Various types of repositories have custody of, and care for, human remains, ranging from university collections or medical institutions to local or national museums (see Introduction). Therefore, the general term ‘holding repository’ will be used in this chapter to refer to the institutions that store, care for, use in research or occasionally display human remains. Similarly, the types of human remains held by holding repositories vary in nature from small bone fragments and tissue samples to complete skeletons. There is an increased sensitivity regarding the recently dead, particularly for their relatives. However, other remains may be of people who died many years ago, some of whom are identified by name whilst many remain unknown. Since the 2004 reforms the legal regime governing human remains of people who died less than 100 years ago is much more stringent than for older remains. The focus of this chapter is on the legal and ethical position in England regarding the custody, care, use and display of human remains by holding repositories.
After discussing the meaning of ‘custody’ and ‘care’ in legal and ethical terms within this context, the discussion will turn to the particular legal and ethical obligations under which holding repositories operate. Legal obligations under English law are derived from statutes and the common law (which is based on decided legal cases) and are binding on these repositories since non-compliance will result in legal sanction.