Death + the Law Death Ethics

Governor of RI to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse

R.I. governor vetoes ‘domestic partners’ burial bill
Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal, (November 10, 2009)

When a person dies, his or her body needs to be claimed by the next of kin. If no kin can be found, then that dead body is handled by local authorities. The legal question of who (or whom) qualifies as next of kin is a real dilemma when it involves domestic partners who have been together for numerous years but lack any say over the final disposition of the body. Asserting a legal claim over the control of the corpse is a key issue for same-sex marriage proponents as well as domestic partnership advocates (which would cover heterosexual couples too).

Last week, in Rhode Island, the Governor vetoed a new Domestic Partners bill that would have granted same-sex and opposite-sex partners next of kin status for claiming dead bodies. This Providence Journal article discusses the veto and why Governor Carcieri did what he did.

I promise that in the future, people will look back and read these histories with disbelief.

You need only read this section to understand why:

At a hearing this year on one of the stalled bills to allow same-sex marriage, Mark S. Goldberg told a Senate committee about his months-long battle last fall to persuade state authorities to release to him the body of his partner of 17 years, Ron Hanby, so he could grant Hanby’s wish for cremation — only to have that request rejected because “we were not legally married or blood relatives.”

Goldberg said he tried to show the police and the state medical examiner’s office “our wills, living wills, power of attorney and marriage certificate” from Connecticut, but “no one was willing to see these documents.”

He said he was told the medical examiner’s office was required to conduct a two-week search for next of kin, but the medical examiner’s office waited a full week before placing the required ad in a newspaper. And then when no one responded, he said, they “waited another week” to notify another state agency of an unclaimed body.

Rhode Island State Flag

After four weeks, he said, a Department of Human Services employee “took pity on me and my plight … reviewed our documentation and was able to get all parties concerned to release Ron’s body to me,” but then the cremation society refused to cremate Ron’s body.

“On the same day, I contacted the Massachusetts Cremation Society and they were more than willing to work with me and cremate Ron’s body,” and so, “on November 6, 2008, I was able to finally pick up Ron’s remains and put this tragedy to rest.”

“I felt as if I was treated not as a second-class citizen, but as a noncitizen,” Goldberg told the Senate Judiciary Committee, an hour into the first hearing this year in the 13-year push by gay-rights advocates for the right to marry in Rhode Island, and the pushback from the Roman Catholic Church and other opponents.

Kathy Kushnir, executive directive of the advocacy group Marriage Equality of Rhode Island, called the governor’s veto “unconscionable” when “people are trying to piece their lives together, which is what Rhode Island is requiring them to do without legal recognition,” and then when “faced with a time that could not be more difficult or more painful, not even being able to take care of funeral arrangements for their loved ones.”

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