Death Rights: A postmortem legal expert visits the “Bodies” exhibit

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Cantor’s interest in such matters can be traced back to 1973, when his stepbrother, a criminal attorney who had a chronic illness, passed away at age 39, leaving instructions for a New Orleans-style funeral. The widow was to wear white, and a Dixieland jazz band was to lead the procession from the funeral home in Trenton. (The family reluctantly complied.) Thirty years and many Death and Dying seminars later, Cantor read about Ted Williams, whose children were in a legal scuffle over whether baseball’s last .400 hitter should, according to his conflicting desires, be cryogenically frozen or cremated and scattered over the Florida Keys. Cantor wondered: Even if Williams’s wish to be resurrected were undisputed, would the responsible parties be bound to implement it if they found cryonics abhorrent? (Williams’s remains are currently being stored in pots of liquid nitrogen at a cryonics facility in Scottsdale, Arizona.) Could a corpse, in short, have legal rights?

The answer, of course, is yes — you can’t, for instance, rob a grave, or wantonly mistreat a body — but when it comes to the more whimsical aspirations of the departed, Cantor feels the courts are too restrictive. Which isn’t to say he’s laissez-faire. “There are limits of decency and good taste,” he said, walking past what looked like a nice rack of lamb from Lobel’s. “In 2009, von Hagens had a display in Germany in which two corpses were copulating. To me, that was beyond the pale. People objected strenuously, and in his next exhibition he did not use copulating corpses.”

Cantor skimmed other curiosities: a gallstone-afflicted gallbladder like a closed oyster, a slab of marble-textured lung, and the pinkish sea coral of a bronchial tree. He then paused at a skeleton with two titanium hip prosthetics. This reminded Cantor of his own hip implants — “I’ve been meaning to ask my doctor about that hip recall” — and of his years wearing down his cartilage on the hard tennis courts in Israel, where he lives half the year.

It also raised the question of Cantor’s own postmortem dreams. Since he has no children and expects no visitors, he dismissed a traditional burial as a waste of space and decent wood. “I’m leaning toward cremation,” he said, as if considering a color for his office. As described in After We Die, the cremation process takes two to four hours, and would leave about seven pounds of matter, minus his titanium bolts. His “cremains,” as they are known in the business, would be entrusted to his life partner, an Israeli woman who is averse to cremation (according to Cantor, there is one crematorium in Israel), but who has agreed to honor his wishes.

As for what he’d like done with his ashes, Cantor was undecided. There were really so many options. He mentioned a woman who sought to comply with her husband’s wishes by sprinkling his ashes in the sand trap of a beloved golf course (the management refused), though when it was suggested to Cantor that he do something similar on his favorite tennis court, he shook his head. Ashwise, his tastes lay on this side of the foul line. Still, he wouldn’t begrudge others the prerogative. “I would be willing to urge someone to do it in secret,” he said, “if that were truly the wish of the deceased.”

— Paul Hond

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