Death + the Law

Collected Posts on the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps

Westboro Baptist Church Founder Fred Phelps Dies Aged 84
Reverend started Kansas church that gained intense notoriety for its anti-gay protests and pickets at funerals of US soldiers
Jon Swaine, The Guardian (March 20, 2014)

Fred Phelps died earlier today. He led (until recently it seems, but the details are murky) the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC gained international attention (and condemnation) for its protests at funerals for dead soldiers. It was also known for its ‘God Hates Fags’ signs.

We here at the Death Reference Desk began covering Phelps and the WBC in 2009. You can read all of those posts here.

Cemeteries Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

Virtual Graves for Armistice Day

How to visit a Virtual Grave
Alison Winward, The Guardian (November 10, 2010)


Armistice Day Marked Around the World – In Pictures
The Guardian (November 11, 2011)


The War Graves Photographic Project
Commonwealth War Graves Commission

A quick post for Armistice Day (in the UK), Veterans Day (in the US) and Remembrance Day (in Canada). A few years ago, volunteers began amassing online photos for The War Graves Photographic Project. People can search online for graves all over the world and see images of the gravestones. The Guardian article at the top discusses the project and how it got started.

As of right now, it looks like the graves are only for the UK and Commonwealth Nations. That said, it seems like something which will catch on in America.

Thanks Veterans, one and all.

— The Death Reference Desk.

Cemeteries Death + the Law Monuments + Memorials

Enter now the FBI into the Arlington Cemetery Debacle

Arlington Cemetery’s Mishandling of Remains Prompts FBI Criminal Probe
Jerry Markon and Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (June 29, 2011)
The Justice Department is investigating the mishandling of remains at Arlington National Cemetery in a broad criminal inquiry that is also seeking evidence of possible contracting fraud and falsification of records, people familiar with the investigation said Tuesday

I have no idea who is going to make the documentary film about the rise and fall of Arlington National Cemetery but it is going to be a long and complicated movie. Twists and turns will emerge from nowhere and then suddenly it will turn out that the FBI was investigating the whole situation.

At this point, nothing which emerges from the ongoing and unstoppable Arlington cemetery train wreck surprises me. Nothing. The Washington Post has been singlehandedly leading the charge on this case. Now we have FBI Agents, a federal grand jury handing out subpoenas, and increasingly obvious cases of multi-million dollar fraud.

Here’s the rub: it’s only going to get worse. That’s my guess after following this case since day one.

You can read all the previous Arlington Cemetery posts here.

The Death Reference Desk will of course follow this case until the end.

Burial Funeral Industry Grief + Mourning

Shade it Black

Earlier this week, NPR ran an interview with Jess Goodell, author of the new memoir Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq. The new book is Goodell’s account of her time as a Marine working in the Mortuary Affairs Unit in Iraq in 2004. Terry Gross interviewed Goodell in a segment entitled Death and After in Iraq: Memoir of a Mortuary, which you can listen to here.

The Mortuary Affairs Unit is the platoon tasked with recovering and processing the remains of fallen troops. Out in the field, Goodell and her unit would recover bodies and body parts and bring them back to base for further processing. Then they would prepare the remains for shipping back home. Back at base, Goodell’s job was to document identifying marks on the body like scars or tattoos, etc. The next step involved going through pockets of the dead soldiers to recover anything that could be given back to the family. In an excerpt from the book, Goodell writes:

He gave us step-by-step instructions. “Roll him over to document his wounds.” We may have known that a Marine was hit by bullets or a grenade, but we may not have known where. But when we tried to turn him over, we couldn’t. Rigor mortis was setting in and he was already beginning to stiffen, except for his waist, which was like a pivot point. Even when we strained to turn him over, we could not. It was awkward and we were silent except for The Sir’s slow, calm, firm instructions. “C’mon guys, you were trained on this and you know what to do,” he reassured us. And so, eventually, we did it. “Okay,” The Sir said, “now write down any distinguishing marks, any tattoos.” So we did. “Now, write down which body parts are missing and shade the missing parts black on the outline of the body.” So we did. We followed The Sir’s directions, marking the wounds, drawing the tattoos, shading the missing parts black. We had to be told throughout what to do next and how to do it.

