Seventeen-year-old Jesse Shipley died in a drunk driving accident in early 2005. His family and friends mourned at his Catholic funeral and put him to rest at a Staten Island, New York burial grounds. Just two months later, the family was shocked to learn that the Richmond County Mortuary had removed and kept Shipley’s brain without their knowledge or consent.
Shipley’s former classmates from the Port Richmond High School in Staten Island were touring the autopsy room of the Richmond County Mortuary when they were shown a specimen jar containing a human brain. The jar was labeled “as a result of drunk driving.” They quickly realized that it was their friend’s brain in the specimen jar. Many of the students reacted emotionally to the discovery. Upon returning home, the students told Shipley’s sister what they saw, and she quickly informed her parents.
Shipley’s parents were under the impression that their son had been buried with all his body parts intact. They called their priest, who informed them that Shipley’s burial was not proper without his brain. The mortuary returned the teenager’s brain to the family, and the family held a second funeral and burial service for their son. Of course, the emotional trauma of suffering through the burial for a second time weighed heavily on the mourning family. They sued the city for damages, and were eventually awarded $600,000.
The case was appealed to New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals. The court overturned the jury award, finding that as a matter of law the family had no right to their son’s brain. New York maintains a common law “right of sepulcher,” which means the right to immediate possession of a decedent’s body for preservation and burial. But according to the New York Court of Appeals, the right of sepulcher does not include the right to the decedent’s organs—just the body itself. The dissenting judge, Judge Jenny Rivera, explained that the purpose of the right of sepulcher is to afford the family solace and comfort in the aftermath of a loved one’s death by permitting a proper burial.