Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Corpse Definition:

A dead human body.

Related Terms: Exhumation, Cadaver, Human Remains, Funeral, Decedent

A corpse is usually described as a human corpse, to distinguish it from animal remains, and includes any portion of a human corpse (see Legal Definition of Human Remains).

The 2009 Attorney's Dictionary of Medicine defines a corpse as, simply, a dead body adding:

"... especially the dead body of a human being shortly after the death or before interment."

corpseAlso known as a cadaver although, as set out in the Legal Definition of Cadaver, the latter is preferred when the dead human body is destined for autopsy or other medical study as opposed to burial, cremation or other funeral service.

Abuse of a human corpse is an offence in certain  jurisdictions; for example, in Texas Penal Code, §48.02:

"A person commits an offense if the person, without legal authority, knowingly: (1) disinters, disturbs, damages, dissects, in whole or in part, carries away, or treats in an offensive manner a human corpse; (2) conceals a human corpse knowing it to be illegally disinterred; (3) sells or buys a human corpse or in any way traffics in a human corpse; (4) transmits or conveys, or procures to be transmitted or conveyed, a human corpse to a place outside the state; or (5) vandalizes, damages, or treats in an offensive manner the space in which a human corpse has been interred or otherwise permanently laid to rest....

"Human corpse includes: (1) any portion of a human corpse; (2) the cremated remains of a human corpse; or (3) any portion of the cremated remains of a human corpse."

As Skene and masters correctly wrote in their 2002 article:

"In early English cases (mostly from the nineteenth century) and also in Australia, courts had to decide who was entitled to possession of the body of a deceased person. The principle was established that there is no property in a corpse; and neither a corpse, nor parts of a corpse are property protected by rights.1

"A corpse could therefore not be owned; nor could it be stolen. However, the personal representatives of the deceased were entitled to possession of the body for the purpose of burial and could obtain an order of mandamus to get the body back for burial if it was held by someone else. The no property in a corpse rule seems to be the same today, both in the United Kingdom and in Australia, despite the small number of cases on which it was based.

"In ... Calma v Sesar,2 the parents of a deceased Aboriginal boy were arguing about where he should be buried. The court said that the parents had equal rights to possession of the body for burial, but did not ‘own’ the body."


  • Schmidt, J. E., Attorney's Dictionary of Medicine (San Fransisco, LexisNexis, 2009), Volume 2, page C-457.
  • Skene, Loane and Masters, Brenda, What Legal Rights Do You Have Over Your Body After Your Death, Australian Law Reform Commission Issue 81, (2002) relying on R v Kelly, [1998] 3 All ER 741 [NOTE 1] and Calma v Sesar, [1992] NTSC 17 [NOTE 2].

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