We don’t yet have a copy of the book at my library, so I have not had a chance to read it. Publisher’s Weekly’s review is here. However, it looks like an interesting read not only for Goodell’s account of her time in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, but her experiences with the brutal and sexist culture of the U.S. Marine Corps. The NPR interview touches a bit upon this aspect of Goodell’s experience as well.

As the author talks about being diagnosed with PTSD, it struck me that perhaps the underlying factors are not only related to the handling of corpses, but the objectification and degradation of her own body as well. In the interview, her measured, almost dispassionate voice made me wonder if parts of her own body and mind had died in Iraq, not unlike the soldiers she was tasked with recovering. The coping mechanisms that the soldiers employ without even really knowing that they are doing so—the turning inward, the antisocial behavior—mask this pain quite well, at least for a while it seems.

At the end of the NPR interview, Goodell talks about her decision to study psychology and her desire to help other soldiers with PTSD, citing the need for more counselors who had personally experienced serving in Iraq.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

Arlington National Cemetery Update…Now with Hints of Conspiracy

Warner to Introduce Bill to Revoke Reserved Plots at Arlington
Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (March 30, 2011)

A quick update on Arlington National Cemetery and its ongoing problems. The lead didn’t necessarily get buried in this most recent article from the Washington Post but the entire Arlington debacle just got a lot more interesting.

As The Washington Post reports, a list has surfaced of 84 names, mostly generals and colonels, who have been promised choice spots in the cemetery, despite the ban on such favoritism. This unofficial reservation system seems to contribute to the failure to computerize records, despite millions of dollars spend on such a project, starting in 2002. It’s easier to falsify and deliberately mismanage a paper trail than it is a digital facsimile.

There has already been a Congressional investigation but I won’t be surprised if we see another.


Arlington Cemetery Debacle Gets Worse and Worse

Arlington Cemetery Struggles with Old Reservations
Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (March 21, 2011)
Officials at Arlington National Cemetery — still unable to fully account for who is buried where at the nation’s premier military resting place — are struggling to determine who has reserved plots and whether some of those grave sites are already in use.

Oh poor, sad black-hole-of-problems Arlington National Cemetery. One day, a book about running modern cemeteries will be written and in said book will be a chapter entitled Arlington National Cemetery: A Case Study in Totally Preventable Burial Disasters.

Last week, I posted another Washington Post article on the mass burial of ‘unknown’ urns.

And I now have a prediction: We have not yet reached the bottom of this continuing fall from postmortem grace. It boggles the imagination to imagine what will happen next, but I know that some new terrible development is on the way.

In all fairness, Arlington Cemetery’s new executive director, Kathryn Condon, is doing an impressive job of dealing with the multiple problems she inherited from the previous overseers. You can read about all of the problems confronting Arlington Cemetery here.

The newest problem confronting Arlington, as reported in the Post article linked above, is they don’t have accurate records for who holds a gravesite reservation and where, and whether that grave is already occupied.

At some point, it would be good to compile an entire list of everything that has gone wrong at Arlington…I’ll plan on this for the future.

Coincidentally, Meg posted information yesterday on some proposed legislation working its way through the United States Congress. The Bereaved Consumer’s Bill of Rights Act of 2011 was written to deal with the kinds of problems afflicting Arlington Cemetery. Sadly, this Bill would not encompass Veterans Affairs cemeteries, such as Arlington, so it’s up to the Federal Government to make the fixes.

This story will continue.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

Arlington Cemetery Re-Buries the ‘Unknown’ Dead

For First Time in Decades, Arlington National Cemetery Must Bury Multiple ‘Unknowns’
Christian Davenport, The Washington Post (March 06, 2011)
When the remains of a Vietnam War soldier buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were identified in 1998 using DNA, Pentagon officials proudly said that the days of interring service members as “Unknown” could well be over.

It is difficult to imagine the situation at Arlington National Cemetery getting any worse. But the bad news just keeps coming and coming. Hats off to the Washington Post, whose reporters have been rigorously following this case.

The newest revelation is that eight sets of unidentified, cremated human remains were chucked into a single gravesite because of human negligence.

When Arlington Cemetery’s problems first came to light, I remember referring to the entire situation as a ‘Code Red’ alarm for any cemetery.

I’m not sure that even Code Red is an adequate description anymore.

One day, a final tally of all the mishandled burials might be known. But I’m not counting on it.

