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The Right to Dispose of Decedent's Remains Includes Choosing Content on Headstone

An interesting case was decided by a Tennessee court involving a family dispute over a headstone inscription. The decedent's adoptive father appealed a trial court ruling that decedent's surviving spouse had the right to control the inscription on decedent's headstone. The headstone at dispute listed the surname of decedent's biological father. The adoptive father argued that the statute governing the disposition of decedent's remains does not include inscription rights which, the father posited, are governed by a separate section of Tennessee statute that defines a headstone as a commodity and not a funeral good or service. The father also argued the surviving spouse was attempting to make an improper name change.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's order. The court held that the right of disposition of a decedent's remains also encompasses the right to choose a decedent's headstone inscription. The court said that it is illogical for a statute governing a decedent's remains to grant control to a surviving spouse over a decision as profound as where a person is buried, yet leave control over the headstone open for debate. The statute the adoptive father references only governs cemeteries; he cited no case law addressing who has priority to select a proper monument. Lastly, the court said the name on the headstone is not an illegal name change. Headstones often contain nicknames and monikers which should not be construed as an attempt to improperly change a decedent's name or correct an error on a birth certificate.
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