration of religious or personal wishes. This has caused much grief for loved ones who are already mourning their loss. Our legislation would ensure that without consent from next of kin or the deceased, all unclaimed bodies would be respectfully buried,” he added.
Continuing his crusade for dignity for the dead, Felder also introduced Senate Bill S2701 which requires cemeteries to provide for the expeditious burial and interment of deceased who are a part of certain religious and cultural communities.
At post time it is unclear whether Governor Cuomo will sign the bill.