To read more about the Arlington National Cemetery debacle, click here.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Westboro Baptist Church Wins Funeral Protest Case

Supreme Court Rules First Amendment Protects Westboro Church’s Right to Picket Funerals
Robert Barnes, The Washington Post (March 02, 2011)
A nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech about public issues and upheld the right of a fringe church to protest near military funerals.


Justices Rule for Protesters at Military Funerals
Adam Liptak, The New York Times (March 02, 2011)
The First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in an 8-1 decision.


Supreme Court of the United States
Snyder v. Phelps decision

For people who read United States Supreme Court decisions, the most important thing to do with any new ruling is immediately flip to the second or third page and look for the verdict. Then you can go back and and actually digest the text.

So, without much further ado, here is what the Supreme Court said about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and its funeral protests:

Held: The First Amendment shields Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

We’ve been following the Westboro Baptist Church case here on the Death Reference Desk and you can read all of that coverage here.

In brief, the Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Topeka, Kansas was sued by Albert Snyder after its members protested outside his son’s military funeral in Maryland. This was in 2006. Snyder’s son was a US Marine and the WBC, led by Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley, appeared with signs which proclaimed “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and other, similar statements. The WBC is also known as the group God Hates Fags and fervently believes that soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because America has embraced homosexuality. God is showing his displeasure with America by letting the deaths happen.

The case worked its way up and down the US Court system after Albert Snyder won an earlier case and was awarded millions of dollars in damages. Last October, the Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides.

I’m not surprised that the Supreme Court decided in the WBC’s favor, since the entire case was a classic First Amendment debate. I also understand the logic which the eight justices in the majority used, even if the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts seems a bit forced. By this, I mean, that the Justices could have simply said that the WBC protests were allowed to be obnoxious and ridiculous because the First Amendment guaranteed that right.

Instead, the decision uses an array of legal points which really reach reach reach for legal justifications.

Ok. That’s a little unfair.

Adam Liptak, of the New York Times summarises:

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the ruling that three factors required a ruling in favor of the church group. First, he said, its speech was on matters of public concern. While the messages on the signs carried by its members “may fall short of refined commentary,” the chief justice wrote, “the issues they highlight — the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our nation, homosexuality in the military and scandals involving the Catholic clergy — are matters of public import.”


Second, he wrote, the relationship between the church and the Snyders was not a private grudge.


Third, the members of the church “had the right to be where they were.” They were picketing on a public street 1,000 feet from the site of the funeral, they complied with the law and with instructions from the police, and they protested quietly and without violence.


Chief Justice Roberts suggested that the proper response to hurtful protests are general laws creating buffer zones around funerals and the like, rather than empowering of juries to punish unpopular speech.

So there you have it.

Funereal protests by the Westboro Baptist Church are protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. You can read an excerpt of Snyder v. Phelps here.

You can also read the full decision at the top of the page.

The lone dissenter, Justice Alito, built his dissent around empathy for the grieving families and their desire to be left alone during a funeral. He has a point but that does not mean individual states can create laws banning certain groups from protesting outside funerals.

And even though the WBC won this particular US Supreme Case, which is significant, it just means that anytime the Westboro Baptist Church shows up at a funeral with its handful of members the number of counter-protesters will be even larger.

Finally, the first sentence of the Snyder v. Phelps decision is, hands down, the best ever. It is a sentence that implicitly states, for both good and bad reasons, only in America:

For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military.

The Death Reference Desk will post any relevant updates on this story. It’s not going to disappear now. That’s for sure.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

Year End Look at Arlington Cemetery’s Future

Restoring Arlington Cemetery
Washington Post Editorial Board (December 27, 2010)
What does it mean to restore accountability in the nation’s cemetery?

This is a good, succinct Washington Post Editorial on everything that’s gone wrong at Arlington Cemetery. This last year has been particularly bad for Arlington Cemetery and you can read Death Ref’s coverage of those problems here.

The Washington Post Editorial Board also mentions the fixes being implemented to help remedy the problems. One key improvement will be the the use of a computerized tracking system for all the graves. It is hard to believe, given Arlington Cemetery’s national significance, but before now all the graves were kept track of on pieces of paper.


That system didn’t work particularly well. In early December, for example, the Washington Post ran a story on 8 sets of cremated remains found buried in the same, single gravesite. What was most interesting about that specific case was that the US Military brought in an Army Anthropologist (who usually works on gravesite forensic investigations) to ascertain what happened.

