This I believe: “Always go to the funeral.” This philosophy took me to Caracas, Venezuela where I witnessed first hand thousands of ordinary Venezuelans, jubilantly taking to the streets, welcoming home the remains of their ex-president, Carlos Andrés Pérez, seen by many as a symbol of opposition to the Chavez regime. My clients, President Pérez’s widow, Blanca de Pérez, and her children, beamed with pride and satisfaction as he was finally laid to rest in his native soil after months of heated litigation in Miami.
This was the final chapter in a case that had started for me with a phone call in Miami in late December 2010, and ended ten months later in October 2011, with President Pérez’s burial in Venezuela. The litigation was over President Pérez’s place of burial: Miami vs. Venezuela. The legal issues at play were similar to those in the burial dispute involving Ana Nicole Smith’s remains. I made my first public appearance in this case in early January 2011, when we obtained an emergency order halting President Pérez’s burial in Miami over the objections of his wife and children in Venezuela.
From the start, every court appearance in this case drew multiple reporters and camera crews, reporting the story both domestically and internationally, in English and Spanish, including by the NYTs and WSJ.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece in the Miami Herald, Venezuelans mourn former president Perez, reporting on President Pérez’s final burial in Venezuela:
CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of Venezuelans attended a wake for former President Carlos Andres Perez on Wednesday amid tears and speeches a day after his remains arrived in his homeland and ended a a bitter family feud over his final resting place.
Politicians, relatives and supporters of Perez crowded around his closed casket at the headquarters of the Democratic Action party in downtown Caracas and sang the party’s anthem.
“Rest in peace, president,” said Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, once a confidant of Perez.
The remains of Perez arrived in Venezuela nine months after his death in Miami at age 88 set off a feud between his wife, who wanted to bring the body home, and his mistress in the United States, who said Perez had vowed repeatedly never to return as long as political arch-nemesis Hugo Chavez was president.
The two sides finally reached a confidential settlement sending his body back to his homeland.
Given this level of media attention, the Chavez regime’s decade-long grip on power in Venezuela and embrace of poisonous anti-democratic rhetoric, plus Miami’s large exile community, the litigation inevitably took on troubling political overtones. Fortunately, in the end, justice prevailed and President Pérez was buried in Venezuela.
There’s gotta be a better way
The way burial disputes are currently adjudicated in Florida needs to change. As things stand now, in burial dispute cases Florida courts are permitted to accept unwritten, hearsay opinion testimony from anyone who shows up and says he’s got something to say about what the decedent “would have wanted,” if he’d gotten around to writing down his wishes. This approach opens the door to drawn out litigation over the decedent’s burial “intent,” invites abuse and inflames family discord in cases where there really are no winners.
There is a better way
Florida needs new legislation governing burial disputes adopting the same approach already applied to living will/end-of-life cases: if the decedent didn’t leave written instructions as to his burial wishes, his next of kin, in the same order of priority applicable to living will/end-of-life cases (see F.S. 765.401), has sole authority to decide his place of burial. Period, end of story, no hearsay testimony, no opinion testimony, no exceptions, no drawn out trials. If that type of statute had been in place in 2010, all sides of the President Pérez burial case would have been spared the stress, grief and expense of months of heated litigation.
For an excellent article tackling the need for better burial statutes nationwide, you’ll want to read Uniform Acts-Can the Dead Hand Control the Dead Body? The Case for a Uniform Bodily Remains Law. What I find particularly helpful about this article is that it provides a detailed, well-researched and thoughtful proposed statute from beginning to end. For those of you finding yourself involved in one of these cases, you’ll want to read this article. It highlights issues you’ll have never thought of on your own.