The legal status of dead person is an important question. Even after death can a person be considered to have any legal right? Jurisprudence tries to clarify the same. In the simplest sense a legal person or legal entity is one that can be sued and can sue. A dead person can do neither so they cannot be considered legal entities. A person’s identity as a legal entity starts at birth and ends with their death. In order to understand this better the main legal anomalies associated with a dead person has been discussed below.
Does a legal person have a right to his body? This question arises during the time of burial. The answer is no. A dead person doesn’t have any rights to his body, however he has a right to a decent burial. One cannot desecrate a grave, doing so would be consequential. Donating one’s body for medical research after death is another important issue. Now, a common practice, it was initially prohibited for one to write a will donating body for medical research after death as held in the case of Williams v Williams.
Defamation of a dead person is a very complex matter. How exactly can a dead person be defamed? Legislation deems defamation of a dead person an offence. Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code defines defamation as, ‘whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible, representations makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation of such person, is said except in cases here in after expected, to defame that person.’ The section further elucidates on the topic of defamation of the deceased “To impute anything to a deceased person, if the imputation would harm the reputation of that person if living and is intended to be harmful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives”. The judicial perspective on the same has been exemplified in many instances. One is the case of Mrs. Pat Sharpe v Dwinjendra Nath Bose. In was held by the Court that “Even if Netaji is dead, it is defamation because the imputation would have harmed his reputation if alive and the imputation must be said to have been intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives, thus in any view of the matter the words used do amount to defamation.” The Court extended liability on defamation of a dead person too by considering the circumstance if the person in contention was alive.
Estate of a dead person is another important component when dealing with their legal status. A dead person cannot own a property, however a trust or institution in commemoration of a dead person can hold property and they would be considered a separate legal person. The estate or property of a dead person would pass on through testamentary succession is they have written a will, otherwise property would be dissolved with respect to the existing personal law system. Will can be made for creating a charitable or a public trust e.g. for the maintenance of graveyard but not a private trust for maintenance of his own grave.
These are few legal sanctions that are present with respect to dead persons.
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