By: Michael H. Ranzenhofer
More than three years ago, a horrific tragedy struck a Western New York family when a Tonawanda man murdered his wife in their own home. It’s a shocking story that just makes your heart sink when you read about it in the newspaper.
“Husband of slain Tonawanda woman arrested for murder,” read one newspaper headline. But what wasn’t reported in any articles was another tragedy: a loophole in State health law would allow the murderer the sole rights to his victims’ remains since he had also been the spouse.
At the time, I, like many others, had been unaware of the loophole until I was contacted by one of my constituents, a cousin of the victim. She explained to me how this loophole had thwarted her family’s efforts to gain custody of the body, denying a proper funeral and burial.
For an extended period of time, the husband refused to take any action, leaving his wife’s body in the county morgue. When the husband finally did act, he decided to have her remains cremated and buried in a Buddhist monastery in the Hudson Valley, hundreds of miles away.
The husband’s actions prevented family and friends from mourning her passing and saying goodbye. They had been left to feel that his actions were intentionally disrespectful, in violation of their loved one’s beliefs, and a further act of hostility against her. The loophole had only served to compound the family’s grief after the tragic passing of a loved one.
A similar incident occurred when an Orchard Park man murdered his wife, and family members of the victim were also unable to obtain the rights to the remains. Additionally, one of my colleagues in the Senate informed me of another strikingly similar situation in the State.
It didn’t make sense that if you’re accused of murdering your spouse, you get control over their remains– so I introduced legislation in the State Senate to correct a very real problem. After working together with this constituent, the identical language from my bill was included in a major domestic violence package of legislation. It passed the State Legislature before the end of session in June, and the Governor recently signed it into law.
The new law closes the loophole by including a provision to prevent a person who was the subject of an Order of Protection obtained by the deceased person, or who has been charged with causing the death of the deceased person, from having control of the disposition of the deceased’s remains.
Western New York has witnessed too many tragedies as a result of this oversight in the State health law. Now, this new law will finally close this major loophole to prevent tragedies, such as the one in Tonawanda, from ever occurring again.
Senator Ranzenhofer's monthly column appeared in the Amherst, Clarence and Ken-Ton Bees on November 21.