The Ethicist on a Cremation Dilemma

Dec 15, 2014 | 1 comment

Urn Cemetery BurialThe Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine tackled a question about carrying out a relative’s wish to be cremated when the rest of the family prefers burial to preserve green space. A sister is insistent that her siblings carry out her wishes. The author wants to know if the siblings have an ethical obligation to carry out her wishes although they disagree.

Check out the question and The Ethicist’s answer, and read my solution to the problem below.


My sister has told us she wants to be cremated when she dies. She is single, in her mid 50s and counting on her siblings to carry out her wishes. The rest of the family, however, does not believe in cremation and does not want to carry out her directive. (The disagreement is philosophical — we believe in burial to preserve green space. It’s not a religious matter.) We have told her so, but she is insistent. Do we have an ethical obligation to carry out her stated wishes although we disagree? NAME WITHHELD, MARYLAND

Questions about the rights of dead people are inevitably complicated by a lack of clarity over what the person wanted, or the impossibility of gauging the “feelings” of someone who can no longer feel anything. But this case is different; it involves someone who is merely thinking about dying and can still clearly outline what she wants to happen when that occurs.

You may disagree with her wishes, but her wishes are reasonable. As such, you have two options. One is to agree to her request. The other is to directly tell her that you value green space more than you respect her right to decide how her own body is dealt with upon the completion of her life (and that she will have to find a nonrelative willing to handle these arrangements). It’s possible, I suppose, to make the argument that the preservation of open space matters more than the wishes of someone who will no longer be sentient enough to care. But that makes you a stridently ethical person and a substandard brother.

The Doyenne of Death® says:

This woman needs to take matters into her own hands. A third option is for her to pre-plan and pay for her own cremation. She can put a friend in charge of carrying out her cremation wishes once she’s made the arrangements and paid for them herself. Was she counting on her siblings to pay for her cremation?

And if the family wants to preserve green space with cemeteries, why not agree to bury her cremated remains in a cemetery? There are plenty of burial spots for cremated remains. The sister would simply make a smaller footprint in the cemetery. Maybe the family would cover those burial costs.

And for those who might say cemeteries aren’t really green spaces, I disagree. Compare a graveyard to a Walmart parking lot. Cemeteries are certainly greener than asphalt.

A Good Goodbye