A recent segment on Michigan Radio (91.7 FM) highlighted NASW-Michigan Chapter member Anita Clos speaking to the need to amend Michigan Law to provide for the “right of sepulcher.” It’s a safe bet that most folks don’t know what “sepulcher” is or how it may affect them. Because so many do not make plans for their own burial or cremation, NASW-MI members, particularly those who deal with families and the elderly, are working to make more people -- and legislators -- aware and supportive of changing Michigan law to provide this important right for all Michigan citizens.
Following is a brief Q & A to learn more on the simple but critical issue. We hope all social workers will support the significance of this proposal by contacting their State Representatives.
Q – What is the Right of Sepulcher?
A – Simply put, it is the right of an individual to designate someone to make decisions for them following their death. As it is currently written, the Medical Durable Power of Attorney (MDPOA) designation ends the moment you die; Someone may be authorized by you to make all medical decisions but once you die, that authority immediately ends.
Q – Can’t the individual do that in a Will?
A – Anyone can express a desire in a Will stating their preferences for funeral arrangements or final disposition upon their death. Many people don’t have a will. Even when you have a Will, it is usually not immediately available when plans need to be made. It is not uncommon for surviving family members to have varying opinions on this final decision.
Q - Is there no current law dealing with this?
A- Yes there is. Act 386 of 1998, “Estates and Protected Individuals Code (MCLA 700.3206)” specifies that a surviving spouse, or if no surviving spouse, then individuals related to you in a legally determined priority of relationship (i.e. child, parent, siblings, etc.), may make any decision and any plan they choose for final disposition.
Q – So what’s wrong with the current law?
A - As life expectancy increases as it has over the past decades, it is not unusual for adults to outlive their spouses, siblings and, sadly, even their children. With our constantly mobile society, family members may not be as close as you would like. Some have families yet feel it may be a burden for them to make these difficult decisions. Many are more connected to a non-relative than to family members; as fewer couples are married and more adults remain single longer, it should not be assumed that a ‘legal’ relative knows and will respect your wishes for burial or cremation. Sometimes, the person who has been entrusted to make important medical determinations for you and with whom you had a very close relationship, is not related to you; they are, therefore, prohibited from making funeral arrangements unless authorized to do so by surviving family members.
This gap in the current law can cause seeking out very extended family that may not be as knowledgeable about your final wishes as the one you personally entrusted to make your medical decisions. There is also no way for you to indicate your own preferences, sometimes resulting in arrangements you may not desire.
Medical social workers and other health care professionals are increasingly witnessing the emotional trauma experienced by the growing number experiencing this situation when their beloved one or friend dies and they no longer have a ‘voice’ into making crucial final plans. It can even complicate grief. Many believe the law should be changed to allow all adults the opportunity to state, before their death, exactly what they desire for final arrangements as well as an advocate who will be responsible for those decisions.
Q - How would that work for me if I wanted to direct, or wanted to designate, a person to direct my final arrangements?
A – Two Bills have been introduced in the State legislature. House Bill 5162 and Senate Bill 731. They are identical Bills. They allow you to specify, in a form signed dated and witnessed properly:
Ø to direct the specific arrangements to be provided upon your death;
Ø to authorize the person designated as the advocate, to follow those directions provided that they are clear and that arrangements are available to pay for the funeral arrangements.
Ø to have your directions honored immediately as is usually required by health care facilities.
A designation of a representative could also be included in the same patient advocate form used for medical decisions. Or it could even be a person other than your medical advocate. Whomever you select will then have the power to make decisions about funeral arrangements (if, when, how) and burial or cremation. You could designate a particular family member or a non-family member.
Q – Why would enactment of these Bills be better than current law?
A - Because it empowers YOU, before death, to be clear and have the benefit of the law to determine exactly what you want your final arrangements to be as well as who will follow those wishes. Survivors are often completely unaware of what their family members want; many avoid and cannot or prefer not to handle the conversation—or the arrangements. Even if you do not have specific preferences at this time, it allows the advocate to make plans on your behalf.
Q – Where is House Bill 5162 and Senate Bill 731 now?
A - House Bill 5162 introduced by Representative Kate Segal is in the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee and Senate Bill 731 introduced by Senator Rebekah Warren is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Q – What can I do to make sure this bill happens?
A – Contact your Michigan legislators in both the Senate and the House. Emails, letters and phone calls carry enormous influence for those who represent you. If there is an opportunity to attend a Town Hall this summer, bring up the proposed bill and ask that it be supported. Use your voice! Each contact makes a difference!
If you don’t know who represents your district, it is simple to locate them at:
House of Representatives: