Mishandling of Human Remains

This content has been written by a team of legal writers and reviewed by Terry Crouppen

Making the final arrangements for lost loved ones is a final act of love that can provide those left behind with lasting comfort and peace as they honor the wishes of the deceased. Every facility that comes into contact with the dead has a contractual obligation to handle each body with dignity.

Too often, funeral homes and health care institutions breach their duties by failing to follow instructions, neglecting sanitation, or maintaining inaccurate or incomplete records.

If you have suffered harm because a professional dishonored your loved one’s remains in St. Louis, Kansas City, or the surrounding areas, you deserve justice. Contact the nationally recognized lawyers at Brown & Crouppen today for a free consultation and learn how you can recover substantial compensation.

Why Trust Brown & Crouppen When Your Loved One’s Remains Have Been Mishandled

We are one of the Midwest’s largest personal injury law firms, with a team of over 250 talented attorneys. Since our establishment in 1979, we have recovered more than a billion dollars in settlements and verdicts for injured clients in numerous personal injury practice areas, including cases against large companies like nursing homes and funeral providers.

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Our record of consistent results for our clients has won us national recognition, including the following honors and awards from the exclusive National Trial Lawyers Association, which are only awarded to the most elite and successful lawyers in the nation:

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We have also been recognized at the state level by the Missouri Lawyers’ Media, which has awarded our attorneys with the following honors as a result of readers’ votes:

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Personalized Attention

When you hire Brown & Crouppen, you can count on our caring and hardworking personal injury attorneys to give you and your case individual attention and keep you informed through every step. We have seen the devastating effects mishandling human remains can have on a family, and we will support you and fight for you.

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Financial limitations should never be a barrier to justice, so we never charge upfront fees, and you will never owe us anything unless we win. This is consistent with our values of inclusion, equality, and helping those in need. 

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What Types of Damages Are Available in a Mishandling of Remains Lawsuit?

You may be able to pursue economic, non-economic, and punitive damages for mishandling of remains in Missouri. 

Economic Damages

Economic damages are compensation for documented monetary losses caused by negligence or breach of contract.

The mishandling of remains by any institution can result in significant expenses as a family attempts to restore the deceased’s dignity and recover from significant psychological harm. Such expenses may include the following:

  • Transport of the body to a compliant facility
  • Transportation costs for the family
  • The purchase of alternative burial or cremation implements
  • Psychological therapy
  • Hospitalization
  • Medical bills

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages are compensation for intangible, harder-to-quantify losses. Such damages include the following:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Inconvenience
  • Humiliation
  • Loss of society

Emotional distress, also known as mental anguish, is a common non-economic loss associated with the mishandling of human remains. Missouri recognizes emotional distress as a legitimate injury worthy of compensation. However, you must prove both of the following: 

  • An unreasonable risk of emotional distress was foreseeable.
  • The psychological injury is medically significant.

We work with some of the nation’s most brilliant medical experts at Brown & Crouppen, and we have helped thousands of clients in Missouri recover significant emotional distress damages.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are available when you can prove that the defendant’s conduct was deliberate, malicious, or grossly negligent. Gross negligence occurs when there is a flagrant disregard for the welfare of others. Punitive damages may be awarded in cases involving the mishandling of remains.

What Is Mishandling of Human Remains?

Mishandling of remains occurs when a professional institution, such as a funeral home or health care facility, fails to follow state laws and the family’s wishes while handling a corpse. It ranges from disrespectful or improper handling of a human body to failing to give the family access to the body. 

A recent unannounced state inspection of Serenity Memorial Funeral and Cremation Service in St. Louis revealed numerous forms of mishandling of human remains, including the following, as reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

  • Unidentified human bodies
  • Unsanitary conditions
  • Inaccurate cremation records
  • Improper storage of remains

Wrongful Withholding of Remains

Wrongful withholding of remains occurs when an institution fails to provide the next of kin with access to the body as required by law. In Missouri, this is known as the right of sepulcher. The right of sepulcher includes the right to control funeral arrangements, burial, and cremation.

