We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Should we be obliged to register a death?

When I first saw this story, “Daughter who buried father in illegal woodland pagan funeral avoids jail”, my outrage-meter went off the scale at the apparent violation of religious freedom. Unnecessarily, it turned out. Eirys Brett was not in court for conducting a pagan funeral. She would still have been in court had the funeral service been the Order for The Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer. She was in court because she did not register her father’s death and because she buried him in a place not set aside for that purpose:

Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court heard that frail Mr Brett made last requests that he wanted to be buried in woods in a medieval non-Christian style near his farmhouse home, in Aberedw, near Builth Wells.

The judge was not without sympathy. He said,

“Everybody’s entitled to their beliefs and make no comment about yours. But you should have gone about it in a different way.

“You could have achieved the same objective by following the law and that is not simply where you think or where he thinks is appropriate but where you are permitted to bury him and to register the death – those were the two things you failed to do.”

It is not clear to me whether the woodland area where the late Mr Brett was buried was on his own land. If it was, I can see no reason why he should not be buried there. However, if the vaguely specified “woods” were not his woods, I do see a problem. If I found out that someone had buried their dead relative in my garden I would be disconcerted, however well they cleared up afterwards.

It is the second charge that interests me more. She failed to register his death. In the UK it is a criminal offence not to register a death.

Why?

As an inveterate reader of detective stories, I can think of some good reasons for this law. But as a libertarian, I feel obliged not to simply accept it because it is a law that goes back to the days when the State laid fewer burdens on us than it does now.

What do you think?

20 comments to Should we be obliged to register a death?

  • lucklucky

    I don’t see how that is practical when benefits might stop or start, heirs etc. The only instance it should not be done is if the deceased asked for not to be done and had all his stuff taken care off before the final breath.

  • The government wants to keep an accurate inventory of its property.

  • Milwaukee

    Well, the state does want to verify the death was from natural causes. No hanky panky. Plus, if the person is deceased, and that is public record, that should reduce fraud done in their name. As for the burial, in some states, in unincorporated regions, one may bury a body, but that too requires registration, to avoid the next owner of the property discovering the burial place when excavating the new swimming pool. Back to cause of death, some deceased have innocuous remains. Are there causes of death which require the remains in a vault, to avoid contamination of ground water? Where I live, vaults are preferable, to discourage coffins from surfacing during occasional floods.
    As always, some government might be okay, but too much is oppressive.

  • Fraser Orr

    FWIW, I agree with Milwaukee on this: there are legitimate reasons for both provisions. A few he didn’t mention is that it allows you to be removed from the voter rolls and no longer receive retirement pensions etc., and also provides an legal record for things like insurance, disbursement of property and so forth. This is common law going back for centuries, where these things tended to be recorded in the church register. I am glad to see that this is in the county court. The key here is that these things should be done at the local level not some massive centralized database.

    It is the difference, I think, between anarcho capitalism and minarchism. I’d recognize some functions of the state, such as defense, police, courts, and also having a single point of truth for various important records like who is alive, when they were born, when they died, who owns this piece of land etc. Of course it is better if these are done at as local a level as possible, and since the government sucks at such things, that the services be provided in a competitive private market purchased by the localist of local governments.

  • bobby b

    Out in South Dakota, lots of farms contain the old family plot, where they used to inter grandma et al.

    And the water table would sometimes vary, and shallow wells would become rather dangerous for a bit . . .

  • TDK

    I think the requirement to register deaths came into force in 1837 along with the requirement to register marriages and births.

    I don’t pretend to know the logic that brought about that change but given that a death cert has to have a cause of death entered, it suggests your detective possibility is a strong contender.

  • When I was in Hong Kong, I several times saw notices in English and Chinese saying (in English, and I assume in Chinese) that burial was forbidden at that spot. Various things give an area good Feng Shui and the owners of those areas needed legal protection from aggressive buriers of relatives – or so I was told. (FWIW, some of the locations looked state-owned.)

    As regards the reporting of death rather than the burial, both murder and vote fraud are easier if deaths go unreported. Attempting a libertarian approach, a citizen might say for themselves that they choose to disregard the increased risk to themselves of being murdered by taking themselves off a voluntary report-my-death register (that by default everyone is on), but the rest of the community are the victims when the deceased’s vote is used to acquire power over them.

    Legitimate-looking police thoroughness in investigating an unreported death might mean that, even if it were theoretically legal, not reporting would in and of itself expose someone to a ton of predictable legal hassle – or, in the banning of that too, become a non-trivial aid to murder.

    My practical and moderate libertarianism suggests that, though this subject is fun to discuss, the list is long of things that – had we the means – we should stop the state doing before we get to whether it should continue to register every death.

    Lastly, I suggest the reference to “medieval” practice either means the early, not high, middle ages or else is the product of woke history.

  • Patrick

    I think I struggle a bit with the notion of it being illegal to NOT do something. I failed to register Eirys Brett’s father’s death too. Am I also guilty? Assuming the law places some clarity upon whom the burden of obligation lies then what if they are otherwise indisposed? Say yer dad croaks due to a gas leak, and you also become incapable for a period longer than the law allows due to said gas leak are you guilty of a crime? Sounds like bollocks to me.

  • TDK

    @Patrick

    The most common informant is a family member, medical professional or police. I believe anyone present at the death can do so. If you died in a hotel then the police would normally register the death.

    In your case, assuming you are incapable, then someone can act for you.

  • Patrick

    TDK

    ‘Can do so….Can act for you’. ????
    Doesn’t really answer my question. Who is guilty of non-registration? How does the law make you guilty of not doing something but not everyone else? Doctor and relative present at a death in the home – who must do it? Doctor and relative present at death in medical facility – who must do it? I’m just genuinely curious how they worded the law to make it clear who is the potentially guilty party for not doing something. (but can’t be arsed to google it)

  • Dave Clemo

    My understanding is that it’s OK to bury someone in your garden, but if you sell or move out of the property you must take the cadaver with you.

