By: David M. Garten, Esq.

ARTICLE:  Are You Worth More Dead Or Alive?

Forget about life insurance. How much are your client’s ashes worth? How about a lock of hair?

The ashes of the late Truman Capote — who wrote the acclaimed novels “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” — were auctioned off at Julien’s Auctions on September 24, 2016 for $43,750. The ashes are part of the estate of Joanne Carson, the late wife of former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. “Truman told Joanne that he didn’t want his ashes to sit on a shelf. So this is a different way of honoring his request. It is just furthering the adventures of Truman Capote.” Julien’s C.E.O., Darren Julien, explained. In response to whether there is any kind of ethics issues in selling Capote’s ashes, Julien said: “You can’t sell things like that [body parts]. But, I will say, Christie’s sold Napoleon’s penis years ago. And we sold William Shatner’s kidney stone for $25,000 (the proceeds went to charity). Julien said that to his knowledge it was the first time human ashes had been auctioned.  The ashes themselves have had their own wild life. Capote died in 1984 while inside Carson’s Bel-Air home. Carson kept the ashes in his home in an urn in the room where Capote died. The remains were stolen twice – once during a 1988 Halloween party (before being mysteriously returned), and again at a party Carson hosted (with the urn in attendance) for a play about Capote. In 2013, the ashes were invited to the opening-night gala of Broadway’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A lock of John Lennon’s hair that was cut as he prepared for a movie role has sold at auction in February of 2016 for $35,000. A hairdresser saved the 4-inch tuft of hair after giving Lennon a trim in Hamberg, Germany, before he began filming How I Won the War, a 1967 dark comedy about the misadventures of a British army troop during World War II.

In June of 2016, a lock of the Thin White Duke’s hair sold at auction for $18,750. The blonde strands were cut straight from David Bowie’s head in 1983 when he went in for a Madam Tussauds Wax Museum sample sitting. Wendy Farrier, a wig maker with Tussauds who worked on the wax Bowie’s mop, asked to keep the hair, which she placed in a frame with a picture of her and the musician.

A lock of Mozart’s hair sold at auction for $53,400 on May 12, 2015, while strands of Beethoven’s hair sold for $12,400. The lock of Mozart’s hair was in a 19th century gilt locket that also contains a handwritten note explaining the provenance of the strands, which reads: “Hair of W.A. Mozart. Part of a lock given me by Karl Anschutz he having received it from his mother to whom it was given by the great composer’s widow. Given by me to Arthur Somervell, Jas Collet.”

A plastic bag containing hair clippings from President John F. Kennedy was obtained by Harry Gelbart “Barber to the Stars,” who cut the president’s hair at the home of Peter Lawford and Kennedy’s sister, Patricia Kennedy Lawford. Gelbart, whose other clients included Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other members of the Kennedy family, cut John F. Kennedy’s hair only months before Kennedy’s assassination and collected the hair as a memento. The President’s hair sold in May of 2011 for $4,160.

In 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis was removed during his autopsy. The penis was given to priest Abbé Anges Paul Vignali who gave the leader his last rites. In 1977, a urologist named John K. Latimer, living in New Jersey, purchased it for $3,000. It is currently in a glass case in the urology museum of Columbia University.

FLORIDA LAW:  The disposition of a decedent’s body is a personal right of the decedent and not a property right of the estate. Therefore, the decedent can make provision for his funeral, burial, or cremation, including disposition of his ashes. See Cohen v. Guardianship of Cohen, 896 So. 2d 950 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005); Kasmer v. Limner, 697 So. 2d 220 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1997); Wilson v. Wilson, 138 So. 3d 1176 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014).  In the absence of testamentary direction to the contrary, a surviving spouse, followed by the next of kin, has the right to possession of the decedent’s body for burial or other lawful disposition. See, Andrews v. McGowan, 739 So. 2d 132 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999); Arthur v. Milstein, 949 So. 2d 1163 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007).

What is a “lawful” disposition of a body? In Florida, a person may not buy, sell, or take possession of: the dead body of any human being [§872.01], any human organ or tissue (eye, cornea, kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, bone, and skin) [§873.01], or a human embryo [§873.05].  Therefore, you can’t sell or bequeath your body parts. For example, your client’s direction in his will to sell his skull or to give his heart to his x-wife would be unenforceable.  However, your client can designate disposition of his body for burial or cremation [§732.804]. Alternatively, he can donate his body for transplantation, therapy, research, or education [§765.510 – §765.547].  Sec. 765.514, F.S. lists the different ways to make an anatomical gift, such as: (a) signing an organ and tissue donor card, (b) registering online with the donor registry, (c) signifying an intent to donate on your driver’s license, (d) expressing a wish to donate in a living will or other advance directive, and (e) executing a will that includes a provision indicating that the testator wishes to make an anatomical gift. There is no prohibition against bequeathing or selling your hair or ashes.