Law & The Buying or Selling of Human Remains

Tanya Marsh compiled the relevant US laws surrounding human remains in ‘The Law of Human Remains’, 2016. I tried to gain a distant read of this body of law by topic modeling, term frequency – inverse distribution frequency, and pairwise comparison of the cosine distance between the laws. This is only possible due to the care and consistency, and regularity with which Marsh compiled the various laws. I also added in relevant Canadian laws to my text corpus.

For the topic model, I took two approaches. The input documents are individual text files summarising each state’s laws. Then I created a 23 topic topic model based first on the unigrams (individual words) and then bigrams (pairs of words).

For the unigram topic model, these are the topics and their probabilities:

1 body person burial permit dead remains death funeral disinterment director 0.356792543
2 act body person offence burial permit death liable fine cemetery 0.113741585
3 person burial cemetery monument tomb structure guilty remains class removes 0.102140763
4 person body licence specimen purpose crime possession offence deceased anatomical 0.047599170
5 remains funerary object native violation objects profit individual indian title 0.042126856
6 code corpse offense commits tex ilcs treats conduct supervision offensive 0.038992423
7 corpse intentionally site reburial medical admin sexual report coroner examiner 0.032800544
8 disturb destroy ground unmarked regs skeletal memorial knowingly material kin 0.032624217
9 dollars imprisonment thousand fine punished hundred exceeding fined duly conviction 0.030167542
10 death art burial ashes burials civil commune lands container dissection 0.029045414
11 remains disposition person act funeral heritage object operator deceased cremated 0.026407496
12 vehicle rev procession import export sites unmarked skeletal site historic 0.024186852
13 communicable metal disease casket sealed encased stillbirth coffin embalmed lined 0.021603532
14 cemetery corporation thereof monument purpose remove provided notice owner county 0.019534437
15 stat ann entombed intentionally excavates thereof stolen interred surviving directed 0.016960718
16 products criminal importation elements provisional cadavers tissues article organs including 0.016726574
17 services funeral business minister public paragraph prescribed information director person 0.016712443
18 town ch gen clerk agent board rsa city designated registered 0.012288657
19 church cons lot society trustees belonging company weeks deaths association 0.011458630
20 category violates punishable ii offences procedure vehicle field provincial shipment 0.008089604

When we look at the laws this way, you can see that the vast majority of law is related to regulating the funeral industry (topic 1), the regulation and care of cemeteries (topic 2, topic 3), and then various offenses against corpses (including specific mention of Indigenous remains; topics 4, 4, 5, 7; there is a surprising number of statues against necrophilia). Some topics deal with interfering with corpses for tissue and implantation (topic 16). Some topics deal with forms of memorialization (topic 10, topic 11).

If we take pairs of words as our ‘tokens’ for calculating the topic model, these are the topics and their probabilities:

  1. funeral director dead body transit permit burial transit final disposition local registrar licensed funeral death occurred common carrier burial ground 0.16873108
  2. burial permit statistics act vital statistics death occurred health officer anatomy act death occurs religious service common carrier act offence 0.06060749
  3. burial permit summary conviction coroners act statistics act vital statistics archaeological object act offence palaeontological object public health chief coroner 0.05312818
  4. funerary object native indian monument gravestone mutilate deface fence railing tomb monument authorized agent duly authorized willfully destroy destroy mutilate 0.05259857
  5. funerary objects burial site registration district responsible person family sensibilities disposition transit interment site sepulcher grave ordinary family person knowingly 0.05135363
  6. cons stat person commits health safety code ann penal code safety code legal authority cemetery company historic burial authority knowingly 0.05095100
  7. thousand dollars burial remains surviving spouse burial furniture county jail means including original interment pretended lien skeletal burial disturb vandalize 0.05092606
  8. deceased person relevant material anatomy licence religious worship united kingdom ii relevant mortem examination post mortem summary conviction anatomical examination 0.04980786
  9. knowingly sells tomb grave marked burial degree felony sells purchases sexual penetration dead fetus subsequent violation aids incites removing abandoning 0.04823685
  10. tomb monument monument gravestone offences procedure procedure act provincial offences defaces injures mutilates defaces skeletal remains burial artifacts destroys mutilates 0.04754577
  11. burial grounds gross misdemeanor disposition permit historic preservation unlawfully removed conviction thereof grave artifact fence wall grave vault private lands 0.04716950
  12. stat ann dead body disinters removes intentionally excavates deceased person grave tomb disinterment removal excavates disinters dead person thousand dollars 0.04301240
  13. stat ann rev stat unmarked burial skeletal remains burial site funeral procession burial sites burial artifacts admin regs funeral home 0.04141044
  14. cremated remains death certificate grand ducal mortal remains sexual intercourse article chapter level felony title article civil registrar grave rights 0.04090582
  15. medical examiner final disposition admin code burial site cataloged burial code dhs death occurred cremation permit sexual contact death certificate 0.03936073
  16. burial permit designated agent historic resources responsible person disinterment permit medical examiner chief medical palaeontological resource historic resource lineal descendant 0.03757965
  17. cemetery corporation dead body local health awaiting burial pub health profit corp religious corporation tombstones monuments attached thereto burial removal 0.03335480
  18. cremated remains funeral provider heritage object public health funeral services damage excavate provincial heritage tissue gift gift act damage desecrate 0.03295103
  19. coffin casket tomb monument airtight metal disinter individual individual remains lined burial private burying historic preservation enforcement officer metal lined 0.02902297
  20. funeral services services business public health health director business licensee national public services provider transportation services classified heritage funeral operations 0.02134617

You see the same general relative proportions, but the bigrams give a bit more clarity to the topic (read each list as pairs of words. Either way you cut it, there’s not much language given over to dealing with buying or selling of the dead, and a lot more space given over to regulating the funeral industry and graveyards.

Calculating tf-idf gives a sense of what differentiates the different jurisdictions, since it will pull out words that are comparatively rare in the complete body of text but prominent in a single document. I’m having trouble getting the visualizations to lay out cleanly (text overlaps; darn R). In terms of comparing the cosine similarity of texts, there’s some interesting patterns there; here’s a sample:

1 Iowa Michigan 0.5987066
2 Michigan Iowa 0.5987066
3 Florida Michigan 0.5116013
4 Michigan Florida 0.5116013
5 Iowa Florida 0.5100568
6 Florida Iowa 0.5100568
7 District of Columbia Georgia 0.4800154
8 Georgia District of Columbia 0.4800154
9 Mississippi Georgia 0.4771568
10 Georgia Mississippi 0.4771568

…that is to say: Iowa & Michigan are about 60% similar; Florida and Michigan are about 51% similar; and so on. I had done this to see what the outliers are; I tried representing these relationships as a network:

So… what *are* the laws around buying and selling human remains? I went on an epic twitter thread yesterday as I read through Marsh 2016. Thread starts here:

And I managed to break the thread; it resumes with this one:

All of this will be summarised and discussed in our book about the human remains trade, in due course.