  • Registering a death should, in theory, cause the decedent to be removed from the voter rolls. In some districts this is thought of as depriving a citizen of his or her franchise, something to be carefully avoided.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Billll
    Registering a death should, in theory, cause the decedent to be removed from the voter rolls.

    One advantage of having to register deaths here in Chicago, is that it makes it easier to identify that particular voting block.

  • Usually an unreported death will necessitate an investigation. These are the deaths that the police are interested in, or the coroner. A certain respect to the deceased is required and honorable, but often some laboratory work is required for such unregistered deaths. This is both to alleviate any concerns of a suspicious death and to identify the deceased. This is why the registration laws exist.

    A recent example of mine was the discovery of a body of an unidentified man who died in a local wood (not park, just a roadside wood) and had not been found for three days. This, by law, resulted in a minimal autopsy, including laboratory work to determine identity (nothing reliable was on the body). These autopsies often use invasive laboratory work that would anger some religions. Let’s just say that I was trained to take fingerprints via the “spooning” method. Google it if you dare. Once the identify was determined relatives could be notified, if any. Often there are none.

    Many people, far more than you think, die alone having outlived or alienated any relatives or friends. The coroner is often the last person – outside of the back-hoe operator, witness, and priest/pastor/revenant/hierophant – to have any concern about the deceased, and that this concern is legally required.

    TL;DR: Death reporting laws are not for nefarious purposes.

  • Agammamon

    I think that if the state wants deaths registered then it is incumbent on the state to go and register them – not a burden that should be laid on individuals.

  • Fred Z

    Is this it?

    Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953

    16 Information concerning death in a house.

    (1)The following provisions of this section shall have effect where a person dies in a house.

    (2)The following persons shall be qualified to give information concerning the death, that is to say—

    (a)any relative of the deceased person present at the death or in attendance during his last illness;

    (b)any other relative of the deceased residing or being in the sub–district where the death occurred;

    (c)any person present at the death;

    (d)the occupier of the house if he knew of the happening of the death;

    (e)any inmate of the house who knew of the happening of the death;

    (f)the person causing the disposal of the body.

    (3)It shall be the duty—

    (a)of the nearest relative such as is mentioned in paragraph (a) of the last foregoing subsection; or

    (b)if there is no such relative, of each such relative as is mentioned in paragraph (b) of that subsection; or

    (c)if there are no such relatives, of each such person as is mentioned in paragraph (c) or (d) of that subsection; or

    (d)if there are no such relatives or persons as aforesaid, of each such person as is mentioned in paragraph (e) or (f) of that subsection,

    to give to the registrar, before the expiration of five days from the date of the death, information to the best of his knowledge and belief of the particulars required to be registered concerning the death, and in the presence of the registrar to sign the register:

    Provided that—
    (i)the giving of information and the signing of the register by any one qualified informant shall act as a discharge of any duty under this subsection of every other qualified informant;
    (ii)this subsection shall not have effect if an investigation is conducted under Part 1 of the 2009 Act into the death of the deceased person and has not been discontinued under section 4 of that Act (cause of death [F89becoming clear before inquest]).

    17 Information concerning other deaths.

    (1)The following provisions of this section shall have effect where a person dies elsewhere than in a house or where a dead body is found and no information as to the place of death is available.

    (2)The following persons shall be qualified to give information concerning the death, that is to say—

    (a)any relative of the deceased who has knowledge of any of the particulars required to be registered concerning the death;

    (b)any person present at the death;

    (c)any person finding or taking charge of the body;

    (d)any person causing the disposal of the body.

    (3)It shall be the duty—

    (a)of each such relative as is mentioned in paragraph (a) of the last foregoing subsection; or

    (b)if there are no such relatives, of each other qualified informant,

    to give to the registrar, before the expiration of five days from the date of the death or of the finding of the body, such information of the particulars required to be registered concerning the death as the informant possesses, and in the presence of the registrar to sign the register:

    Provided that—
    (i)the giving of information and the signing of the register by any one qualified informant shall act as a discharge of any duty under this subsection of every other qualified informant:
    (ii)this subsection shall not have effect if an investigation is conducted under Part 1 of the 2009 Act into the death of the deceased person and has not been discontinued under section 4 of that Act

  • Patrick

    Jesus fuck – you have to know a lot about who other people are and what they have done or not done to not be guilty of a criminal offence. What a crock!

  • Fred Z: That is some top quality Lawyer-speak in the Bureaucratic dialect ya got there, and it ain’t even from lawyer-luving* America.

  • Peter

    Thanks Fred

    I think that if the state has any value then records of births and death must follow.

    If there is a way to relinquish citizenship then record-keeping could also follow, but I see no realistic way of doing so whilst still living in land claimed by that state.

  • Jon

    On the plus side for having agreed burial locations, there’s also the fact that dead bodies decompose. In a small crowded island, it would be good if they didn’t decompose into, say, a reservoir. I accept Wales is less crowded than elsewhere in the UK, but still.

    Also, going back a bit, if you bury your plague-riddled dead next to my land and I’m digging the land up, and I know that if you touch the dead body of someone with plague or the run-off from the dead body of someone who died with plague, you get plague, I’m going to be upset if you bury the body anywhere near your border with my land.

    As to those worried about the enormous imposition of registering the dead, most people die in hospital or care homes and they take care of it. Otherwise, it’s family members. Post-mortem takes place to determine cause if they didn’t die in hospital/ care so you don’t need to know much. Name, DOB, their address and your own name and address are usually enough as a lay person.

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