Is James Brown Being Denied Dignity in Death?

More than two months after legendary R&B singer James Brown died of congestive heart failure, his remains are still without a proper resting place. Beneath the legal issues lie moral questions raised by keeping the revered entertainer from being buried.

“From a philosophical perspective, remains should be treated with dignity and respect,” said Kurt Pritzl, dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Not burying them wouldn’t be honoring that person- as a general rule.”

Pritzl says that the circumstances surrounding Brown’s delayed burial offer a great deal of opportunity for moral reflection. “It doesn’t feel right to let this happen, you would think for the sake of propriety that they would lay him to rest. Everyone is worthy of dignity, even in death, because the body is such an important part of who we are.”

On the other side of the moral equation is the affect that the wait is having on Brown’s family. According to Pritzl, funerals are a very important part of saying farewell. Families need closure and time to “grieve and move on in life.”

William Jeffers, director of Frazier’s Funeral Home Washington, knows firsthand about the concerns of families. He also knows about the special circumstances that sometimes surround death. “We’ll carry bodies three and four months sometimes,” he said. “It’s not normal, but sometimes there are emergencies where the family is out of town on vacation for a month, on a cruise or out of the country.”

According to Jeffers, most funeral homes now have refrigerators that will stop the decomposition of bodies “for awhile.” It all depends on the elements of the body’s environment. If no moisture sets in, a body can be open casket-ready several months after death. Jeffers says that the average time taken for burial among his largely African American clientele is four to five days.

In a case such as Brown’s, however, convention has been overruled by argument. This, according to Pritzl, does not hurt the person who is dead. “It says a lot about us…..But in the face of a court order, what do you do? Once there’s legal action involved, what’s ordinary is not held up.”

The legal action in this case stems from allegations made by Brown’s six children in court papers that trustees mismanaged his estate. It is alleged that some of Brown’s assets were in danger of being stolen, dissolved or lost.

Brown’s assets include his music rights and 60-acre Beech Island home. Brown’s partner, Tomi Rae Hynie, has just settled with representatives of his estate to preserve a sample of the body for DNA testing. This will eventually determine whether or not Brown is the father of Hynie’s five-year-old son.

“Difficulties in life will follow us into death,” Pritzl said. “Here, the desire for money might be trumping the dignity owed to someone who’s gone.”