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Immortality and the Law

Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead

Ray D. Madoff
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Immortality and the Law
    Book Description:

    This book takes a riveting look at how the law responds to that distinctly American dream of immortality. While American law provides virtually no protections for the interests we hold most dear-our bodies and our reputations-when it comes to property interests, the American dead have greater control than anywhere else in the world. Moreover, these rights are growing daily. From grave robbery to Elvis impersonators, Madoff shows how the law of the dead has a direct impact on how we live. Madoff examines how the rising power of the American dead enables the deceased to exert control over their wealth forever through grandiose schemes like "dynasty trusts" and perpetual private charitable foundations and to control their creative works and identities well into the unforeseeable future. Madoff explores how the law of the dead can, in essence, extend the reach of life by granting virtual immortality to individuals. All of this comes, Madoff contends, at real costs imposed on the living.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16327-8
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    In this age in which more information is known and easily accessible by the masses than ever before in history, there is one subject about which we are as ignorant as our forebears, and that is death. For most of us, our ignorance about death is a fact of life. We either accept death’s mystery or ignore its inevitability. Our legal system, however, cannot afford these philosophical or psychological luxuries. The law is constantly being asked to address real issues involving the dead: Are people harmed when someone tells lies about them after death? To what extent do people have...

    (pp. 12-56)

    Nothing is more quintessentially “ours” than our bodies. We may have nothing in the world, but we all have a body in which we live.

    During life, the law recognizes a right to control our bodies in a number of ways. First and foremost, under American law, everybody owns his or her own body. Since the abolition of slavery, no person can be said to own another.¹ In addition, the law protects people’s bodies from harm by others. If someone hurts your body intentionally, he or she is subject to criminal punishment. If a person does not intend to hurt...

    (pp. 57-85)

    If you ask an American about the legal rights of dead people, you will probably get an answer having to do with people’s rights to control who gets their property after they die. This right to control the disposition of property at death is central to the American psyche. Although people are often vague in their understanding about many aspects of the law, one thing they do know is that they can write a will that controls who will—and who will not—get their property after they die.

    The effect of this ability to control property after death, and...

    (pp. 86-118)

    Rather than giving their money to people, individuals sometimes want to commit their wealth to fulfill a particular purpose. During life there are virtually no limits to what people can do with their money: they can give to political candidates, support the work of educational and religious institutions, build monuments to themselves or others, and promote causes they believe in. People can also do things with their money that others might consider strange or inappropriate. They can use dollar bills as cigarette paper and smoke them, buy perfectly good houses and tear them down, and spend lavishly on their pets....

    (pp. 119-151)

    How will we be remembered after we are gone? This is primarily an extralegal question; its answer lies largely outside the realm of the law and resides in a combination of our lifetime actions with the values and interests of those who knew us, as well as, perhaps even more important, the values of subsequent generations. The poet Shelley captured the fleeting nature of power and fame in “Ozymandias”—once a “king of kings” but now merely a crumbling statue in the desert.

    History is replete with tales of people—think of the author Herman Melville and the artist Vincent...

    (pp. 152-156)

    Life is fleeting and we know it. This is the fundamental truth of human existence, and managing this reality shapes everything we do.

    We see this most tangibly in the common practice of placing a stone marker at the location of a person’s physical remains. Yet there are numerous intangible examples of this as well, including religious and secular days of remembrance that send the message: “You will live on after your death.”

    Sociologists have noted that the activities people value most are those with the capacity to transcend death: having children (who themselves have the capacity to have children),...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 157-182)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 183-191)