The law defines the next of kin as the following parties, in the priority order: 

  1. A power of attorney to whom the deceased gave the right of sepulcher
  2. The person designated by a deceased military member on the United States Department of Defense Form 93, Record of Emergency Data
  3. The surviving spouse
  4. A surviving child over the age of 18
  5. The guardian of a minor child
  6. A surviving parent
  7. A surviving sibling
  8. The next nearest surviving relative
  9. A friend who assumes financial responsibility
  10.  The county coroner or medical examiner

In the death of a fetus, the right of determination lies with the mother. A hospital may arrange for transportation of a stillborn infant to a funeral home, but it must notify at least one parent within 24 hours of such a transfer. 

Illegal Autopsies

It is a civil offense and a misdemeanor to perform an autopsy without the consent of the next of kin or by order of a public officer, court, or agency authorized by law. It is also a misdemeanor for anyone other than a licensed physician to perform an autopsy. 

If an autopsy is performed, the next of kin is entitled to receive a copy of the report.

Improper Cremation

We have seen cases of families receiving the wrong remains, having loved ones cremated without their knowledge or consent, and incomplete cremations. 


Cremation is an irreversible act, and the law requires explicit authorization before it is performed. A funeral home must make available the cremated remains as authorized and contracted by the next of kin or deliver the body to another licensed funeral establishment or person with such a contract in place. 

The deceased’s authorization may be in writing through a pre-arrangement or via the next of kin. If no next of kin or pre-arrangement is found, a funeral home must attempt to locate an authorized person to consent to the cremation for 10 days with the assistance of law enforcement. 

If no next of kin is found and there are no instructions left by the deceased, the funeral home may scatter or bury the unclaimed remains in a place formally dedicated for that purpose. However, at least 90 days before doing so, the funeral home must send written notice by mail, with delivery confirmation, to the responsible party’s last known address.

Maintenance of the Cremation Chamber

The cremation chamber must always be in working order and constructed of materials that can withstand the high temperatures and chemicals used during cremations. This ensures cremations can be properly, completely, and timely performed.

The area must remain secure, and only funeral home employees and the decedent’s family members may be in the cremation area. Only one body should be in a cremation chamber at a time.

Accurate Documentation

A funeral home or crematorium must maintain a cremation log on the premises for at least two years. According to records, inspectors found bodies at the Serenity Funeral Home that were supposed to have been cremated months prior, raising questions about whether surviving loved ones received the correct remains. 

Unsanitary and Untimely Embalming Procedures

Embalming is the process of injecting fluids and special devices into the body to slow decomposition until the final disposition of the body. It prevents odors and is part of the preparation for an open-casket funeral or other formal ceremony.

State law requires funeral homes to maintain sanitary conditions in the embalming room. The regulations include the following:

  • Sanitary walls, floors, and ceilings made of smooth, non-absorbent, washable materials
  • Adequate drains and running water
  • Sealed, leakproof containers for solid waste materials
  • Incineration of unburied or uncremated remains in a commercial incinerator
  • Sanitary sinks, hoppers, embalming tables, and instruments
  • Embalming tables disinfected and covered with a sheet when not in use

Deviation from these standards can harm the dignity of the remains and may jeopardize public health. During the inspection at the Serenity Memorial Funeral Service in St. Louis, inspectors allegedly found visibly clogged drains, staff touching dead bodies without gloves, and leaks from an embalming drain sink that had not been cleaned.

Improper Storage

A human body must be refrigerated or embalmed if it will be stored for more than 24 hours. At the Serenity Funeral Service in St. Louis, inspectors observed the following violations

  • An unembalmed body with the skull cap removed
  • Strong odors in several areas
  • Uncovered and partially covered bodies in an “overflow room,” some of which appeared to have been there for extended periods
  • Storage of bodies at higher temperatures than required

These conditions undermine the dignity of each person who passed away and can prevent next of kin from having access to their loved one’s remains and controlling the final arrangements. 

