By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
LANSING – A bill passed unanimously by the Michigan House on May 4 would deny individuals the right to make their own funeral arrangements. Under HB 4870, an individual’s next of kin would be given the right to decide everything from whether the person is buried or cremated to who would be allowed to attend the funeral, regardless of any arrangements made by the deceased with a funeral home or in their will.
The bill was written to clear up a conflict between the Funeral Director’s code and probate law. While the current Funeral Director’s code requires funeral directors to consult the deceased’s family in making arrangements, probate law allows an appointed personal representative to petition the court, without notifying the family, to make sure the deceased person’s wishes are followed.
While the bill is a well-intentioned effort to make the lives of funeral directors easier, its implications could be heartbreaking for the LGBT community, according to two local legal experts.
According to a legislative analysis by Royal Oak attorney Jane Bassett, “Bottom line is that you don’t get a say in the disposition of your remains. Your closest legal relative would decide, whether you want them to or not.”
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, agreed.
“This would trump your ability, your own autonomy with regard to your funeral wishes,” Kaplan said. “This could bar a partner of someone in a same-sex relationship from even attending a funeral…. You’ve got to wonder what’s the impetus behind this sort of thing.”
The bill would not affect a person’s ability to distribute their estate in their will, Kaplan said.
Kaplan conjectured that at least some anti-gay animus may lay behind the bill.
“With the problems that our state is facing, what is the priority? Why is there a need to take the rights away from people to carry out their own funeral and burial wishes?” Kaplan asked. The bill “certainly [would] it much more difficult,” for people, LGBT and straight alike, to make their own funeral arrangements or designate someone to carry out their wishes, he said.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Paul Condino (D-35), said “That’s not my reading,” of the bill when asked about its potential impact on same-sex partners. Condino, who is also the sponsor of currently pending second parent adoption legislation, is usually seen as a proponent of equality. Condino claimed that the bill’s main purpose was to give courts direction when family members fight over funeral arrangements, and said, “I’m going to work to amend it” to strike any portions that could be used against same-sex partners, should the Senate make any changes and refer the bill back to the House.