The discussion in the comments following my post about the difficulty of finding a place to bury Tamarlan Tsarnaev raised some interesting issues. In that case, cremation was not considered an option since the family wanted to have a Muslim burial for him and the question was raised as to why they should have the final say.
A dead person’s body is usually released to the next of kin who get to decide what to do with it. But what freedom has that person in disposing of it? Legally a dead person has some rights, at least when it comes to disposing of that person’s property as can be seen from the way that wills are legally binding. But what right does or should someone have about how their body should be disposed of?
I am not so much interested in the law as much as the appropriate balance between the wishes of the dead person, those of the survivors, and of society at large. This is particularly important in those cases where the religious or philosophical views of the deceased and the survivors differ considerably. Such differences can cause considerable friction among family members both before and after death.
Suppose you have an atheist married to a religious person. Suppose also that the atheist made it clear that he/she wanted a completely secular funeral. Should the religious survivor respect that? But funerals are meant for the living and so shouldn’t what works best for them be taken into consideration? From the atheist point of view, once you are dead, you’re dead so why should you care what is done with your body? Before you die, why not leave instructions for survivors to do what they like?
But on the other hand, funerals can also be viewed as the final statement made by the dead person and it seems somehow wrong to have a religious funeral for an atheist or vice versa, as wrong as those attempts by religious people to falsify stories of deathbed conversions of atheists to religion.
My own feeling is that any stated desire of the dead person should be accommodated as much as possible and that survivors should swallow any discomfort and deal with it. It is hard to think of a rational reason for this feeling, except a sense that a person’s death is an integral part that person’s life and the end should be consistent with the life.
It is similar to a promise made to a dying person to either keep a secret or carry out some other wish. Once the person dies, is the promise still binding? After all, how can it matter to the dead person if one keeps the promise or not? And yet I suspect that almost all of us would feel a sense of obligation to do so, even in the absence of any legal requirement. There are some things that we feel obliged to do that do not have rational reasons.