SC answers legal (and moral?) question

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014


WHO between two women has the right to the remains of the man in their life: the wife from whom he was separated for more than thirty years and who did not care to visit him in the hospital while he lay dying but instead left for the United States, or the lover who stood by him until his last breath?

We have groped for the answer to this legal (and moral?) question that has arisen so many times in the past and has sharply divided both legal scholars and laymen. When the estranged wife and the solicitous lover engage in a vicious tug-of-war over the body of the deceased, whom does the law favor?

The Supreme Court en banc answered the question last month through a decision that could have wide-ranging implications in the field of family relations.

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The following are the facts, except for the names which I have replaced.

Bernardo is married to Victoria. After five legitimate and one adopted children, the couple separated. Twenty years after the separation, Bernardo courted Salome. They eventually lived together as husband and wife.

While he was living together with Salome, Bernardo became ill with acute emphysema.

Salome took care of him and paid for all his medical expenses. Victoria knew about her ex-husband’s illness but did nothing. Instead, she left for the US to visit their children even if she was aware that Bernardo, who was in a coma, could go anytime.

When Bernardo died, Salome took care of the funeral arrangements and buried him in her family’s mausoleum in accordance with, according to Salome, Bernardo’s wish.

When Victoria and her children arrived from the US, Bernardo’s body was already buried. They sued Salome to recover not only his remains but also damages. From the trial court, the case went to the Court of Appeals and eventually reached the Supreme Court which ruled for the wife.

“It is clear,” said the High Tribunal, “that the law gives the right and duly to make funeral arrangements to (Victoria), she being the surviving legal wife of (Bernardo). The fact that she was living separately from her husband and was in the United States when he died has no controlling significance.”

Addressing Salome’s contention that there is no point in exhuming and transferring the remains of Bernardo, the Court declared that refusing the exhumation and transfer of the remains to the burial place favored by the family “does not only violate their right provided by law, but it also disrespects the family because the remains of the patriarch are buried in the family plot of his live-in partner.”

The decision was, however, assailed by Justice Marvic Leonen in his dissenting opinion.

“This case is not about whether a common-law wife has more rights over the corpse of the husband than the latter’s estranged wife,” Leonen wrote. “This case is about which between them knows his wishes.”

Arguing that the Court should respect the choice of Bernardo, as relayed to Salome, of his final resting place, Leonen said:

“The law reaches into much of our lives while we live. It constitutes and frames most of our actions. But at the same time, the law also grants us the autonomy or the space to define who we are. Upon our death, the law does not cease to respect our earned autonomy. Rather it gives space for us to speak through the agency of she who may have sat at our bedside as we suffered through a lingering illness.

“(I)t is that love and caring which should be rewarded with the honor of putting us in that place where we mark our physical presence for the last time and where we will be eternally remembered.”

The decision was promulgated last April 22.

(frank.otherside@yahoo.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on May 08, 2014.

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