Where plaintiff alleged that her son’s body was buried in the wrong place within a cemetery and brought several claims, including negligent mishandling of a dead human body, against defendant funeral home, summary judgment for the funeral home was affirmed based on the finding that the funeral home “had no common law duty to direct or supervise the burial and disposition” of the body and that the funeral home “conformed to the reasonable person standard of care under all of the circumstances.”
In Mathes v. N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, Inc., No. W2021-00368-COA-R3-CV, 2023 WL 117729 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 6, 2023), plaintiff asserted claims for mishandling of her dead son’s body. Plaintiff had purchased an interment plot from the cemetery prior to her son’s passing and had executed certain documents related to that purchase. One such document provided that “all interments and disinterments…shall be made only by [the Cemetery] unless otherwise approved by cemetery company.” The cemetery and funeral home were not related to each other in any way.
After the son’s death, plaintiff contracted with defendant funeral home to handle the funeral and body preparation. Plaintiff also signed an additional authorization with the cemetery and went to view the pre-selected plot at the cemetery.
Approximately a month after her son’s funeral and burial, plaintiff went to visit the cemetery and could not find her son’s grave. She later brought this suit against the funeral home and cemetery, asserting that her son’s remains were buried in the wrong place within the cemetery. The funeral home filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the only claim related to the burial of the body and that the funeral home did not have “any legal obligation or duty to ensure the burial of her son’s remains.” The trial court granted summary judgment to the funeral home on all claims, and this appeal followed.
The real issue in this case was whether the funeral home had a duty under the facts of this case, with the Court of Appeals ultimately agreeing that no duty existed here. First, the Court analyzed whether there was a statutory duty to ensure the proper burial. The Tennessee Funeral Directors and Embalmers Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 62-5-101 et. seq., provides a definition for “funeral directing” and “funeral establishment.” Both these definitions repeatedly use the word “or,” indicating that they do not provide an all-encompassing list of all the things a funeral director or funeral establishment must do. The statute “does not create or define any duties or responsibilities for funeral directors or funeral establishments.” (internal citation omitted). Notably, the statute specifically exempts “the opening and closing of a grave…and the provision of the necessary grave…equipment required for the final interment…of casketed human bodies” from the definition of “funeral directing.” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 62-5-101(6)(B)(iii)). While it is clear under the statute that a funeral director may supervise the burial of a body, the Court found that the General Assembly “did not intend for funeral directors to blanketly possess such a duty in all cases.” Because in this case the funeral home “only engaged in preparing and transporting the body for burial,” the Court found that “the Funeral Home did not have a statutory duty to direct or supervise the burial and disposition of the remains” of plaintiff’s son.
The Court next considered whether the funeral home owed plaintiff a common law duty. Whether a duty exists is a question of law. (internal citation omitted). Reviewing previous funeral home cases, the Court found that it should “analyze whether the Funeral Home conformed to a reasonable person standard of care under all of the circumstances and whether that standard placed a duty upon the Funeral Home to direct or supervise the burial and disposition of [plaintiff’s] son.” Here, the document that plaintiff signed with the funeral home in no way indicated that “the funeral home was responsible for directing and supervising the burial” of the body. The agreement only said that the funeral home would transport the body to the cemetery, which it did. Further, plaintiff admitted that no one from the funeral home was present when she discussed the burial with the cemetery. Based on these facts, the Court ruled that “the Funeral Home had no common law duty to direct or supervise the burial and disposition of [plaintiff’s] son.” Further, the Court ruled that Funeral Home in this case “conformed to the reasonable person standard of care under all of the circumstances,” specifically noting that there were “no allegations of misconduct or mishandling prior to the burial.”
Because the funeral home had no duty to supervise or direct the burial, summary judgment for defendant funeral home was affirmed.
While the outcome of this case was fairly fact-dependent, this opinion is a good read for anyone litigating issues surrounding the duties of funeral directors and funeral homes.
This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 30, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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