The Current Law regarding Death, Organs, Bodies, Burials and Sperm

What better time to write about organs, bodies and burials than now as we approach Halloween. In June last year I wrote an article which looked at the then recent case of Darcy v Duckett – a case which examined the Common Law principles regarding the right to dispose of a body as well as Court’s regard to traditional Aboriginal Law.

In this article I wanted to give a quick summary of the law as it stands today with regard to death, organs, bodies, burials and tissue transplantation (in light of the recent landmark Queensland case of Re Creswell [2018] QSC 142)

Basic principle

The basic principle that there is no property in a body (Doodeward v Spence (1908) 6 CLR 408) means that there can be no ownership in a corpse. As such, one cannot ‘dispose’ or direct what will occur with their body after death.

The Exception

There is an exception to the basic rule (outlined by Griffith CJ in Doodeward) – where a person has, by the lawful exercise of work and skill, dealt with a human body (or body part) in such a way that it has acquired some attributes differentiating it from a mere corpse awaiting burial and the body (or body part) is displayed in the public interest, then the body (or body part) can be considered property capable of being disposed of.

In the case of Doodeward, a stillborn baby with two heads was preserved by a doctor who displayed it in his office (this was a 1908 case). The Doodeward exception would apply to say, a mummy that is displayed in a museum.

Burial and Funeral Instructions

Given the basic principle above, a person’s wishes with respect to the disposal of their body is not legally binding (Smith v Tamworth City Council (1997) 41 NSWLR 680)). Whatever funeral and burial instructions you communicate via your Will, personal documents or verbally can be disregarded at law.

Who has the right to dispose of a person’s body after death?

Where there is a Will, the executor (and if there is more than one, then the executors jointly unless contrary intention is expressed in the Will) has the right and responsibility to arrange for the disposal of the deceased person’s body.

Where there is no Will, then the person with the highest rank to apply for a Grant of Representation in that jurisdiction has the same rights as an executor.

(references contained in previous article)

The person with the right to dispose may do so in any manner they choose provided it is not unlawful or unreasonable (Leeburn v Derndorfer (2004) 14 VR 100, 104), or exercised in a way that prevents family and friends from reasonably and appropriately expressing affection for the deceased (Smith v Tamworth City Council (1997) 41 NSWLR 680, 694.)

Where more than one person has an equal right to dispose of the body

The Court will generally decide a conflict between them in a ‘practical way paying due regard to the need to have a dead body disposed of without unreasonable delay, but with all proper respect and decency‘ (Calma v Sesar (1992) 106 FLR 446 at [14])

The practicalities of burial without unreasonable delay will prevail.


A person can be cremated in any outfit but pacemakers and other such devices must be removed from the body before cremation. The body must be contained in a coffin, casket or some other container and must be cremated one body at a time.

Cremation can take one to two hours. Once cooled, the ashes are packed into a plastic container and a name plate is attached before being stored ahead of collection.

In the ACT, the operator of the crematorium must give the ashes to the person who applied for the cremation (which may be at odds with the common law) (Cemeteries and Crematoria Regulation (ACT) 2003 Reg 10).

In the ACT, a statement by a person that his or her body is not to be cremated is legally binding. An injunction or other relief can be obtained against the operator of the crematorium if necessary (Reg 8).

Do Burials have to be at the Cemetery (and Cremations at the Crematorium)?

We have three cemeteries in the ACT – Woden, Hall and Gungahlin Cemeteries.

It is an offence (which can be punishably by imprisonment) to bury human remains other than at a cemetery unless the Minister’s prior written permission has been obtained (Cemeteries and Crematoria Act (ACT) 2003 Section 24)

Cremations can only occur within the crematorium (Section 25 of the Act).

What can you do with the ashes once they are collected?

Ashes can be:

  • Buried in a cemetery in a small plot, or placement in columbarium or niche wall;
  • Preserved in an urn or kept at home in some other favourite spot; or
  • Scattered on private land, beach, river, public park, at sea or some other place that is significant to the deceased person or their family.

If ashes are scatted on private land, permission must be obtained by the owners of the private land.

If the ashes are scattered in a public park or other public place, permission may need to be obtained from the local council or park. Councils and local government may set a place and time when these activities can be undertaken and can impose other restrictions.

You may want to carefully consider where you scatter the ashes and in particular, to scatter them at a place that you can revisit later (e.g. if ashes are buried in your backyard and you later move, you may not be able to visit the site in the future).

Ashes can be scattered at sea if permission of the vessel operator is obtained.

Taking ashes overseas

Ashes can be taken overseas but it is good practice to:

  • contact the consulate of the country the ashes are being taken to in order to comply with the local requirements; and
  • Carry the ashes in a sealed contained and have a copy of the death certificate of the deceased person along with a copy of a statement from the crematorium identifying the deceased person and where the body was cremated (in case you get picked on by customs!)

Can you bury a body in a vault or tomb?

The short answer – yes! But the operator of the cemetery must not bury human remains in a vault or tomb unless the body has been embalmed and is in a selected corrosion resistant mental container (Reg 10)

Removal of tissue, organs and sperm from the body

In the case of Re Creswell which was handed down earlier this year in Queensland, an application made by a de facto partner to access the deceased sperm the day following his death was granted by the Queensland Supreme Court. His sperm was removed at the Toowoomba Hospital by medical staff and preserved at the Queensland Facility Group Laboratory.

Subsequent to the application for removal of the sperm, Ms Creswell applied to the Queensland Supreme Court seeking a declaration that she be entitled to possession and use off the sperm in assisted reproductive treatment.

The Respondent to the Application, the Attorney-General for the State of Queensland, neither opposed nor consented to Ms Creswell’s application.

It was held that:

  1. The removal of sperm for use in assisted reproductive technology was for a medical purpose – pursuant to section 22 of the Transplant and Anatomy Act 1979 (Qld) (note that section requires the deceased not to have expressed an object to the removal of his sperm)
  2. Once removed, the sperm was property capable of possession given that work and skill was exercised in relation to its removal, separation and preservation (note the case of Doodeward above); and
  3. Discretionary factors including best interest of the child, whether Ms Creswell’s decision was a rational one and community standards, weighed in favour of making the declarations sought by Ms Creswell and the declarations sought were granted.

In the ACT, a distinction is made in the legislation (Transplantation and Anatomy Act 1978) with regard to the removal of tissue during lifetime as opposed to after death.

In both cases, tissue can be removed where the person expressed their consent for the removal of the tissue for the purposes of donation to the body of another living person, or for the purposes of other therapeutic or medical or scientific purposes.

However, the definition of ‘Tissue’ in the legislation does not include spermatozoa (sperm).

In the ACT case of Roblin v the Public Trustee for the Australian Capital Territory and Labservices Pty Limited [2015] ACTSC 100, the deceased had consented to the removal of his sperm during his lifetime. His sperm was collected and stored cryogenically during his lifetime.

He subsequently died intestate (without a Will) and his wife brought an Application seeking a declaration from the ACT Supreme Court to have the sperm form part of his estate where it would be received by his wife. The Court held that the sperm constituted property of the estate where it was passed to the wife in accordance with the intestacy laws.

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