Improper Transport

When a common carrier transports a deceased person, the body must be placed in a sealed burial case, coffin, or casket made of wood or metal with the identifying information of the deceased, including the following:

  • Destination
  • Time and place of death
  • Cause of death
  • Physician or coroner
  • Person who prepared the body for shipment

Unethical Treatment of Remains

Unethical treatment of human remains includes any unauthorized activities that undermine the dignity of the remains, such as the following:

  • Theft of property or body parts
  • Photography or video recording of any part of the remains or possessions
  • Rough or degrading handling or positioning of the remains

What Are the Grounds for a Human Remains Mishandling Lawsuit?

Mishandling human remains constitutes a breach of contract and a type of personal injury claim stemming from negligence or intentional misconduct.


In a personal injury lawsuit for negligence, you must prove the following elements:

  1. The defendant owed a duty of care.
  2. The defendant breached the duty of care.
  3. The breach of duty caused an injury that otherwise would not have occurred.
  4. The breach of duty, and not something else, is the cause of the injury.

If a hospital or funeral home has mishandled your loved one’s remains, you must establish that the resulting emotional distress was separate from the grief caused by the death. 

When you contact one of our resourceful personal injury lawyers at Brown & Crouppen, you will have access to our network of consultants, doctors, and mental health experts who can provide credible testimony of the significant effects of the mishandling of your loved one’s remains.

Breach of Contract

When you sign a contract with a funeral home or pay for services, the funeral home establishes the duty to care and also enters into a legally binding contract with express and implied warranties that it will perform the following duties:

  • Carry out your requests
  • Respect the body
  • Use equipment that is in good working order and complies with the law
  • Use sanitation practices according to the law

These contractual obligations also apply if the funeral home is acting upon the instruction of the deceased provided in a pre-need contract or other written instrument before death.

Who Is Liable for Mishandling a Lost Loved One’s Remains?

Liability for mishandling human remains may fall on any person or institution that comes into contact with your loved one’s remains, including hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.

Funeral Homes and Crematoriums

Funeral homes and crematoriums generally spend the most time with the body and have the highest level of accountability. They are responsible for the body from when they receive a death notification and agree to perform services until the final arrangements are completed. Funeral homes and crematoriums may be liable when they fail to do the following:

  • Attach identifying information to each corpse
  • Properly store human remains
  • Maintain accurate records
  • Perform services without the appropriate licensing
  • Disobey the wishes of the deceased or the next of kin

Regulators shut down a funeral home in the Kansas City area in 2011 after it did the following:

  • Gave the wrong ashes to grieving families
  • Waited 11 days to cremate a body
  • Improperly stored bodies


A cemetery is responsible for the preparation and maintenance of the burial site, including repairing broken markers and maintaining a system for locating graves. They have a legal duty to provide information on the location of remains upon request and to ensure no harm comes to the gravesite.

Health Care Facilities

Health care facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes have a legal obligation to promptly notify family members of a death and the transportation of remains to another facility. 

While the body remains in the custody of the health care facility, it is responsible for storing and transporting the body according to state law.


A morgue, whether in a hospital or owned by a government entity, must do the following:

  • Store bodies at appropriate temperatures
  • Store bodies in a dignified manner
  • Ensure each body is identified and labeled
  • Maintain accurate records
  • Make the body available to the next of kin upon request

Morgues have misplaced bodies, stored them improperly, and released the incorrect remains to families. The St. Louis morgue has been plagued with overcrowding, resulting in multiple corpses stacked on gurneys meant for one.

When Should I Contact a Lawyer?

The Missouri statute of limitations is five years from the injury date. However, if your loved one’s remains have been mishandled, it is important to promptly contact a qualified personal injury lawyer experienced with mishandled remains cases. Early attorney involvement is crucial in gathering evidence to build a strong case and maximize compensation.

Our skilled Missouri personal injury attorneys at Brown & Crouppen have helped families in Kansas City, St. Louis, and the surrounding areas recover substantial compensation after their loved one’s remains were mishandled. Contact us today for a free consultation.


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