All Articles

The Wealth & Wisdom Blog

Information on Estate Planning, Estate and Trust Administration and Unique Asset Planning

I am sorry to report that you missed it again this year.  A few weeks ago, the 21st annual Frozen Dead Guy Days (the “FDGD” as it is known by the locals) occurred in Morstoel, Colorado.  The weekend’s annual festivities commemorate the deceased Grandpa Bredo, whose remains are currently cryogenically frozen in a shed near Morstoel.  In this month’s update, I share a few sordid stories of the bodily remains of the rich and/or famous, and then get serious by summarizing legal rules for the disposition of bodily remains.

  • Bernard Madoff. Following the death of Bernard Madoff in 2021, Madoff’s body was cremated.  Apparently, no one in the family has yet claimed his cremated remains, such that the remains are currently residing in a law office.  Full disclosure: I have no human remains in my law office, as far as I know.
  • Ted Williams. After the death of baseball great Ted Williams, his remains were cryogenically frozen with the hope that future science would permit his resurrection.  It’s not clear whether the cryogenics company overseeing the frozen body has guaranteed that Williams, once resurrected, will hit 0.400 again over an entire major league season.
  • The Biblical Patriarch Joseph. The Patriarch Joseph died as the highest-ranking official of the Egyptian Pharoah’s household. Joseph’s body was embalmed and buried consistent with Egyptian custom.[1] When the Israelites left Egypt for the promised land about 400 years later, the Israelites disinterred Joseph’s bones,[2] then lugged the bones along with them for 40 years until they reached the promised land.[3]  The Bible does not disclose who was responsible for carrying the casket for 40 years, nor describe the shape of the 440-year-old casket on arrival.

For those of us with more traditional, or at least less onerous, desires for the disposition of our remains, the following legal rules govern the disposition of your remains at death:

Disposition of Remains.  You can direct, in writing, how your remains are to be disposed of following your death.[4]  While usually accomplished within a health care directive, any written direction will suffice.  In the absence of direction given by you, state default rules provide for the following order of authority: (i) your spouse; (ii) a majority of your adult children; (iii) your surviving parents; or (iv) a majority of your surviving siblings.  It is particularly important that you express in writing your direction if your desired agent does not align with state default rules.

Organ Donation. Your desires for anatomical gift of your organs can be made through any signed written statement, including a Will, driver’s license, health care directive, or donor card.[5]  Notably, you can refuse anatomical gifts following death, so long as such refusal is in writing.[6]  In the absence of a written refusal made by you, your family has the legal authority, following your death, to donate your organs.[7]

Burial and Funeral Expenses.  Expenses associated with your cremation or burial, as well as your funeral expenses, are paid from your remaining assets.  In 2022, the average cost of a reviewal and burial in the United States was $7,848.[8] The average cost of direct cremation last year was $600; the cost of cremation with a funeral was $3,700.[9] Such expenses are not deductible on any income tax return. In situations where an estate tax obligation will be owed, “reasonable” funeral expenses and burial expenses are deductible for estate taxes.

Unused Cemetery Plot. First-born children will be pleased to know that they hold preferential treatment under Minnesota law in one respect: unused burial plots.  If parents do not use their burial plot, and do not specifically direct for the plot in their estate plan, the oldest living child receives such unused burial plot.[10]

Ritual and Religious Symbolism. Decisions related to your organ donation, bodily disposition, and memorial services might have economic impact on your family, but such decisions are certain to impact how well your family grieves your death.  In our work with grieving parents through the Hope for the Mourning ministry, we find that grieving families benefit from the use of family rituals and religious symbolism. You might consider what rituals or symbolism would be meaningful to your family so that you can help your family grieve well.  Many Christians, including myself, chose traditional burial as a symbolic means of demonstrating a hope in the physical resurrection of the dead upon the second return of Jesus Christ.  If you are a Christian, you know that this symbolism is particularly poignant during this Holy Week.

[1] Genesis 50: 22-26.

[2] Exodus 13:19.

[3] Joshua 24:32.