So, on the whole, 2011 will be a tricky year for Arlington Cemetery.

Especially since US Military personnel continue to die overseas, and those individuals deserve what the Department of Defense calls a dignified transfer to the grave.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Westboro Baptist Church Supreme Court Case

Anti-Gay Minister Shouldn’t Be Able To Intrude On Soldiers’ Funerals
Doug Gansler, The Washington Post (October 6, 2010)


Funeral Protesters Have A Free-Speech Right
Editorial Board, The Washington Post (October 6, 2010)


Westboro Baptist Church, Phelps Family Speak Out About Funeral-Protest Case
Ian Shapira, The Washington Post (October 6, 2010)


Court Considers Westboro Baptist Church’s Anti-Gay Protests At Military Funerals
Robert Barnes, The Washington (October 6, 2010)


Justices Hear Arguments In Funeral-Protest Case
Adam Liptak, The New York Times (October 07, 2010)


Lamentable Speech
Editorial Board, The New York Times (October 7, 2010)


Court Weighs Free Speech vs. Privacy At Funerals
Robert Barnes, The Washington Post (October 7, 2010)

A hardly definitive roundup of articles about Wednesday’s Supreme Court Case involving the Westboro Baptist Church and its funeral protests.

This NewsHour television report is really good too.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

US Supreme Court Hears Funeral Protest Case on Wednesday

Westboro Baptist’s Funeral Protests Put Free Speech To Test
Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers (October 1, 2010)


Supreme Court Term Offers Hot Issues and Future Hints
Adam Liptak, The New York Times (October 2, 2010)


Free speech: Westboro Church Supreme Court Case Tests First Amendment
Warren Richey, The Christian Science Monitor (October 2, 2010)

On Wednesday, October 6, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an important free speech and protest rights case. Death Ref has been covering this case for a while and you can read those previous posts here. In brief, the Westboro Baptist Church, which is based in Topeka, Kansas was sued by Albert Snyder after its members protested outside his son’s military funeral in Maryland. Snyder’s son was a US Marine and the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley, protested outside the funeral with signs which proclaimed “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and other, similar statements. The WBC is also known as the group God Hates Fags and fervently believes that soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because America has embraced homosexuality, therefore God is letting the deaths happen.


The WBC’s theology is an island unto itself when it comes to its funeral protests but it has garnered a lot of attention over the years. It has also drawn the ire of people who don’t like the church at all.

Albert Snyder’s case has been working its way through courts for a few years now and the US Supreme Court faces a particularly difficult set of arguments. Warren Richey’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor does an excellent job of positioning the case within a broader historical context.

And it looks like this decision will be historic, in one way or another. The politics involved are making for odd mixes of both conservative and liberal thought. It is also really difficult to know how the Justices will respond during the oral arguments.

Keep checking back to Death Ref for updates.

Cemeteries Monuments + Memorials

And the Problems at Arlington Cemetery Just Keep Growing…

2 Bodies Found in Wrong Plots at Arlington Cemetery
Christian Davenport, Washington Post (September 15, 2010)
Arlington National Cemetery officials discovered that two people were buried in the wrong plots after exhuming their remains last month, an Army official confirmed Tuesday.


More Details Emerge about Bodies Buried in Wrong Arlington Plots
Christian Davenport, Washington Post (September 21, 2010)
The mystery of missing bodies at the nation’s most hallowed military burial ground keeps getting more troubling.

Two more articles on the problems at Arlington National Cemetery recently ran in the Washington Post and the situation is going from bad to worse. Way worse.

These are two interrelated articles, separated by about a week and represent a huge problem for cemetery authorities: bodies in the wrong plots, plots marked with headstones that lack bodies, and multiple sets of remains in single plots.


Early on, when the problems at Arlington Cemetery first emerged, I suggested that mass disinterments might be required. This was partially in jest but I am beginning to think that it could happen. These are Code Red, worst case scenarios for ANY cemetery, let alone Arlington National Cemetery which handles military funerals.

At this point, it is hard to know what Arlington officials can do other than check every single grave. That is a total of 300,000 graves (give or take), with approximately 6,900 new funerals every year. Even if officials cut the total number in half, it’s still 150,000 graves that need checking and that would be a Herculean task.

You can read all of Death Ref’s Arlington Cemetery reports here.