The privacy of death.

I remember during law school, I was helping out at the Florida First Amendment Foundation and discussing privacy and public record issues with the Director. She was fairly adamant that death obviated any expectation of privacy. The person was dead, how could a person without consciousness have an expectation. Her position was informed in part by the debate over the autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Michael Jackson's death certificate Fast forward to 2013 in which I’ve had a few friends, unfortunately, pass away recently. One friend’s death was particularly gruesome and was publicized in the local press. The other friends were more mundane and to this day I don’t know what they died of. One of those was elderly and I suspect due to health issues, though I’m unsure. The other friend was my age. In Florida, a death certificate is public record an easily obtained by paying the appropriate fee. However, only certain related person or those with an interest in the estate of the deceased may receive a death certificate which list the cause of death. I believe that this is fairly common practice through the US.  I have witness that it is generally verboten to ask or tell if known, what one’s cause of death is unless it is widely known (obvious illness, accident, murder, etc). It appears that we have adopted a cultural norm against generalized disclosure of cause of death and that norm has been codified in law as they related to death certificates. This isn’t airtight (as certain causes mentioned above become widely known) and it doesn’t appear to be based on any preference of the deceased, though one could imagine the deceased leaving instructions to publicize their cause of death.


I’m not sure how or when this cultural norm developed but I do find in interesting and would like to learn of others perspectives in differing cultures.