New York State Gov. Cuomo signed a new law this week that affects both the dead and the living and epitomizes a major change in public attitudes about what one owes the other.
As outlined by the New York Times, the law prohibits the use of unclaimed bodies as cadavers for medical research without written consent by a spouse or next of kin, or unless the deceased individual had registered as a body donor. It ends a 162-year-old system that has legally obligated city officials to appropriate unclaimed bodies for use by medical schools that teach anatomical dissection and mortuary schools that train embalmers.
While one mortuary school was disappointed that they would now have a shortfall in cadavers, advocates of families who are simply too poor to claim a relative from a morgue believe that many might agree to letting students embalm the bodies in exchange for a free or low-cost funeral or cremation.
“The death of a loved one is a time of unimaginable grief,” the governor stated. “It is vital that we take every possible step to respect and follow the wishes of the deceased and their family members regarding the disposal of their loved ones’ remains.”
The state bill passed both legislative houses in June despite objections from medical schools, a month after the Times revealed that the old law gave families just two days to claim a relative’s body before the city must make it available for dissection or embalming.
Many cases were never widely known because the city chooses not to publicly identify bodies in the morgue or to name those transferred to medical schools or mortuary classes as cadavers, claiming privacy for the deceased. But family survivors are often devastated when they discover later on that a relative’s body was used for dissection.
“That is shameful,” Michael Wynston declared when he found out that the corpse of his father, Milton Weinstein, had been quickly passed from the nursing home where he died to a city morgue, followed by transfer to a medical school for dissection in its anatomy lab, all without the awareness or consent of his widow or his estranged sons.
Milton Weinstein, a disabled Jewish typographer who passed away at 67, remained unburied for two years.
“Many have been dishonored by the system and families have been lied to,” Barry Gainsburg, Mr. Weinstein’s stepson, complained. “It is now welcomed that such despicable and deplorable policies have been acknowledged and changed by the State of New York. Perhaps, the dishonor has not been in vain.”
The new law was sponsored by State Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat whose Brooklyn district encompasses neighborhoods heavily populated by Orthodox Jews and people of Chinese descent, and State Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, a Democrat who represents another diverse district in Queens.
“After numerous cases of unclaimed bodies being delivered to medical schools for uses that may have been in stark contrast with the religious or personal wishes of next of kin, this law now makes it illegal to show such disrespect to the deceased,” Senator Felder stated.
“My colleague Assemblyman Simanowitz and I were both aware of heartbreaking cases that pained families, and we feared that these scenarios would repeat,” he noted. “Now, these worries come to an end.”