Over the past decade, a number of “abuse of a corpse” cases in Texas have made headlines. Most notably in 2014, a husband and wife were arrested after eight decomposing bodies were found in their Fort Worth funeral home. They were accused of taking money from grieving families for funeral services but neglecting the bodies of the deceased.
At that time, abuse of a corpse was a Class A misdemeanor. As a result, prosecutors added a felony theft charge alleging the funeral home operator took money through a fraudulent promise to deliver a human corpse for proper burial and cremation. The theft case was overturned on appeal and the accused was acquitted on that charge. Surprised that the funeral owners did not face more severe punishment, family members of the deceased turned to lawmakers. During the 85th legislative session, they passed a law that boosted the penalties for abusing a dead body from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Under Texas law, a person who disturbs or damages a human corpse is subject to prosecution. It is also a criminal offense to conceal a body knowing it will be illegally buried or to buy or sell a human corpse. It is even a felony to treat a corpse in an offensive manner. That broad definition may not make it past constitutional scrutiny, but it is the law for now.
According to Section 42.08 of Texas Penal Code, (a) A person commits the offense of abuse of a corpse if he or she, without legal authority, knowingly:
(1) disinters, disturbs, damages, dissects, in whole or in part, carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse; (2) conceals a human corpse knowing it to be illegally disinterred; (3) sells or buys a human corpse or in any way traffics in a human corpse; (4) transmits or conveys, or procures to be transmitted or conveyed, a human corpse to a place outside the state; or (5) vandalizes, damages, or treats in an offensive manner the space in which a human corpse has been interred or otherwise permanently laid to rest.
(b) An offense under this section is a state jail felony, except that an offense under Subsection (a) (5) is a Class A misdemeanor.
(c) In this section, “human corpse” includes: (1) Any portion of a human corpse; or (2) The cremated remains of a human corpse; or (3) Any portion of the cremated remains of a human corpse
(d) If conduct constituting an offense under this section also constitutes an offense under another section of this code, the actor may be prosecuted under either section or both sections.
(e) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the actor: (1) As a member or agent of a cemetery organization, removed or damaged anything that had been placed in or on any portion of the organization’s cemetery in violation of the rules of the organization; (2) Removed anything: (A) Placed in the cemetery in violation of the rules of the cemetery organization; or (B) Placed in the cemetery by or with the cemetery organization’s consent but that, in the organization’s judgment, had become wrecked, unsightly, or dilapidated(f) In this section, “cemetery” and “cemetery organization” have the meaning assigned by Section 711.001, Health and Safety Code
In the spring of 2017, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 524 making the offense of abuse of a corpse a state jail felony, punishable by six months to two years in a state jail facility and up to a $10,000 fine. Originally, the offense was a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4000 fine. Unlike time served in the county jail or prison, state jail sentences must be served day for day.
Senate Bill 524 was sponsored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth. It was passed on May 29, 2017, and took effect on September 1, 2017.
A state jail felony is punishable by 180 to two years in state jail and up to a $10,000 fine.
Examples of abuse of corpse cases are actually more common than you think. Here’s a look at some real Texas cases, including one out of Fort Worth that was instrumental in changing the law:
If you or a loved one are facing charges of abuse of a corpse you will need experienced lawyer to help you navigate this difficult time. We can help. Call today for a complimentary strategy session. During this call we will: