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Funeral-Home Intern Cleared in Cremation

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - A funeral home is not legally liable after one of its interns authorized the cremation of a teenager's dead body against the wishes of the boy's father, a New Jersey appeals court ruled today.

John Gately brought the lawsuit in question in August 2011, about two years after his 15-year-old son died in a car crash.

The son had been living with his mother, Kathleen Cousminer, who had divorced Gately about a decade prior.

According to the suit, Cousminer had instructed Maria Brenna, a licensed intern at Hamilton Memorial Home, that she wanted her son cremated. Gately says he later told Cousminer that he did not want their son cremated, but Cousminer never told the funeral home about his objections.

When Gately called the funeral home to protest the cremation, Brenna allegedly told him he had no choice in the matter and hung up on him.

Gately says he again confronted Brenna about his objections at the viewing two days later, and was again rebuffed.

Brenna has claimed nobody objected to the cremation, and said that she would have been more than happy "from a business point of view" to forgo a cremation.

Gately and Cousminer's son was cremated the next day.

In the suit against Brenna and the funeral home, Gately and his new wife, Patty, argued that a cremation requires authorization from both parents.

After trial, a Mercer County jury found that, under both New Jersey's Cemetery Act and its Mortuary Science Act, a funeral home is not liable for the disposal of a body, unless the signed authorization was thought to be untrue or a misrepresentation had been made.

The court tossed Gately's subsequent application for a new trial, and the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed Thursday, finding that registered trainees - often called interns in funeral homes - enjoy the same exculpation from liability as funeral-home directors, even if both state laws also delineate a hierarchy in which in most cases both parents must be in agreement on how to dispose of a child's remains.

"Where there are two surviving parents, a single parent alone does not have the unilateral right to control disposition," the 30-page ruling states. "If both parents are surviving, then the decision-making authority presumptively is to be jointly exercised."

The appeals court added, however, that this is neither possible nor efficient in all cases, and "might precipitate undue delays in the disposition of the decedent's remains."

"There is nothing [in the two state laws] that requires a funeral director to obtain authorization from all parties who have the right to control the disposition," Judge Jack Sabatino wrote for a three-person panel.

The ruling further absolves Brenna, who was under the funeral home director's supervision, of any wrongdoing, as it had no evidence besides Gately's testimony that he had instructed Brenna not to cremate his son.

Based on the evidence and testimony from both sides, the jury did not disbelieve Brenna, and so the appeals court said it could not either.

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